Update 26 August 2020: Normah’s has reopened for dine-in customers despite receiving only £2,630 of the targeted £8,000 in the crowdfund it launched via the Mayor of London’s Pay It Forward campaign. Hamid reports that business is steady.
One of London’s best-value restaurants has launched a crowdfunding initiative in order to help it survive the effects of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Normah’s Cafe, the small Malaysian restaurant run by Normah Abd Hamid inside Queensway Market in Bayswater, published a “Pay It Forward” campaign last Friday in an attempt to secure £8,800, which Hamid told Eater would be used to pay rent accumulated during lockdown. She is scheduled to reopen the restaurant next Monday, five months after COVID-19 forced it to close.
Hamid says that she is among a large number of small business owners who have missed out on government funding and support — Normah’s was unable to qualify for either the £10,000 or £25,000 grants offered to firms via local authorities in March due to a technicality: because the restaurant’s rent is inclusive of business rates and paid through the landlord, Hamid was unable to prove its payment of those rates and therefore disqualified from receiving any financial assistance. Hamid says she was left confused, and implored the government to find a way to support the small businesses which have fallen through the gap: “For small businesses, they don’t come forward with the grants or other forms of support,” she said. “These are the real people, that make the economy vibrate, they are the ones who need help to survive.” It left her to wonder: “Which category are we?!”
It was Westminster Council, the same local authority unable to issue the grant, which recommended that Hamid crowdfund via the Mayor of London Pay It Forward scheme. At the time of writing, and with eight days to run on the fundraiser, Normah’s has secured £1,135, with 88 percent of what Hamid says she needs remaining to be secured.
While some landlords in the city have remained obstinate, refusing to offer tenants any reduction in rent for the period in which they were closed, Queensway Market offered Normah’s a 30 percent discount — for the months of March, April, May, and June — which she has paid using savings. But Hamid points out that a 70 percent liability is “too much, when you have nothing coming in, when you can’t operate.” She is yet to hear what the arrangement for July onwards will be, but “whatever amount of money we have, goes towards the rent,” she said. “We don’t want to lose the place. We have been set up for a number of years and we also want to expand.”
Hamid says the business, which has drawn plaudits for its exceptional roti canai, assam pedas, laksa, and nasi lemak chicken, was in rude health before lockdown. She had taken early retirement from the corporate world to focus on the restaurant full-time, taking over the kitchen and completely changing its marketing strategy. Eater London contributor Jonathan Nunn included it in his updated guide to the best-value restaurants in London last autumn, and then critic Tom Parker-Bowles reviewed the restaurant for the Mail on Sunday. A four-star write-up announced “a magical Malaysian that passes every test.” In spite of Normah’s inconspicuous location, momentum was building. Crediting both her own deeper involvement and the publicity, Hamid said “business before the pandemic was going very very well.”
It makes the current situation all the more frustrating. But Hamid is determined to make it work, and says that she’s defied the odds before. “I’m a single parent with two kids in university. I’ve had to survive. I’ve survived before, so I will survive again,” she said. That survival would be far more straightforward if businesses like hers were given even a modicum of reprieve, she says, pointing to the refusal of landlords to offer any meaningful sacrifice and the short-sightedness of the government measures to date.
“I understand the anxiety, but in corporations everyone says the same thing. Landlord has commitments, but a little bit of sacrifice is what we need and government interference [on rent] is going to be crucial,” Hamid said. “We’re not asking for free. It needs to be reasonable so it’s manageable. Everyone needs to embrace this uncertainty because we don’t know how long this is going to last.” The government has to-date prevented evictions and published a voluntary code of practice for landlords and tenants to use in an attempt to reach agreement. Industry trade bodies and pressure groups have been calling for deeper intervention on rent — proposing a mix of deferrals, grants, and turnover payment agreements — for months.
As concerns efforts to get customers back out onto the streets and into restaurants, Hamid would welcome a strategy with decisive policies to help people adapt, to feel safe, and, ultimately, for small businesses to remain viable. “For those who employ people, they need to pay salaries, rental, and you don’t see people coming [out],” Hamid observed. “We must learn to live with these new rules; we need to go out and we need to spend. Why shouldn’t we be the leaders? Don’t look at other countries. We used to be great; why are we not now? Something needs to be done. Some thinking needs to be done.”
When the restaurant reopens next week, Normah’s will be taking part in the government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme, which gives customers a 50 percent discount on their bill, capped at £10 per person, Monday to Wednesday throughout August. While it’s a small form of assistance, she says that there’s nothing to lose. “Let’s get the volume with the small margins,” she said. “This time is for everyone to contribute in whatever way they can: Don’t think about the profit. Just think about how to survive. Everyone is trying to figure out how to survive… that’s what I’m trying to say to the landlord.”
Hamid recalled a story from her previous job in one of the country’s biggest accounting firms, when she met a van driver who had been made redundant. He had a young family and had been a victim of company cuts. Hamid, who says she is “always like a mother to everyone,” empathised with the driver’s situation and was unable to work for the company with a clear conscience thereafter; such an injustice was not anomalous. “To save the company, you need to do this this and this,” she said was the mantra — a ruthlessly impersonal approach to the survival of big business over its workers. It reminded of her of the current predicament faced by small businesses like her own: “Saving one big fish and killing all the small fish,” she said. “I think about it often. I will try the very best to survive.”