Talking to someone the other day, I kept referring to a holiday as having been ‘last year’… then I checked myself.
‘Not last year obviously … the REAL last year’.
For those of us fortunate enough to have got this far unscathed by the pandemic, it does seem that time stopped a year ago, and we have been treading water ever since. It would be shameful of me not to acknowledge that for over 126,000 of our fellow citizens, tragically, time actually did stop this last year…. With the anniversary of the first national lockdown on 23rd March, it seems that simultaneously both nothing and everything has changed.
Early March 2020 saw us down in London for a couple of days. We had some tickets for a gig at the Barbican and we wanted to do a bit of shopping too. In the preceding days, we did play around with the idea of whether or not it was ok to go as planned. But at that point, I think we felt that cancelling might seem a bit of an over-reaction. We took some ‘precautions’ … some hand sanitiser and a bag of disinfectant wipes, but that was about it; masks weren’t even a consideration back then.…
And we did it all – the concert, some nice meals, a bit of mooching about in the West End – going everywhere on public transport. Thinking back on it now, I can’t believe how stupid we were…and also how incredibly lucky not to have come down with Covid19. Within two weeks, like everyone else, we were listening to the mind-boggling instruction to ‘Stay at home’.
That Friday evening, before the first lockdown, sticks in my mind like a boulder-sized full stop. We, along with most of the country had watched, in stunned silence, the announcement of ‘furlough’ (hadn’t heard that word before), the closure of schools, and the PM’s request for hospitality to close as soon as possible and ‘not reopen tomorrow’.
We did a quick dash to our local ethnic grocer to get some packs of feta and some fresh herbs to stick in the freezer. This usually cheery place had all the ambiance of soviet grocers. Those shelves that a few days earlier had been groaning with every type of tinned food, flour, rice, and pasta, were now completely empty. Coming out into the pouring rain, there was a desperate, homeless chap shuffling about trying to take cover. We helped him out with some cash – it was never going to be what he really needed. We were the lucky ones with a home to stay put in
What became obvious in Spring 2020 was that the country’s relationship with shopping changed. First, there was the ridiculous panic-buying – toilet paper being the most wanted item. Then visiting the supermarket began to feel like a journey to Chernobyl. Truly, I personally didn’t step foot in one for almost three months. But there were some businesses that instead of throwing in the towel, they really rose to the challenge and brought, along with sustenance, a ray of hope and a much-needed smile to our faces.
Over the last 18 years, Bragazzi’s in Sheffield has carved out a gorgeous coffee and panini-shaped space in the consciousness of the locals. But as reality unravelled last year, it was obvious that something would have to change. Matteo Bragazzi gave me a bit of his time to talk about the ups and downs of the last 12 months. But where do you start? I suppose you ask, ’How’s it been?’
‘You know.’ Matt said, ‘I get asked that a lot. ‘How’s it been? And my answer is, ‘At which point?’ It has been a constantly changing situation. A bit like when you have kids… It’s never a fixed thing.’
The first reaction was, as for everyone, an element of fear of the unknown.
‘But you kick into survival mode’. At that point the café closed, the staff were furloughed and Matt and Deb, Signora Bragazzi, worked out what would be the next step.
‘Your main priority is that your family is ok’, and for that, the business needs to be ok too.
Part of Bragazzi’s charm has always been a small but considered deli element, with some lovely (and occasionally quirky) Italian products. After all, a tricolour broom is a must-have item! But in the 11 days that they were closed last March, they transformed the café into a magical Italian grocer’s… the kind of place you hope you stumble into on the first morning of your Tuscan holiday.
And it wasn’t just the high-end stuff – there was a real need for pasta after all the supermarket panic buying that had gone on. But it was incredibly difficult to get hold of.
‘I’d heard that one of the importers had a container coming in… I called him the morning it landed but he’d sold all of it .. a whole container… by 10 am.’
And then there was the flour crisis….
‘I got talking to one of the guys who drove one of the big flour trucks – and it wasn’t that there wasn’t any flour, it was that the mills were geared up for filling 25kg bags, not 1.5kg ones…’ so Bragazzi’s started selling loose flour and bagging it up themselves.
‘I have never sold flour in my life – in those first weeks we sold a ton and a half!’
Fresh produce became an issue with supplies drying up from Italy for a while, as the country was ravaged by the virus. In the very beginning there had been a very real fear that the wholesale markets here would close too, but when that didn’t happen the goal at Bragazzi’s was to have something new every day, if possible.
‘I’d get down there ridiculously early.. just to try to get something special something different ..some nice tomatoes, some green almonds, some graffiti aubergines… even vegetable seedlings.’
For my part, I remember logging into Instagram every morning just to see the Bragazzi ‘What’s New Today’ posts…a bit of brightness in all the fog of confusion.
And what about the public… how have they been?
‘They have been incredibly supportive.’ Matt says,’ I think they have really appreciated the service our industry gives…. We’ve had people randomly bringing us gifts…making cakes and biscuits.. someone made us masks and another person painted a watercolour of some lemons… It’s actually been quite humbling.’
And what next….?
‘At every point, we’ve been able to work out what to do and how to handle it.’
Although Matt admits that opening up the regular seated café for a few months last summer didn’t feel right.
‘It was incredibly scary. I was worried for our staff, the customers, and ourselves’, and with all the precautions it wasn’t Bragazzi’s. ‘We lost some of the informality and that Mediterranean culture we like.’ It’s important to Matteo to bring back that atmosphere.
This last year has given businesses like Bragazzi’s a mountain of problems to deal with, but there have to have been some redeeming bits?
‘I guess I’m a bit of a romantic,’ Matteo says, ‘When Deb and I reopened as the deli, and we were Mr. and Mrs. Shopkeeper again, it was just like when we started out, all those years ago. Just the two of us. Deb weighing out tomatoes and me cutting a portion of cheese for someone… Well, it was really nice.’
Complex times lead to simple pleasures. I think we’ve all come to appreciate that.
Bragazzi’s,224-226 Abbeydale Rd, Sheffield S7 1FL