Coronavirus: Chancellor visits reopened market — but most shoppers stay away

Tom BelgerFinance and policy reporter
Yahoo Finance UK
UK chancellor Rishi Sunak dropped in at Falafel Rush in central London. (Simon Walker / Treasury)
UK chancellor Rishi Sunak dropped in at Falafel Rush in central London. (Simon Walker / Treasury)

“Charge him double,” someone joked as Britain’s chancellor Rishi Sunak weighed up what to order at a falafel stall at a London market on Monday.

The man in charge of Britain’s public finances eventually went for a falafel salad box as he dropped in at Tachbrook Street Market near Victoria station in central London.

Sunak visited to mark the reopening of outdoor markets in England from Monday (1 June), as the government’s coronavirus restrictions are gradually lifted. He called it a “major milestone in our plan to kickstart the economy” in a an announcement shared with journalists by the Treasury.

Ratib Albudoor, who has run the Falafel Rush stall for over a decade, admitted he had not recognised the high-profile visitor in a shirt and tie, but said the man came across as a friendly, “normal person.”

Altuboor, 43, told Yahoo Finance UK he was delighted to be open at all after 10 weeks at home while the market was closed. “I’m very excited to go back to normal life after this period sitting at home doing nothing.”

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But while the chancellor may have bought lunch, the number of other customers passing through on the first day back trading proved a disappointment.

Albudoor said sales of his vegan and vegetarian falafel dishes were around 20% of pre-coronavirus levels. “It’s very poor — it wasn’t good for me,” he said. “Today we just covered our expenses only, and are not doing any profit.”

The picture was even tougher for a neighbouring trader. Turnover at Newdlez & Co, which specialises in Thai noodle dishes, was just 10% of usual levels, according to one of its founders, Navy Wollweber.

“Most of our customers are business people, but a lot are still working from home,” he said. “Turnover was not as expected. There was no queue whatsoever.”

The market is normally reliant on lunchtime trade from busy central London offices, but both traders said Monday’s trickle of trade was mainly from local residents.

“It’ll definitely get busier,” Sunak tried to reassure Falafel Rush staff in a video seen by Yahoo Finance UK.

The entrepreneurs behind both stalls shared his optimism that trade will eventually pick up. The hope is that growing awareness of re-opening, more shoppers venturing out as non-essential retailers resume trading later this month and more workers returning to offices will boost business.

“We’ll have to struggle another two weeks to build business,” added Albudoor. “We need more time for people to know we’re back to normal.”

Demand is not the only challenge facing such firms, with the coronavirus also causing supply chain problems at Newdlez & Co. Some suppliers have shut up shop with restaurant demand so low, leaving Wollweber struggling to get hold of beansprouts before the opened.

“I had to run around finding a new supplier,” he said. Getting hold of chives from Thailand has also proved difficult, though generally the company is fairly well-stocked. “My wife was panic buying before,” he added.

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Albudoor only found out from another trader on Monday about government grants for high street firms, but Wollweber said his family firm had benefited from some government support.

Wollweber’s brother Louis, who was at the noodle stall when the chancellor passed by, said he would have thanked Sunak personally if he had stopped at their tent.

But there are no hard feelings that the chancellor chose falafels instead. “He obviously knew what he wanted to eat,” he laughed.

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