Business owners that opened in Reading during the difficult days of the coronavirus pandemic have revealed how they have weathered the economic storms. 

Back in 2020, no one expected the coronavirus pandemic to come and lead to the forced closure of businesses in national lockdowns. 

It was undoubtedly a difficult time for any brick-and-mortar business, let alone startups. 

But three businesses which opened in 2020 have either reached or nearing their fourth anniversaries.

So we caught up with these businesses to ask them what it takes to have staying power in Reading. 

Angelo Mignemi opened Madoo Italian Deli Cafè in September 2020, and is therefore approaching its fourth anniversary. 

Reading Chronicle: Angelo Mignemi, the founder of Madoo Italian Deli Café, with barista Jessie during a busy Wednesday service in Reading.Angelo Mignemi, the founder of Madoo Italian Deli Café, with barista Jessie during a busy Wednesday service in Reading. (Image: James Aldridge, Local Democracy Reporting Service)

Mr Mignemi said: "I didn't plan to open during the pandemic, I signed the lease in March 2020, two weeks before lockdown.

"During the lockdown, I couldn't talk to anyone, I couldn't speak to any suppliers.

"For months everything was locked, everything was stopped.

"It was my first experience opening a shop from scratch.

"Slowly I had a good response from the public and customers, slowly I'm starting to realise that we are doing a good job, a lot of people have recognised us, a lot of people come and see more products, more staff.

"Yes because we need more staff because the more customers, the more staff, because I cannot squeeze the staff that are here now.

"Otherwise they will get tired, they will get sick."

He added that maintaining a profitable business, enticing customers and fair pricing, is a real 'balancing act'.

"If my costs are higher and I charge the same price, I end up losing money.

"But I work hard to avoid this. I make sure each quarter is monitored."

He explained that he can now start comparing annual financial performances with 2022 and 2023 being  the first 'normal years' after the lockdowns. 

Looking to the future, Mr Mignemi said: "We want to grow, we would like to find a good opportunity to expand the business and the brand.

"But we are just looking for opportunities all the time, now after three or four years people recognise the brand, lots of people have been here.

"In Reading if we decide to open up a place already we'll start with brand recognition, we can get to our customers quicker."

Another Reading food business which has already expanded its brand since opening in 2020 is Tasty Greek Souvlaki, which will reach its anniversary on May 18.

Headed by restaurateur Luftar Rusta, a second branch was opened in Acton in Spring 2022.

Reading Chronicle: Luftar Rusta, the owner of Tasty Greek Souvlaki at Market Place, Reading town centre.Luftar Rusta, the owner of Tasty Greek Souvlaki at Market Place, Reading town centre. (Image: James Aldridge, Local Democracy Reporting Service)

But prior to that, he opened Tasty Greek for takeaway only during the first lockdown. 

Reflecting back, Mr Rusta said: "It was a difficult time, it's gone through with the help of hard work and my wife.

"I've been in the UK since 1988, I've been an executive chef for 26 years, if you keep doing well, provide nice and fresh food and fresh salads, and you are looking after everyone, to be happy like a family, then I think you will do well in this country.

"On weekends we have been doing a nice rack of lamb chops, slowly cooked on the charcoal grill, on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays that has been flying and next month we will have new dishes added to the menu. 

"If you give everything to every dish that is going out and look after the place and make sure everyone and the guests are happy.

Him and his wife divide time between the branches. 

Mr Rusta said: "Most of the time, from eight o'clock in the morning to midnight I'm out of home, away from my kids as well.

"If I start in Reading, at 3-4pm I go to London, then I'm there until 11.30pm.

"From Monday to Sunday I'm out, seven days a week. It's lots of hard work, it's crazy hours for me and my wife.

"It's my passion, I never get tired, I'm stronger day by day."

The couple are juggling managing both restaurants and looking after their two young children.

Mr Rusta reflected that the restaurant was busier in 2022 - which he put down to the escalating cost of living.

He said: "From February 2022, everything has been up in prices, like electricity, gas and water, everything.

"Not as many people are going out to enjoy themselves as well."

Asked what it takes to succeed, Mr Rusta said: "Keep working hard, and trying to do everything the best we can."

Mr Simms Olde Sweet Shop experienced a renaissance in 2020, when it introduced a new design for its franchisees, replacing brown branding with yellow. 

And the first shop to use this new branding was opened by franchisee Babar Butt and his brother in Reading. 

Mr Butt said: "They rebranded, this was the first shop with the new branding in the whole country. 

"We opened then a couple of months after we had to shut down. For the first three months we really struggled because it was a new business and then it shut down.

"After one of the lockdowns we were designated a food business so we could open, but still it wasn't great. 

"As soon as we were back fully open, we started picking up and now we are doing ok. 

"People have their lifetime stories with these sweets. People say 'when I was a kid, I had this.'

"One customer said 'when I was in boarding school in the 1960s, my grandad used to see me and give me these midget gems' so he comes and buys them and says 'whenever I buy these sweets, I remember my grandad'. 

"People have stories of these sweets. We try to sell mostly traditional stuff that's unique. 

Reading Chronicle: Babar Siddique Butt, the Mr Simms sweets franchise holder who opened the first shop in Reading in 2020, during the pandemic.Babar Siddique Butt, the Mr Simms sweets franchise holder who opened the first shop in Reading in 2020, during the pandemic. (Image: James Aldridge, Local Democracy Reporting Service)

"We divided the shop into two sections, one side is traditional, and the other side we made it American to attract youngsters. It's a good combination."

 Mr Simms has stayed open while a similar candy store in The Oracle closed down.

Mr Butt said: "If you open only an American store, you rely only on customers who like American sweets. We have such a variety, we have traditional jars, fudges, we do really good on pick and mix, then American. 

"If I only open an American candy store I don't think it would work because of overheads and rent. The one in The Oracle could not survive. 

"We have passing trade plus regular customers who come in every week.

"It's not easy, but we are surviving. We pay the staff good wages, so we are doing ok." 

Mr Butt and his brother opened Mr Simms in Basingstoke in 2018 and Guildford in 2019. 

He added: "If it's only one shop, then it becomes difficult, then you have to pay staff, wages and rent, and rates. We have three shops, if you put the three together, we are doing ok."