Cafe boss bounces back after adapting to impact of virus

Debbie Ellis

Debbie Ellis says 14 Miles East was a dream come true - Credit: Mike Dibble

When Debbie Ellis opened her cafe 14 Miles East in Sidmouth last October she described it as a “dream come true”.

She could be forgiven for describing what happened next - two lockdowns and the trading challenges created by the pandemic -  as something of a nightmare, but she has no regrets.

“It’s been an interesting journey but it was definitely the right thing to do,” she said in between serving customers. 

Just three weeks after launching her cafe, Debbie was forced to shut up shop as the government announced the country’s second lockdown.

“Like a lot of businesses we tried offering takeaway but we hadn’t been open long enough to establish a customer base or reputation so it was slow,” Debbie explained.

“I had to furlough all of my staff, leaving me in the kitchen on my own making drinks and sandwiches. I just did what I had to do to get by.”

Debbie opened the cafe again in December but social distancing rules caused further difficulties for the business and then, in January this year, a third lockdown was imposed.

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The cafe reopened as a takeaway once more but again trading was tough.

However, a turning point came on March 14 - Mothering Sunday. Debbie had advertised a takeaway, boxed afternoon tea and sold more than 50, which was as many as she could make.

“That really gave me a boost. It made me realise there was plenty of business out there,” she said.

Debbie reopened in May and is now reaping the benefits of her hard work. She said her tapas menu and evening sittings on Thursday, Friday and Saturday were proving particularly popular.

“No one day is the same and we are constantly learning but to have launched in a pandemic and come out the other side is really encouraging,” Debbie added.

“The staff who are with me now are pretty much the team I started with, which is incredible when I think about it, and I have also built up a solid base of regular clients who I am extremely grateful to.

“There have been a lot of challenges and we had to be flexible as we emerged from lockdown but we have now settled into a rhythm and are pretty much back to normal.

“The government  furlough scheme was instrumental in helping me to keep the team in place. It would have been just awful to have made them redundant just a few weeks after recruiting them.”

Debbie says she is now planning for the winter and festive period which will, effectively, be her first.

“Last year, the end of October to May was far from routine so we don’t really know what to expect,” she added.

“However, I know that with my fabulous team and wonderful customers we’ll make a success of it.

“The leisure industry is a constantly changing entity and we hope that 14 Miles East will continue to provide the local community with a friendly, relaxed venue for great food and drinks to be enjoyed.”

Debbie opened 14 Miles East in the former Carina’s nightclub in Fore Street with a mission to serve ‘sustainable, and seasonal’ food.

It’s all a far cry from her previous job as a NHS manager but food and cooking, especially baking, are close to Debbie’s heart.

Her family run a dairy farm in Musbury near Axminster and she is passionate about local produce.

The name 14 Miles East refers to the distance between Exeter and Sidmouth. ​The property was built in 1813 and was initially a greengrocers run by Richard Stone and William Gove. 

There began a long history associated with food and drink with the building becoming Trumps Café in 1901.

There have been numerous transformations of the site over the years, with the most recent occupant being Carina’s nightclub, which closed in 2018.

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