‘Survival of the fittest’ on high street this winter

As the cost of living crisis grinds on, and the Chancellor unveils a 'mini budget' aimed at unleashing growth, it is proving a tumultuous time for small business owners. We sent reporter Rhys Griffiths to one Kent high street where it appears to be 'survival of the fittest' for many firms, as businesses are launched, close down or have to evolve to meet the challenges ahead this winter.

A former sandwich shop in Folkestone town centre with a to-let sign in the window

A former sandwich shop in Folkestone town centre with a to-let sign in the window

A former sandwich shop in Folkestone town centre with a to-let sign in the window

In 2022 it is often social media where you first learn about the comings and goings on the high street, and that is as true in Folkestone as it is in countless towns and cities across the country. It starts with a flurry of excited Instagram posts, all shot with appropriately aspirational filters, but for many ends with a downbeat Facebook post announcing a closing date and thanking customers - much-loved but perhaps, truth be told, too few in number - for their support.

It is a brutal time for small businesses. Many survived the pandemic and repeated lockdowns by the skin of their teeth, only to be clobbered by soaring energy bills and rampant inflation just as they were finding their feet again.

But the picture in this coastal town is hard to simplify into one easy narrative. While some entrepreneurs are throwing in the towel in the face of rising costs and tightened household budgets, others are boldly launching new ventures or evolving existing businesses to meet the challenge of the moment.

Despite the shortening autumn days and the rather gloomy economic outlook, Kieran Blindell is a man radiating optimism as a he stands behind the counter of Folkestone's newest cafe, Fond Coffee, which has opened opposite Wilko in Sandgate Road. Despite the energy-intensive hospitality industry facing steeply-rising costs this winter, he believes this is the right time to open an off-shoot of his existing Canterbury operation. "We've looked at Folkestone for about the past year," the 30-year-old explained, while I sipped a very agreeable flat white.

"We were looking at different units and finally found one that we liked and managed to agree a nice deal on it.

I'm just really excited to be here to open it. "I've seen Folkestone develop over the last 12 months in particular, and I think we're in a part of the town where it's just reaching up from the harbour and I think this is going to be the start of the next wave of development into the high street."

Kieran Blindell has opened a branch of Fond Coffee in Sandgate Road in Folkestone

Kieran Blindell has opened a branch of Fond Coffee in Sandgate Road in Folkestone

Kieran Blindell has opened a branch of Fond Coffee in Sandgate Road in FolkestoneFond Coffee has opened in Sandgate Road in Folkestone

Fond Coffee has opened in Sandgate Road in Folkestone

Fond Coffee has opened in Sandgate Road in Folkestone

He explains that in time he wants to introduce a food menu, and develop Fond Coffee into a community hub and events space. But is it something of a gamble in a town not short on coffee shops, and where some hospitality businesses are being forced to close their doors?

"For sure, all business is a bit scary sometimes. But I think if you've got a solid product, if you're sure about what you're doing, then you're going to succeed no matter what the economic climate is. "So you have just got to believe in what you sell and hope other people jump on the bandwagon.

The product will talk for itself." Less than a minute's walk away - past a former baguette shop with a 'to let' sign in the window - and I am peering through the window of a vegan restaurant with a sign advertising an 'everything must go' clearance sale. Planet Earth Kitchen has been a fixture in Rendezvous Street for four years, but closed its doors earlier this month.

Planet Earth Kitchen in Rendezvous Street closed earlier this month

Planet Earth Kitchen in Rendezvous Street closed earlier this month

Planet Earth Kitchen in Rendezvous Street closed earlier this monthThe vegan restaurant has staged a clearance sale after closing its doors

The vegan restaurant has staged a clearance sale after closing its doors

The vegan restaurant has staged a clearance sale after closing its doors

A statement posted on its Facebook page reads: "No matter how much we tried and everything we did to keep going, the knock-on effect from the lockdowns along with the rising energy costs, overheads and the fact (this is the excellent part) that almost everywhere now offers a good vegan option in town - we simply cannot afford to keep the restaurant afloat.

"This decision, of course, has not come lightly and we've held on as long as we could. "We absolutely loved our restaurant and we are incredibly proud of what we have achieved and how we have grown as a business." But for this business, it is more a case of evolving to meet the circumstances as we find them this winter.

Planet Earth Kitchen also operates a food truck and regularly trades in Deal and Dover, an operation that will continue despite the closure of the Folkestone restaurant.

Waves Coffee House in Folkestone closed for the final time last week

Waves Coffee House in Folkestone closed for the final time last week

Waves Coffee House in Folkestone closed for the final time last weekA sign announcing the closure last week

A sign announcing the closure last week

A sign announcing the closure last week

For other businesses, however, the difficult decision has been reached to close for good. At the top of the town centre, on Cheriton Place, Waves Coffee House was serving drinks to family and friends as it entered its final day of trading. The rising cost of living and drop in footfall meant the decision was taken to close, a tough call which will potentially be the fate of many businesses in the coming months.

Announcing its Energy Bill Relief Scheme earlier this week, the government pledged six months of support for non-domestic users, businesses as well as schools, hospitals and charities.

The package will provide a discount on gas and electricity unit prices which had threatened to surge to unaffordable levels due to supply restrictions as a result of the war in Ukraine.

As with household support, every little helps, but we may have to wait until the spring to decide if it was enough to see our small businesses and high streets through the cold.