Made in Oldstead: How Tommy Banks’ lockdown pivot saved his business

August 31, 2021

2021’s Restaurateur of the Year Tommy Banks secured the future of his restaurants and kept his staff employed with the launch of his successful meal kits business Made in Oldstead. 

Tommy Banks had a very busy lockdown 2020, pivoting from running two successful restaurants as well as farm to creating one of the biggest success stories in the restaurant meal kit sector.

With Made in Oldstead Banks chose to take on much of the heavy lifting on his own, setting up a website and creating a nationwide home meal delivery kit with a regularly changing menu. The move helped secure the future of his business during the pandemic and also enabled his staff to retain their jobs.

The company is about to relaunch the Made in Oldstead website and the meal kit arm is now an integral part of the restaurateur’s business, so it’s hard to believe that such a successful enterprise was born purely out of desperation and a bid to ride out the pandemic.

“Last March was a stressful time,” the chef/restaurateur recalls. “The most stressful things are the ones where there is no idea how things are going to play out. With the subsequent lockdowns you had half an idea because you’d done it before but for the first one it was like the carpet had been pulled out from underneath you. I thought ‘what the hell are we going to do?”

“I’d thought I’d rather try and do something new and fail
and lose our restaurants than sit around and do nothing and lose our restaurants anyway”

With the support of furlough not yet announced and at that point no talk of Government-backed loans, Banks moved quickly into survival mode, not just for him and his two-strong business – Michelin-starred The Black Swan at Oldstead and Roots in York – but for his staff.

“I literally couldn’t not work,” he says. “My outlook was that’s it’s less of a risk to do something than nothing. I thought I’d rather try and do something new and fail and lose our restaurants than sit around and do nothing and lose our restaurants anyway. That sounds quite extreme now but at the time that is genuinely how I felt and how a lot of people felt.”

To compound matters, the company has recently employed a couple of new staff members who had relocated to Oldstead and who were ineligible for furlough. With no money to pay them, Banks hit on the idea of a meal delivery business that in the beginning worked out of the kitchen at The Black Swan.

“It was such a small business, and it made a token amount of money that was enough to pay the wages of a handful of people who couldn’t get furlough,” he says. “It was not going to change the fortunes of the business and the amount of debt we were going to get into.”

Yet demand grew and when Banks was given the option of taking over small kitchen space to scale up production, he took it. From there came the decision to make Made in Oldstead go national, and the rest is history.

“Nationwide delivery was a big gamble but that opened us up to a massive audience and it snowballed from there. It was something we were doing hand to mouth; every week we were working on a new menu and figuring it out as we went along. It was like an episode of The Apprentice the whole way through, we were desperately trying to not get fired by the end of the week.”

As the business grew Banks need to recruit for many new roles, and by the end of the last summer Made in Oldstead employed 30 members of staff and was similar in size to its two restaurant operations. The experience of running it has also helped improve the restaurant operations once they were allowed to reopen.

“When you’re running a restaurant, you’re operating in a bit of a bubble. When we started running a different business, we looked at how we can bring some of those aspects into making our restaurants better and being much better employers. It has brought in a lot more structure. The business is a more professional place now.”

Even with restaurants back open, Banks predicts a strong future for Made in Oldstead. “Demand during lockdown was frightening but as restaurants reopened it has been an interesting exercise in finding out who your customers are for this. The new website will allow for a lot more functionality and flexibility. Made in Oldstead is here to stay.”

The Restaurateur of the Year award 2021 is sponsored by OpenTable.