At a time when everything seems out of our control, it’s the little things like home comforts and our favourite foods that keep us going.
Austrian patisserie Kipferl, based in Islington, London, has been a favourite spot for locals and visitors for more than a decade.
It’s known for its authentic food and wine, directly sourced from Vienna, and owner Hubert Zanier said he was a regular customer before he bought the cafe in 2019, ‘just like many of the Austrians living in London and missing home’.
People from all backgrounds and from all over city visit the cafe for its pastries and bakes, including its signature sachertorte, a traditional Viennese chocolate cake.
But after completely overhauling its business model and physical structures when he took ownership two years ago, Hubert then found himself in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and fighting to keep Kipferl alive.
Austrian patisserie Kipferl is known for its authentic food including its famous sachertorte
As with the rest of the hospitality sector, it was forced to close its doors when the UK went into lockdown in March 2020, and has then opened intermittently but remains shut today, as the third lockdown continues.
Despite these challenges, and a fresh one he now faces due to Brexit, Zanier has boosted Kipferl’s reputation by expanding its reach – and creating a new source of income – through the launch of a web shop, giving people good food in a time of crisis.
Hubert Zanier took over Kipferl in 2019
Now 47, Hubert grew up and studied in Austria and went on to work in financial services for 20 years, but he always had a passion for cooking.
He left his life as a banker in 2016 and entered the hospitality industry, first as an investor in south east Asian restaurant Nusa Kitchen, before eventually becoming its chief executive in 2017.
A regular visitor of Kipferl, which reminded him of home, he wanted to do the same for the cafe, which first opened in 2009, but didn’t get his break until ten years later.
‘After joining the hospitality industry I tried to convince the owner and founder of Kipferl to let me invest, but he refused,’ he said.
‘Unfortunately the business went into administration in early 2019, but we were able to save it and take it over. My business partners and I spent the next 12 months completely overhauling it.
‘We were ready to grow and give it the success it deserved but little did we know about the challenges the world would throw at us.’
From £1m annual sales to the chaos of coronavirus
Covid-19 in the UK and its accompanying lockdowns were a massive setback and a real threat for the cafe.
It previously enjoyed a turnover of around £1million a year but 95 per cent of that came from customers eating in the cafe.
Fortunately, Kipferl was successful in its application to the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme and used the furlough scheme for staff that were unable to work. But the team had to think fast about other ways to keep the business alive.
Hubert said: ‘We always wanted to expand the cake business in some way as they are so unique and we know the British people love the pastries they try when they visit Austria.
‘An online business was in our minds but it wasn’t until we were forced to close last year that we had the time to really start working on it.’
Kipferl launched its web shop last summer, offering freshly made cakes and traditional food and wine direct from Austria. An immediate hit with customers, it has grown by more than 100 per cent every month since launch.
Most days throughout December and January saw more than 50 orders, and it now delivers to Scotland, Wales, Northern Island and even the Channel Islands.
Hubert added: ‘By far most popular product is the sachertorte. It is not only the most famous Austrian cake, but it also travels well and arrives in a perfect state with customers all over the UK.’
Most days throughout December and January saw Kipferl receive more than 50 orders, and it now delivers to Scotland, Wales, Northern Island and even the Channel Islands
Brexit: We have food stuck from Vienna to London
Fortunately, the majority of Kipferl’s cakes, including the sachertorte, can be created from locally sourced ingredients and Hubert is proud to be supporting small British businesses.
However, the last two months have caused fresh pain as he has been unable to get several items usually ordered direct from Vienna.
This is a result of what he thinks has been poor management of Brexit, which involved the UK Government finally making a deal on 24 December 2020.
He said: ‘Usually our contacts in Vienna would package our goods and send them to our restaurant within days. Alcohol would take a little longer as there would be some paperwork to do but it was, on the whole, a smooth process.
‘But our last successful import from Austria was in early December, as since then we have not been able to find a transport company to ship our products, or they have been shipped but are now stuck, and have been since January.
‘We have pallets of wine, cheese, poppy seeds, wafers and so much more stuck somewhere between Vienna and London.’
As the deadline loomed, Hubert found that as a Brexit deal was due but still hadn’t arrived, transport companies were reluctant to fulfil orders as nobody knew was going to happen.
But even after the deal was made on Christmas Eve, most were still clueless and there was no time to prepare for January’s orders.
‘Even big, regulated companies weren’t aware of how things worked,’ he said. ‘We were sent literature telling us to “inform ourselves” but there was no information to inform ourselves with!
‘We’ve since learned there are different forms needed for different ingredients and I’ve spent countless hours filling these in on my end for the goods that are stuck. But there are still many transport companies that won’t ship to begin with because everything is so confusing.
Hubert said suppliers are just as desperate as he is yet there has been no word from the government other than ‘unhelpful standardised emails’.
If I knew there was some good coming out of leaving the EU, I would say all this stress is for a good cause, but there isn’t.
Hubert Zanier, Owner of Kipferl
He added: ‘The amount of time, paperwork, and difficulties we have faced has been mind-blowing. If I knew there was some good coming out of leaving the EU, I would say all this stress is for a good cause, but there isn’t.
‘This is just an additional burden on top of the pandemic for businesses like ours. Fighting for survival is tough as it is but Brexit is just kicking small firms when they are already down.’
Kipferl’s Viennese coffee delivery finally arrived last week, as the producer is used to selling outside the EU so was aware of and knew how to handle the appropriate forms.
But a delivery for wine, for example, is particularly labour intensive with different codes for different colours and alcoholic percentages.
Hubert said he doesn’t yet know how this latest challenge will impact the cafe’s finances but expects additional costs going forward to be 5 per cent to 15 per cent more expensive.
We’ve lost access to our big market!
Brexit has also been an ‘unnecessary additional headache’ to vitamin drinks producer Tonic Health, which imports ingredients from all over the world.
Recently, the firm experienced a lot of red tape around one of its key ingredients, aged garlic, which it imports from Spain.
It was held up at customs, tested in the UK, sent back to manufacturers in Hungary, and then held up again, which had a knock-on effect on production.
Tonic Health’s Sunna van Kampen said Brexit could seriously stifle growth for the firm
Founder, Sunna van Kampen, said: ‘This meant we missed timings of our launch with Sainsbury’s, damaged our relationship with them and delayed our new product landing on shelves which will mean thousands in lost sales.
‘While trade is still tariff-free for us as a small business of five people, we are facing extra work dealing with the extra red tape, paperwork and chasing delayed deliveries.
‘So far there has only been added admin with absolutely no upside. This has the potential to really stifle our growth if things don’t improve.’
In the mean time, Tonic Health has had to employ a customs agent at extra cost to deal with the difficulties, and is exploring ways to minimise trading internationally as it can’t handle the administration at the moment.
Sunna added: ‘We’ve just lost access to our largest market which means we will have to look elsewhere for growth.
‘It’s simply not feasible to have a VAT registration in every EU country. While the impact of this isn’t clear yet due to Covid, once it has all blown over, I believe we’ll be looking at a smaller UK, with stagnant growth.’
‘2021 will be a bumpy road’
Despite still drowning in paperwork, desperate to get his deliveries safely in his cafe, Hubert said he now has an idea of what needs to be done though it will take some time getting used to.
‘I think more or less we have an idea of what we have to do,’ he said. ‘We know all the codes and we are working on opening our own deferral account.
‘But I wouldn’t be surprised if we see several more hiccups for the next three to six months at least. 2021 will definitely be a bumpy road for small businesses.’
Commenting on news this week that the hospitality sector will be the last to emerge out of lockdown, Hubert said he is very disappointed.
Kipferl still has several items stuck in transit
He disagrees that restaurants, many of which had spent money to put strict Covid measures in place, are hubs for spreading the virus as the Government has previously claimed.
But unfortunately he feels the UK’s hospitality industry is not regarded as highly as it should be, despite the value it adds to the economy.
He added: ‘If I look at how other countries, such as Austria or Germany, have treated restaurants, I feel very frustrated. Initiatives like replacing a percentage of turnover have made it much easier for businesses there to survive and prepare to reopen.
‘We definitely need more support to survive, a clearer and better framework on how to deal with landlords and rent arrears and clearer communication on when and how we are able to reopen.
‘When we are finally allowed to, we look forward to welcoming back our regular customers as well as the new ones we have gained online. We hope they will celebrate with a nice piece of Austrian cake and toast with a glass of one of our fine Austrian wines!’
Small Business Essentials
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