Since the UK’s lockdown restrictions first came into effect a year ago, we have continually been inspired and in awe of our region’s local businesses who have not only survived, but achieved phenomenal success during these challenging and uncertain times.
The first in our series of lockdown success stories is Mike’s Pizza Gaff. As a small business based in Newburgh, with a unique business model that allowed his business to flourish to new heights during the pandemic, Mike has kept so many households well fed and entertained with his delicious pizza making kits, made with all the best ingredients.
Tell us a little bit about your business and the inspiration behind it.
“For a very long time I’ve had a passion for food in general, but particularly the Italian side of things. It probably came to the fore when I was a student in Aberdeen and on a tight budget - making your own dough was cheaper than getting a pizza from Dominos or Pizza Hut so that’s what I did!
“Over the years I’ve been making pizza dough and giving it away to friends and family, which is where it all started. People started to say ‘why don’t you do this as a side business’, which gave me the confidence that it was a good product, and it made me notice how much I was actually giving away - I thought I might try and recoup some of the costs so to speak! I started asking friends and family how much they would pay for it and doing some general research around starting a business.
“The idea behind Mike’s Pizza Gaff was a means to an end. It was always to allow the next step in my career and my life - a restaurant, which is something I’ve always dreamed of. I’m working in oil and gas just now as a director for my business in Peterhead, but the food industry is also something I enjoy. So Mike’s Pizza Gaff was something I could build experience in, and generate the revenue I needed to keep going and be able to invest in creating a restaurant one day.”
How have you managed to grow and adapt your business throughout the pandemic?
“The great thing about Mike’s Pizza Gaff is that our business model just so happened to fit with what happened throughout the past year. It started as a basic idea of giving customers fresh produce delivered to their door, which they could play about with and have some fun with. The business really took off during lockdown because it offered people something different and the ability not just to have a meal delivered to their door but also entertainment. The feedback we get from customers is great - it’s brought families together where they didn’t have much quality time together in the past, which is really rewarding to hear.
“There’s been so many offshoots of the business that have happened because of Covid. One of those has been speaking to other restaurants who offer pizzas as an off-menu item, and providing them with dough that contains the best ingredients. We don’t scrimp on that and I think that’s why we have the good reputation that we have - we really do use the best ingredients.
“One particular change which happened during Covid was shipping UK-wide. We hadn’t intended on doing this; it just happened through high demand and getting constant messages on Instagram from people up and down the country who saw our posts. It’s been so interesting allowing word to spread, but still being that local business in Newburgh.
“So many people were asking us if we could do something different or if we were flexible enough to adapt, so we’ve been hosting virtual masterclasses on what to do with the kits, and how best to make the product into a good meal at the end of the day.”
What’s been your biggest challenge during lockdown?
“There were quite significant challenges at the very start, primarily around logistics and ingredient supply. Our suppliers were struggling because of the huge demand that the UK population had on things like flour and yeast - you would walk into supermarkets and there would be nothing there, it was unbelievable! Obviously we don’t use flour from supermarkets but there was a domino effect which meant our suppliers were affected.
“When we started shipping UK-wide, we faced a big challenge in terms of logistics. Before, we were delivering within a 20 mile radius, so all we needed was a driver coming in, picking up the product and delivering it straight to someone’s house. Delivering UK-wide is completely different; you’ve got to have climacool boxes with the gel packs to keep the temperature of everything at a certain point, so that it stays fresh on a longer journey.
“Not only did we have to gear up with new packaging pretty quickly, the restrictions have meant that haulage and couriers have found it really difficult to guarantee shipping dates, so that’s been really hard trying to manage customer’s expectations. Obviously we want to please as many people as we can, but there is a certain point where things have to be marked out of stock on the website to allow us a bit of breathing space and be able to cope with the stress.”
What’s been your biggest success during lockdown?
“We’ve just recently expanded, and gone from working in a converted shipping container to a much larger unit and manufacturing facility. As a business, Mike’s Pizza Gaff was just supposed to be the learning curve and the training for eventually opening a restaurant in the future, but it’s become so much bigger than that, it’s its own entity. I am certainly proud of that - it’s been pretty crazy but in a good way!
“The dream of opening a restaurant was actually meant to be much further down the line - I’m 35 just now and this was something I wanted to do in my 50s. But, depending on the Covid regulations, we’re preparing to open up a restaurant in Ellon, which is going to be a joint venture between us and Bare Zero Waste. They were our first stockists back in 2019, so we’re really looking forward to further solidifying our partnership with them. Because of how busy we were all through lockdown last year and the start of this year, it’s allowed plans to be drastically pulled forward.
“Mike’s Pizza Gaff has turned out to be a subsidiser for the restaurant, but the restaurant is where the joy will be and allow me to spend time with the family and get them involved. The idea is to provide the relaxed atmosphere that you get when you go abroad, which we just don’t have over here in Scotland. Restaurants are trying to get people in and out and seat as many covers as possible.
“I’ve been to Italy a few times and the pizza scene over there is just out of this world - it’s completely different to what we have here and I would love to bring that to Aberdeen city and shire. From my point of view, people here haven’t experienced it and just don’t know what it’s like, so if I can do that I would be delighted!”
How have you managed to stay so connected with your customers during lockdown?
“Social media - but Instagram in particular. It’s a fantastic platform because the images are there straight away for people to see and have a look through. You can share details of what you’re doing, post videos that actually show people how to work with the dough, how to ball up, ferment it, stretch it, top it. The feedback we get on Instagram is incredible - we get so many direct messages or comments on our posts. That’s definitely the biggest way we’ve managed to keep in touch with customers and reach out to new people up and down the country.”
What advice would you give another business owner looking to start up, particularly during such an uncertain time?
“Research is definitely key. I’m a director of another business so my mind always goes to cash flow and projecting as far as you can in advance. It’s like playing a game of snooker - you’re not just trying to pot one ball, you’re trying to clear the whole table, so you have to be thinking ten steps ahead to make sure you’re prepared for what’s to come.
“Running a business is challenging, and it can be really stressful at times, so one of the big things that has helped me is having a good support network of friends and family around me. I would say that’s really important, because when you’re starting a small business it can be quite lonely, so having that support system really helps - that’s what gave me the boost of confidence to start.”
What are some of your favourite local businesses and why?
“I’d have to say that Meet the Meat is definitely up there because of the great relationship we have with them as our suppliers. We’re a business that doesn’t want to jump straight into working with a big supermarket chain, we want to retain that specialty and work with like minded people.
“We were introduced last summer through one of our customers who lived in Cove, and as soon as we got chatting, we realised we had very similar mindsets and ways of working. They’ve now expanded to Banchory and we’ve been able to expand with them which has been fantastic.
“What they do on social media and seeing them delivering up until 9/10 o’clock at night to make sure their customers throughout Aberdeen get their produce is phenomenal. The drive and their hard working mentality is pretty inspirational.
“Bare Zero Waste in Ellon is another of our favourites. That was the first stockist we got involved with just as they launched in November 2019 and it’s been a really good relationship ever since. The restaurant is almost like a joint venture between us and them so they’re really involved.
“During the pandemic, they were able to provide people in the local area with produce that the big supermarkets couldn’t. They worked round the clock to make sure people could get things like pasta and rice - it’s pretty incredible that that was their first jump into their business and they were able to handle the stress and the uncertainty.
“We have collaborations with a few other local businesses, such as Bakeology with Matt, Mad Cow Ice Cream and a new business we’re partnering up with called Vertigrow. They’re based just outside Newburgh and are utilising UV lights in a purpose built, state of the art unit to grow basil and rocket. It’s brilliant!”
Why do you think it’s so important for people to support local businesses right now?
“There’s a multitude of reasons! The majority of smaller businesses are family owned and family operated, so it’s people’s lives we’re supporting - not just a business. It’s so important to keep the logistics and movement of fresh local produce going - especially now with Brexit restrictions. People will struggle to import certain things into the country, and have to pay excess duty and tax on certain produce, so to have something on your doorstep that you can rely on is absolutely 100% required now, especially with so much unknown on where the country is going.
“When you support one local business, you support many, and from my perspective there are far more stakeholders in a small business than in a big supermarket chain. Because with bigger chains, the money goes away from the local area, whereas with small independent businesses, it’s kept on a local level to the families who run it, all the customers and the community.