Leighton Buzzard businesses fight to keep festive spirit alive in uncertain times

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'It's about personal choice; it's down to the individual'

Plucky Leighton Buzzard businesses are fighting to keep the festive spirit alive this Christmas.

After the post-lockdown sales boom this summer, the emergence of Omicron has been a blow across the nation, as scientists try to establish whether or not the new variant is a serious threat to individuals and the healthcare system.

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However, the town's businesses are determined to make Christmas a merry one nonetheless, and are busy organising events, planning special offers and in some cases, bucking national trends.

Leighton Buzzard town centreLeighton Buzzard town centre
Leighton Buzzard town centre

Serafina Di Meo, business owner of Sorelli Cafe Restaurant and Piccolo Bakery, said: "We've been really busy. It hasn't really affected us this year like it did last year.

"As soon as we came back after lockdown in May it's been really busy and even with the last few weeks it's not affected the business.

"Piccolo is doing really well as well. It's taken a while for it to get established but it's definitely getting there.

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"Last year we went into lockdown two weeks before Christmas, so we did have to cancel a couple of big parties. But this year we didn't have any parties booked in the evenings."

She added: "We've been playing music and everyone seems to be in good spirits. Customers are quite happy and chilled.

"I think people are comfortable coming into us and we have got regulars who come in all the time. People feel they are safe here. Everything is cleaned really well.

"We have been busy at weekends and always busy Saturday. It's the busiest day of the week."

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Meanwhile, at The Golden Bell, although things are quieter, staff and punters are making the best of things.

James Drew, landlord of the pub, said: "Things are a lot quieter than last year. I feel that basically the media worried people into not coming out.

"We're still being respectful of people's space, we have hand sanitiser, but it's about personal choice; it's down to the individual.

"We're not telling people to come in, and we're not telling people not to come in. It's not Christmas as normal; it's a bit of a weird one."

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However, James, landlady Lisa Drew, and all the staff are determined to keep Christmas spirits going and are carrying on with events such as live music.

He added [speaking last week]: "We're still seeing quite a lot of [familiar] faces who are coming in, and still having a laugh. We've got a singer-guitarist doing a Christmas set tomorrow which should cheer everyone up.

"If people are coming out, we need them to spend money in local, independent places, not with big corporations that don't pay tax."

James Drew, owner of The Dine Yard told the LBO: "It's quiet to be honest, we've had a quiet winter when we thought it would have picked up a bit. But I think people are still very worried about coming out, especially dining out. We are going to hold on the best possible way we can and hopefully get back to normal.

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"Saturday on the Market Day is not too bad but the rest of the week has been quiet.

"It's tough for the industry at the moment. I think people are scared of catching it [Covid-19] before Christmas."

The Dine Yard is currently offering a takeaway service only as they were worried about staff catching the virus. However, there are lots of tasty treats on offer to bring customers some festive fun, including 'Christmas Loaded Fries'.

Customers are asked to keep an eye out on their social media pages for news of when the restaurant will open up.

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Gennaro Borrelli, chairman of LB First and owner of Gennaro’s Organic Hair and Beauty, said: "Certainly from the salon's perspective it's been quieter than what we would normally expect for this time of year to what it would have been.

"I could tell from the minute that the Omicron news broke two to three weeks ago that things were tailing off. I think it's a combination of that and also because people are isolating - particularly because last year they weren't able to see their family for Christmas. Then there's been the situation where big office dos have been cancelled, too."

However, Mr Borrelli told the LBO that despite national footfall figures for shopping malls and shopping centres taking a hit, traditional towns such as Leighton Buzzard haven't taken such a blow.

He added: "I don't think we have felt it quite as bad as other places. In Waterborne Walk precinct there's a lot of fresh air and it's not enclosed, the market is outdoors, and there's been free parking, which has allowed people to pop over and pick up some fresh produce.

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"If you're going to the shops you can pop in and out, grab what you need and nip outside again. And our independents have done a lot to make their premises safe."

Mr Borrelli acknowledged that it had been a worrying time for small businesses, with uncertainty over future restrictions, supply chain and staffing issues, and the increased cost of essential items such as food and fuel.

But he concluded: "On the plus side there's been remarkable community support from people who are really willing to support local businesses. Provided that people can continue to shop locally, we can get through this next year."

He wished to remind LBO readers that they can visit: www.shoplocallb.co.uk and that the e-commerce platform for local online shopping is due to launch in January.

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Meanwhile, last week, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced that there will be additional financial support for the hospitality and leisure sectors, with businesses able to apply for a one-off grant.

A Central Bedfordshire Council spokesman, said: "On 15 December 2021, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities (DLUHC) published guidance for £1.5bn of additional business rates relief, which was originally announced in March 2021.

"The additional relief, now called the COVID-19 Additional Relief Fund (CARF) is to support businesses affected by the pandemic. We have been allocated just over £5.3 million and are working to understand the number of businesses we can support and in which sectors, and how much they will each receive.

"Additionally, we are looking at how to support businesses impacted by the spread of the Omicron variant by using remaining unallocated Additional Restrictions Grant (ARG) scheme funding.

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"More information will be published on our website in the new year.”

However, looking out for his fellow businesses in the sector, Mr Drew said: "It's based on business rates. The Chancellor says the word 'billion' and it seems a lot of money, but £4 - £6k for a business to run on...we need people coming through the doors."

How has trade been for your business? If you're a customer have you stayed at home? Email [email protected]