It’s been the toughest year in memory for people working in the hospitality industry and Peter Casaru is no exception.
He owns and runs the Walnut Tree Café Bar in the village of Llangynidr, near Crickhowell in the Brecon Beacons.
Peter, 68, started the business in 2018 after retiring from his job as a photojournalist and said it had become “the heart of the community” over the last couple of years.
When the River Usk burst its banks and Crickhowell flooded last year, Peter and his staff pulled together to make warm food for people whose homes were flooded and they have been doing the same for isolating locals during the pandemic.
His café boasts views out over the same river but he worries whether he can carry on past January, with the current lockdown the latest in a series of blows to the otherwise thriving community café.
“If I can get through to next summer this will be the busiest place on the tourist route in the Brecon Beacons,” he said.
“We built up the café into a licenced bar and we’ve become the centre of the community, we’ve had letters thanking us for delivering food to villagers who were isolating but I don’t think I’ve got much money left to last beyond the end of January.
“The first few days of the new lockdown have been a disaster, I have had one customer who wanted a takeaway coffee, that’s all,” he said.
Peter has now closed the business and furloughed his three staff members but said he might try to offer fish and chips on Christmas eve. His “Fish Fryday” offer at the end of the week usually attracts around 100 orders.
At every turn, he has tried to adapt the business to the latest coronavirus guidance, but has suffered from sudden announcements changing the landscape.
In December, Peter paid a builder £500 to move a coffee machine and add a draft lager pump to the bar so he could serve beer, the same day the Welsh Government announced an alcohol ban in pubs [from December 4].
“The first barrel of San Miguel we’d ordered we drank ourselves, it’s been a very difficult time,” he added.
In normal times, The Walnut Tree can seat 24 people but can only accommodate 10 with social distancing in place.
In September, Peter ordered a 14 x 3 metre marquee to offer more seating outside and make up for the capacity lost to social distancing.
He ordered the marquee from Germany and paid around £7,000 for it.
“I tried to look forward and think ‘how are we going to survive the autumn’. I took the Bounce Back Loan [a UK Government-backed scheme offering businesses loans between £2,000 – £50,000] but just missed out on the grants that started on October 2 by a couple of days. I didn’t qualify because I’d already paid for the marquee with the loan,” Peter said.
Before the marquee, Peter put gazebos outside which he said were “very popular.” However, he had to “write off” six gazebos after they blew away.
He said: “During the first lockdown, I stayed open for takeaways and was losing £250 a week. I’ve lost £11,000 in total. I was down to £5,000 in the bank then when we re-opened I recovered another £5,000.
“Now it’s gone worse again as Mark Drakeford has given us more bad news and I’ve only got £8,000 left in my bank account. Once that’s gone I’m going to have close. This week has been very hard-hitting emotionally,” he said.
Peter added that because he rents the premises from the village shop next door the business does not have “rateable value entitlement” and, therefore, did not qualify for any of the support packages available to small businesses.
“I understand why the Welsh Government have put us into this lockdown, and I am pleased to see that the finance they are offering this time is not on a first come first served basis.
“It looks like I might qualify for the new discretionary grant, which will be, if I get it, the only financial help I’ve had going back to March 23,” he said.
Peter hopes that, if the business survives the winter, his marquee will seat up to 100 people when the Walnut Tree is able to reopen.