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May 26, 2020
Commerce

‘The blinkers are off’: How the pandemic forced this small business to see differently

Hello Sarnie describe COVID-19 as feeling like a train crash – not a derailment but a head-on collision. However, the downtime and JobKeeper gave the business' founders time to recalibrate and reconsider everything from where they print labels through to how they sell online.

  • Words: Josh Fanning
  • Pictures: Josh Geelen

SPECIAL REPORT: COVID-19 ADELAIDE

“When the crisis first hit, so did the stress and the panic,” says Andrew Pearce over the phone.

“It was stressful. The heartbreak Mike and I felt as we really came to grips with what we stood to lose was almost unbearable.”

Hello Sarnie is the brainchild of Andrew and fellow English expat, Mike Kendall-Smith. The pair based their business on the success of European chain Pret A Manger, but launched with a heavy focus on digital and how they could gain efficiencies with technology.

Remarks

Hello Sarnie has two stores in Adelaide 5000 and have a third store on its way.

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Business was booming.

“We had just hit record catering numbers for the business,” says Andrew. “Within four days those numbers went to zero.”

Of course, Hello Sarnie’s story is not unique; the City of Adelaide’s transactional economy slammed shut as one by one the city’s corporate headquarters and outposts sent their workers home to work. COVID-19 revealed the unexpected frailty of the hospitality industry, which, up until now, had always expected they could rely on people working in postcode 5000.

While CityMag stayed working in the city as long as we could, it was depressing to see our footpaths so vacant and our shopfronts so shuttered. We spend a lot of our time at this publication chronicling the most interesting and innovative businesses as a way – hopefully – to encourage you to support them and more of these businesses to open.

Hello Sarnie co-founder, Mike Kendall-smith

Long have we followed the story of Hello Sarnie’s growth and development, and so this conversation with Andrew was particularly moving.

“We had our two shops optimised and we were gearing up to open our third store. Then all of a sudden the market was gone. Customers, gone,” he says.

Before any of the government support packages were announced, Andrew and Mike both believed they had to try and trade through.

“We still wanted to be there for the people who had no other choice but to come to work in the city,” says Andrew.

But when JobKeeper landed and the founders could re-employ their team, the lack of customers actually enabled them both to take a step back from the coffee machine and get out of the kitchen to look at their business anew and reconcile with its fundamental frailty – its need for the city.

“It felt like the blinkers were off,” says Andrew, describing the feeling of working from home and looking after his two young children.

“Through circumstance I was forced to make some decisions that prioritised my family and our security, but that led to me needing to get out of my team’s way and let them shine!

“We were forced to let go. We never would have dreamed we could do that, because when you build something from scratch it’s so difficult to hand over the reigns. But COVID didn’t give us a choice and I really do feel that – and maybe it’s due to me spending more time with the kids – before the pandemic we had a baby of a business and now the business is coming of age…maturing.”

Andrew describes moments throughout the lockdown where he would drive around town, and between the two shops, and just “look in,” and that he could see things differently, he felt he could – for the first time – see the shops objectively and what they could improve.

And while Mike has very much stayed on the frontline with the shop side of the business, Andrew has been working remotely and digitally.


Hello Sarnie co-founder, Andrew Pearce

 

“We’ve always asked, ‘How can we get technology to help us more?'” says Andrew. “We’re spending 100 per cent of the fees to run our software each month, but are we necessarily getting 100 per cent of the power, of the value that software represents?”

Andrew says he and Mike have even adjusted their supply chain. The pair are investigating how they might move bulk branded collateral formerly manufactured in China to being made in Australia.

“It’s all these things, but  most importantly we have to look after the health and safety of our customers and staff because they are the core of the business,” Andrew admits.

Like all the best businesses we’ve reported on during the pandemic, Hello Sarnie didn’t just throw its hands in the air, shut up shop and start ordering wine in bulk. Well, they might have ordered wine in bulk… we never asked that exact question. What they did do was use the downtime to elevate staff, reorganise systems, reduce risk and empathise with their customers.

When we ask Andrew what the plan looked like, he said it was simple.

“In the middle of the pandemic, we just wanted to turn the cogs so that when we return, the business might be in a stronger position,” says Andy.

“I guess our plan was, ‘How can we make the whole business better?’

“It has given Mike and I the opportunity to build leaders in our business and it has allowed us both to concentrate our efforts on looking at the long term health of the business and planning for our growth and recovery out of this pandemic,” says Andrew.

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