When faced with the restraints imposed by lockdown, CASA’s Maria Broadbent rose to the challenge, and now a year on finds she’s created an entirely new business model with many facets. Looking forward to welcoming customers back to CASA’s newly extended outdoor space, she gives us three recipes to try at home
Over a year on from the start of the first lockdown and we are preparing once more to re-open. We have been continually forced to evolve and adapt to deal with the ever-changing nature and rules that Covid presents. We are very fortunate to have a considerable outdoor space in the town centre and have been painting, weeding, assembling outdoor furniture and overseeing the construction of a 36-seater heated marquee!
We know from the customers we are speaking to that it has been tough on everyone (especially this third lockdown). The excitement is palpable both from our team and the customers. There are many businesses across the town preparing to open their doors and reconnect with the world. We are very lucky that Bury St Edmunds is not dominated by indoor shopping centres and our eclectic mix of independent shops and eateries allows locals and visitors alike to meander around town in the open air. The popularity of our beautiful town means that even through lockdown many new independent businesses are preparing to open shortly. Add into this the extended pedestrianisation of Abbeygate Street and you have a very inviting offer.
Picnics and takeaways will continue to play a part for those customers who do not yet feel comfortable to mix and for those businesses without outside space. For those that can open, there are still rules to abide by. I am sure all businesses are hoping that customers are mindful of the ongoing restrictions regarding masks when walking around shops and seating areas, distancing and sanitising. If everyone sticks with these simple measures the next step on the 17th May should be on track!
A reflection on how we adapted and grew
To run a restaurant was always my dream. Having finally settled into my stride, after a very steep learning curve it has to be said it, it was heartbreaking to be forced to close. In March last year I had just returned from holiday and had come through Geneva airport wearing a mask. The Covid fear was way more advanced in Europe than it was here at that point. Northern Italy was already in a strict lockdown with people dying in hospital corridors. Arriving back here, this experience had given me a taste of what was to come.
I knew that the restrictions would not be a three-week quick fix, shielding had begun and my focus was a combination of looking after my team, ensuring the business could survive and providing what customers and community wanted. All this against a backdrop of the fear of contracting and succumbing to Covid. They were scary times. Staff did not want to be furloughed as this meant a loss of income – so it was time to get creative!
Adapting to change as a business is similar to adapting to change as a person. It helps you to grow, build on your strengths and develop characteristics that maybe did not exist previously. Alongside adapting our regular menu for takeaway we introduced a meals on wheels service for the elderly and vulnerable. We have cooked, delivered and/or fed customers everyday since the 17th March last year, including Christmas Day. We made many new friends through this service and we can’t wait to welcome them in-house.
As flexi-furlough wasn’t a ‘thing’ in the first lockdown, staying open meant generating enough business to cover all staff costs. We had a cracking day for VE Day when we sent out 120 afternoon teas. We were also asked to provide sandwich bags for an engineering company and this has now led to us being asked to provide their canteen catering service in the future. This is one of many things I wanted to add into our business model – but Covid has forced my hand.
The old wine shop has gone through a few metamorphisms since we took on the lease. We wanted it to be a venue. . . but then we needed it to give us the additional covers to accommodate the Eat Out to Help Out demand. Plus, weddings and gatherings were all but banned! The need for more space to produce the sandwiches meant we also needed extra kitchen space – so we divided off a section of the wine shop for this. In turn, this brought me to the thought that another long standing and as yet unfulfilled dream could materialise – a deli.
When we first opened on St John’s Street, we began life as a café. The business morphed into a tapas restaurant and when we moved to Risbygate Street we became a bar and restaurant. Although, again, the restaurant became the dominant element of the business. I realised during lockdown, doing different lunches for the meals on wheels everyday, that I really missed this casual aspect to the business. With all the additional space we have been able to create a hybrid, combining all the different elements to create a ‘hub’. The lunch menu for the casual spaces and takeaways will include paninis, soup, cakes, pastries and a dish of the day, such as a tagine and couscous or stroganoff and rice, at the set price of £7.95. The marquee and terrace will be reserved for brunch, bottomless brunch and our classic tapas menu during lunch and dinner service.
The CASA hub
The last year has produced an entirely new business model which consists of a bar and drinks area, now in the front part of the main building. I also discovered that our licensing hours are much longer than we had previously needed – so we are planning on helping as many of you catch up with friends by operating our bar from 9am on weekdays (10am on weekends) until late. We have expanded the terrace area across the car park incorporating a marquee which will eventually be replaced with covered seating continental style, a café/deli, a hot and cold food takeaway, corporate catering and also outside catering for weddings in venues such as The Guildhall or in marquees in gardens.
Boy, will I need a holiday once they let me!
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for brushing
3 garlic cloves, crushed
3 thyme sprigs
8 large sage leaves, finely chopped
4 x 400g cans chopped tomatoes
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3 teaspoons golden caster or granulated sugar
6 large aubergines, sliced lengthways as thinly as you can
100g vegetarian Parmesan-style cheese, finely grated
85g white breadcrumb
50g pine nut
2 x 125g balls vegetarian mozzarella cheese, torn into small chunks
Handful basil leaves
Heat the oil in a large frying pan (or wide saucepan), add the garlic, thyme and sage, and cook gently for a few mins. Tip in the tomatoes, vinegar and sugar, and gently simmer for 20-25 mins until thickened a little.
Meanwhile, heat a griddle (or frying) pan. Brush the aubergine slices on both sides with olive oil, then griddle in batches. You want each slice softened and slightly charred, so don’t have the heat too high or the aubergine will char before softening. Remove to a plate as you go.
In a large baking dish, spread a little of the tomato sauce over the base. Mix 25g of the Parmesan with the breadcrumbs and pine nuts, and set aside. Top the sauce with a layer or two of aubergine slices, then season well. Spoon over a bit more sauce, then scatter over some mozzarella, Parmesan and basil leaves. Repeat, layering up – and finish with the last of the tomato sauce. Scatter over the cheesy breadcrumbs and chill for up to 24 hrs, or bake straight away.
Heat oven to 200C/180C fan/gas 6. Bake for 30-40 mins until the top is crisp and golden, and the tomato sauce bubbling. Rest for 10 mins, then scatter with basil leaves.
Makes about 6
600ml double cream
140g caster sugar
2 lemons – juice and zest
Bring cream and sugar gently to the boil – simmer VERY gently for 3 minutes.
Add juice through a strainer and the zest to the pan. Whisk well and pour into 6 ramekins or glasses. This is lovely served with shortbread biscuits.
HOMEMADE RICE PUDDING
100g short grain (pudding) rice
2 pints milk (preferably full fat!)
50g caster sugar
Splash of vanilla essence (optional)
Pre-heat oven to 120 degrees centigrade. Put the rice in a saucepan with the butter and enough cold water to cover the rice, bring gently to a simmer and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the milk and sugar and any flavouring, such as the vanilla, allow to warm slightly. Pour into a gratin dish and grate nutmeg on the top and place in the oven for 3 hours.
Maria Broadbent is owner of Mediterranean restaurant CASA in Risbygate Street, Bury St Edmunds
Call 01284 701313