A popular cafe that reopened just 16 days before the first lockdown was forced to close after Covid-19 hit the independent business.
Sami Mannings took over Wirral-based cafe The Willow Tree last year.
The Willow Tree has been on Main Street in Liscard just behind the Cherry Tree Mall for three decades, and some of the staff have been working there since day one.
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Sami’s husband Jay worked at the popular cafe as a chef for eight years, and Sami also did many temporary shifts during this time.
She said staff members arrived for their shift in February last year to find the locks had been changed and the owner had “disappeared”.
Sami, 33, told ECHO: “It was a huge shock, the staff just showed up to find out that the locks had been changed and found a note from a bailiff.
“When that happened, I told myself and my husband that I could have a coffee.
“We spoke to the owner and it was agreed that we would take over almost immediately. “
However, just 16 days after the ‘darling’ cafe reopened, all UK hotel businesses were forced to shut down as the country entered its first lockdown after the Covid-19 outbreak.
As the couple had just acquired ownership of the business, restrictions in place prevented all four of staff from being eligible for the leave, leaving all four as well as Sami and Jay with no income.
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The mother of four said, “During this time my stepfather has helped us get through the lockdown and keep the business open.
“While we were closed I put thousands of dollars in it – to decorate it and update it.
“I spent night after night raving about getting it ready for when we could reopen.”
When given the green light to reopen, all staff returned part-time and Sami was optimistic.
The Willow Tree came to the attention of locals in October after announcing they would provide free packed lunches to schoolchildren during their mid-term after Tory MPs rejected a Labor motion that planned to provide free school meals to schoolchildren. poorest families in the country during the mid-term.
Sami said: “I am very community driven – I love helping the community and always want to help anyone who needs it.
“When we announced that we would be doing the free packed lunches, it exploded. The number of messages I got from moms, dads and grandparents saying ‘you don’t realize how useful this is “, it broke my heart.
“We have four children of our own, so I can’t sit still knowing that other children are hungry.”
Sami said that during the semester, they prepared around 280 packed lunches a day for community members, extending meals to parents and their children.
But despite the positive attention and respected reputation, Sami said the cafe had never been the same since it reopened after the first lockdown.
She said: “A lot of our footsteps have always come from people walking through Wilkinson’s and out their back door to the cafe.
“After the lockdown, Wilkinson’s door still seemed to be locked, so we went to them and asked if they could reopen it, but their head office told us the door would not be reopened.
“It was a huge damage to our business and from there we just struggled and struggled – with the high rent and the drop in custom.
“I went as long as I could physically – I would convince myself that if we got to summer it would be crowded, if we got to fall it would be crowded, I even said that if we got there at christmas it would be crowded, i just couldnt do it anymore.
Sami, who is originally from Scotland and moved to Wallasey when she was 15, said the decision was ‘heartbreaking’ and that if she won the lottery, keeping the willow open would be the first thing she did. she would.
Outside of herself, she said it was “heartbreaking” for the staff, especially their other boss who has been with the company since day one.
Sami said: “It has been very difficult for my husband and our other chef who have been there and worked together for so long.
“I tried to keep going as long as possible because I felt so responsible and guilty if the staff lost their jobs, especially as Christmas approached, but I couldn’t stop it or stop it and when I talked to them about it, they were really understanding.
“We’re such a tight group, I love these guys – they’re family and I’ve known them for so long – that’s one of the hardest parts.”
Announcing her closure on Wednesday, Sami posted on The Willow Tree’s Facebook page how she had “struggled” and “tried her best to stay open” despite the ongoing lockdowns and restrictions that took her financial toll, but in the end , it just wasn’t possible.
Sami wrote: “It is with a heavy heart that we inform you that from Saturday December 4, 2021 at 3pm, we will be closing our doors for the last time.
“As most of our customers know I resumed coffee 16 days before the first lockdown, struggled and did my best to stay open through a number of lockouts and restrictions.
“Unfortunately, I’m now at a point where Liscard is such a quiet place and the cafe has become so quiet that I just can’t stay open anymore.”
Sami added that she and all of the staff were “going to miss” all of their repeat customers.
She told ECHO: “We have customers that grandparents used to bring in, and people who have been coming for years who come at the same time on the same day every week and eat the same thing. – people have memories here and we will miss it.
Customers flocked to the comments section to wish the team the best of luck for the future and to express their “devastation.”
Laura J Friess said: “Omg absolutely devastated for you, im so sorry. I send you so much love, I will never forget how kind you were making all those breakfasts for the kids who needed it . “
Jenni Ward said: “I am so disappointed for you. You have done an amazing job for our local community, it is such a shame. I will always be grateful for the kids’ breakfasts when I had the most trouble. J ‘hope you and your staff all the best for the future. “
Despite her heartache, Sami said if there was one bright spot that she could take away from her experience as owner of The Willow Tree, it’s that she had had the opportunity to make a difference for the community.
She said: “The short time that I have had it I have been helping people and that means everything to me knowing that we will always be known as the cafe that has helped the community.
“I would love nothing more than to wake up on Monday and be able to open the doors, it would be a dream come true but I have been blessed enough even if it was only for a short time.”