My café helped my cancer recovery – Covid-19 means I may have to close its doors
I have no idea if my business will be able to open again in the new year. Even thinking about its permanent closure makes me feel broken.
I opened Belisily Play Café in Letchworth Garden City two years ago, after beating lymphoma and facing menopause at 30.
It’s like a normal café, selling a range of barista drinks and hot and cold food (in our case sandwiches and jacket potatoes) with a small gated play area filled with toys like train sets and dolls for children aged up to five.
We managed to hold on after the first lockdown, but the second really took the crunch out of my biscuit and the café is now hanging on by a thread.
A massive rent bill has accumulated thanks to two quarters of non-trading and I realised I only had until Christmas Eve to build the funds to save the Belisily from closure.
Initially, I was hopeful. When I posted that mounting debts meant we would have to close permanently, the response from people in the town was nothing short of phenomenal.
I felt totally alone and they have lifted me up and carried me forward.
At the start of December, I took time off from my day job as an NHS communications manager to retrain staff after lockdown. I reinvested money I didn’t have to reopen and I woke every day at 5am on the dot to make it work. I was nervous about reopening as I didn’t know what to expect.
Last time we reopened, after Lockdown, 1.0, we had hardly any customers and we lost money on a daily basis. When people did walk through the door, the PPE we were wearing and masks made it hard to hear and understand each other.
There were also times, due to staff isolating, that I was running the café alone. I ran myself into the ground and never questioned it.
But the week after my plea for help was the best I have experienced in the two years I have been open. I literally wanted to scream with joy every time someone came in.
Then Hertfordshire was plummeted into Tier 3, and then Tier 4, I realised that I was going to suffer more loss.
Now the doors are shut again and the weight of those outstanding bills that I thought we would cover this week is on my shoulders. It’s now become purely about survival.
I have three staff who are relying on me for a job, three kids that have not taken well to my hints that we may need to close, and a community of customers that I want to keep serving.
After everything that’s happened in my life, the café means more to me than I can say.
Back in 2010, I first became a mum to my daughter Isabel. Three months after having her, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma for the third time having initially being diagnosed when I was 15 in 1995, and then again in the second year of my degree in 2003.
This time, gruelling chemo and a stem cell transplant put me into menopause at the ripe old age of 30.
Complications meant I needed to teach myself to walk long strides again – and this was when the seed of Belisily was planted.
Walking was excruciating, but my husband would distract me by making me talk about an idea I had for a café for kids: what I would sell, why people would love it. It formed part of my recovery.
But when I was later told I couldn’t have any more children, my heart shattered and I let go of my kids’ café dream.
Six years later, I became unwell and I thought the cancer was back. I almost called the hospital to ask for tests but, the night before, I’d had a dream that I was holding a baby.
My mother had always told me if you have a dream that you want to come true, don’t tell anyone about it. So I kept quiet and went to the pharmacy to do a test. It was positive and all the staff at Boots hugged me as I wept and told them this story.
My son came along in 2016 and mended my broken heart. So, I started to talk about the café again. I went back to work seven months later and that same week found out I was expecting again.
Two months after Emily was born, I’d stopped talking about the café and started working on a plan. In July 2018, I signed a lease and we opened that October.
Belisily is named after my three kids: Isabel (Bel) Luis (is) and Emily (ily). In their own way, they inspired its creation – the name was my way of letting them know just how much.
The kids love Letchworth and we had dreams of moving to within walking distance of the café. Now those plans are on hold as we wait to see if we can reopen in the New Year.
On Friday, I put Belisily to sleep and now I continue to fight behind the scenes to see if in January we can reopen.
This café means a huge amount to me and my family – and over the years I’ve seen what it means to other people, too.
Even in tier two, when groups couldn’t sit together on one table unless they were from the same household, I could see the positive impact Belisily had on my customers.
Every interaction has filled my heart, I just pray that my dream won’t have to end in January.
As told to Catherine Lofthouse.
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