Real business story

The pandemic pushed us to innovate

The Steel Cauldron is a wizard-themed café and bar whose husband-and-wife owners signed a lease on the premises two weeks before the March 2020 lockdown. Since opening in August, they've used every trick up their sleeve to spread the word. Follow the company's progress each month as we track its journey out of the pandemic and future improvement efforts.
The Steel Cauldron cafe space

Sheffield café The Steel Cauldron has gone through numerous iterations since initially opening in August 2020

Having worked in financial services for a number of years, Rob Downham pivoted his career to open The Steel Cauldron in 2020 with his wife Nikki.

Established a short way from Sheffield city centre, Rob’s aim for the venue was to make a space that “creates happiness” for all who visit.

Rob, along with six other UK businesses, will be providing monthly updates as he looks to steer his business through the next year. Follow the six other stories here:

Navigate to different monthly updates from Rob using the links at the top of this page, or keep reading to find out more about The Steel Cauldron's journey so far.

How the Steel Cauldron started the year

In late April 2021, Rob updated us on where the Steel Cauldron now found itself.

Having gone through numerous iterations since initially opening in August 2020, the business had now established an outdoor area to accommodate a small number of customers before they were able to reopen indoors.

Not only was this new venture providing an extra revenue stream, but it was also helping to ease staff back into work following months of furlough.

Next came a full re-opening, which Rob embraced with all guns blazing. "We made the decision to fully open with everything we do, six days a week, from half-past nine in the morning until pretty much midnight," he said.

It's been a mixed success, with some very quiet spells during the day – periods that Rob and his wife have felt inclined to man to avoid having to pay underused staff. There is, however, method behind Rob's thinking.

"The more hours we're open, the more people we can get in – but with less people in the building at any one time," he said. "And we're absolutely delighted to be open again, hoping beyond hope that it carries on. Slow, steady steps is all I am after at the moment."

Rob insisted he had no desire to fill the premises right now, and would be happy to run at around 40-50 per cent capacity. "I think my staff would struggle if it was more than that," he said, adding that customers might not like to feel 'hemmed in' in the current climate either.

Rob is convinced that the wizard theme on which his business is built is a winner (so long as he can keep on the right side of Warner Bros, owners of a certain well-known wizarding franchise), and pointed out that he'd get five times the response to a 'magical wizards afternoon tea' than he would for a common or garden 'afternoon tea' – something he found out very early on.

Using spare time to make small, impactful improvements

Rob said that he has probably acquired several years'-worth of knowledge about running a hospitality business since he opened last August. "The pandemic meant that places were locked down, and that was absolutely black and white," he said. "It was non-negotiable, but the one thing you could control was what you did with your time."

For Rob, this included improving processes, changing the layout of the building, rethinking children's parties and more – he even spent two enjoyable weeks creating wands, which take around 10 minutes each to make and which he can sell for £10.

"Without the pandemic, we wouldn't have needed to innovate in those ways, so it has certainly pushed us," he said.

It seems like Rob never stops thinking. He recently introduced an ice cream counter, which he hoped would appeal to young and old alike, and in the evenings he has found that people are keen to accompany a drink with a meal from a neighbouring Greek restaurant. Rob and his team take the orders, the restaurant brings the food, and The Steel Cauldron takes a 30 per cent cut.

"We've got a nice little system set up and it has worked brilliantly," he said.

Although this delivery service is still in its infancy, Rob already has plans to reach out to other takeaways on the same street.

Big plans for the year ahead

While the pandemic threw The Steel Cauldron's plans off course, Rob has taken inspiration from the upheaval and has big ambitions for the upcoming year. We asked him to set a one year from now success statement – a situation the business would be in that would represent both recovery and progress towards Rob's long-term vision.

We then asked him to identify the five individual targets that would be most important in making that success statement a reality. Find out what he's set out for The Steel Cauldron.

Time for some targets

Update one: June 2021 – “The average age of the team has reduced significantly”

So says Rob Downham, co-owner of wizard-themed venue The Steel Cauldron in Sheffield, who has made some progress on one of the targets that underpin his 2021/22 success statement.

Number three on Rob's list of targets to help him achieve his success statement was to bring in apprentices and train up his staff. Just a month ago, he was thinking he might be able to work with a local college to secure his apprentices, and in the fast-moving world of hospitality he can already cross this off his list.

In fact, it's been quite a month in terms of bringing new faces into the business.

"The big change over the past few weeks has been to do with staffing," said Rob. "There are a lot of kids who would have been in school for their exams that have already finished for the summer and are looking for jobs now. In the past few weeks we've recruited six 16-year-olds, meaning the average age of the team has reduced significantly."

Attracting talent to the business

Rob feels he's in quite an enviable position in terms of The Steel Cauldron being able to attract young talent – one of his 16-year-old hires was actually a customer, who asked if there were any jobs available after attending a craft class with her mother.

On her first day, said Rob, the new recruit proved to be remarkably adept – convincing Rob that there are some very capable 16-year-olds around who are tech savvy and who can quickly grasp The Steel Cauldron's various systems.

"Plus, he added, "they're respectful, they really like what we're doing, they often live nearby, and they have that support from their parents in terms of them not wanting them to be late for a shift."

With the venue tending to need extra staff at weekends and in the evenings – times when students are typically available – Rob can imagine his new crop of workers fitting in nicely with his shift requirements in the coming years.

It's a chance, too, said Rob, for them to learn some important life skills before they go off to university. "They're learning every aspect of hospitality, which will uniquely place them to be great employees in the future," he said.

Alongside these new recruits are the two apprentices from Sheffield College that he was hoping for and an additional four staff, making a total of 12 to add to his existing team.

Rob has also signed up to a year-long scheme run by a local church that helps young people into the world of work when they leave university. He's hoping to take on two more people this way.

Rob isn't the only leader bringing new talent into the business. At Slater Heelis, managing partner Chris Bishop is on a mission to increase diversity in the law firm. Catch up with his progress here.

The possibility of Plan B

Never afraid to adjust the goalposts, Rob said he is currently rethinking the £1m turnover target that appeared at the top of his list of goals for the coming year.

"Business is quieter than we expected," he said. "Before the second lockdown we'd have been full on a Sunday, whereas this Sunday we were at about 20 per cent capacity. Other people in hospitality are finding it quieter, too.

"This pandemic is real," he added, "and people are still worried about going out. I'll potentially be looking at a plan B in the coming weeks that will focus on monthly profitability but at lower numbers."

Rob Downham, The Steel Cauldron

The influx of young talent into the business has been a bright spot for Rob

Find out how other leaders are developing new hires

Don't underestimate the capabilities of young talent

Treat every employee as a potential leader

Update two: July 2021 – “We've ditched our £1m target and our goal now is survival”

Rob Downham, co-founder of wizard-themed venue The Steel Cauldron in Sheffield, had been optimistic of large customer numbers when restrictions were lifted. When that didn't quite materialise, he went back to the drawing board – as he explains in this short video update.

Responding to difficult trading conditions

How business leaders can navigate a dip in trading

Tips for getting back on track

Update three: August 2021 – “Our new owl lady is fantastic”

Boosting the wizarding theme of his family-friendly venue was a top 2021-22 priority for Rob Downham, co-founder of The Steel Cauldron in Sheffield. His latest addition to the team helps him deliver on just that...

New attractions

Rob and his wife Nikki always dreamed that their wizard-themed venue would be more than just a café with a few props; since the very start the goal was to create a space where families could immerse themselves in another world for a few hours.

Attractions, though, cost money, and in a year of ups and downs and near-endless uncertainty, Rob hasn't exactly felt overly-inclined to raid the piggy bank. "I recently had an email in my inbox from an owl handler," said Rob, "and it sat there for about two weeks because I was sure she'd want about £500 a day."

As it turns out, the lady in question wanted a far more modest sum – so Rob signed her up for 12 days throughout the summer holidays.

"We've always had 'Eat, Drink and Craft' days; now we have 'Eat, Drink and Owl' said Rob, "and it's really helped to improve our takings. She comes in wearing full wizarding robes and does an amazing 90 minute show twice a day, and everyone loves it."

Plus, he added, when children line up to have their pictures taken with the owls, many of these photos end up on social media, which is great for brand awareness.

"We have wizards going round the tables doing magic, and now we have owls, too," says Rob. "We're getting much closer to being the wizardy experience we always wanted."

It's a spell of good news, for a change: the start to Rob's summer was disappointing, with far fewer visitors than he expected. Now, though, he is taking in as much as £5,000 on a good day.

Streamlining processes

Alongside this, he is optimistic about some changes that should come into effect imminently, both of which are aligned with another of his 2021/22 goals: to streamline and optimise certain business processes.

"The first change will be a new management system for the kitchen and front of house," said Rob, explaining that one aspect of this will allow him to remotely assess the temperature of the 16 fridges and freezers The Steel Cauldron has. "It costs £120 a month, and it will save us at least that in shoe leather," he said.

A little later, around September/October, he's hoping to switch his entire till system. "It will effectively become the central lynchpin for everything," said Rob. "It will allow us to instigate a loyalty programme, it will seamlessly integrate the till with our back office finance package and it's going to allow us to market far more effectively to repeat customers."

Plus, he says, this new EPOS system will allow staff to take orders directly at the table on a tablet and send them to the kitchen – a step up from the world of "notes with bad handwriting and different abbreviations that need to be taken through."


If Rob has a gripe this month, it's this: he's been disheartened by some of his staff taking time off to go on holiday during what was clearly his busiest time of the year. "Something I've learned again and again – and I really should know it by now – is that no one will ever work as hard as the owner of the business," he said.

Realistically, though, he understands why his staff aren't able to give 100% all of the time. "Because of all the pandemic upheaval, everyone's on zero hours contracts, which was never the plan," he said. "If you put people on zero hours contracts, you can't really expect them to go above and beyond – because we haven't done that either."

The Steel Cauldron owl lady

Rob's "Eat, Drink and Owl" days helped to improve The Steel Cauldron's takings over the summer holidays

With many people moving out of hospitality during the pandemic, staff are also on the brain for Baa Bar CEO Elaine Clarke.

Follow Elaine's progress since reopening

Update four: September 2021 – “I have a new theme for a second venue”

When mapping out the 12-month plan for his business, Rob Downham, co-founder of wizard-themed Sheffield venue The Steel Cauldron, put expansion high on his list of priorities. Four months on, an idea is starting to take shape...

Planning a second venue

"One of my goals for this year was to open a second venue, and while it's no longer something I feel compelled to do imminently, I have been giving it some thought these past few weeks. I don't really mind if it happens in two months or two years, but to move things along a little I have been putting out the feelers, as much so I can practice hardball negotiation with commercial landlords as anything.

"There are a number of options I'm playing with. One would be to open a second wizard-themed venue, but there's no point doing that in Sheffield or in the immediate vicinity because people are already prepared to travel an hour to come to us. It only makes sense to open a second venue further away – in Leeds or maybe Nottingham.

"But the idea that I'm leaning towards at the moment is to open a second venue in Sheffield – with a different theme. I don't want to say too much, but I have got a theme in mind that is sufficiently broad for it to appeal to a large number of people, and which I think we could do well. We'd take some of the key concepts of what we're already doing, which is experiential hospitality and retail, and cater to a different market."

Moving staff around as needed

"What I'm thinking is that it might be better to have 50 members of staff dotted across two venues in Sheffield, and be able to move them around as needed, than trying to run two totally separate teams miles apart. In terms of funding, I'd like to try and be able to pay for it from the money we have in the business – or maybe with input from a silent investor. I would think around £200,000 would be enough to get it up and running.

"I'm learning all the time; I know now that I'd spend as much as I spent on the entire Steel Cauldron building just to get the kitchen right on a second venue – because that would lead to much better cost savings and efficiencies in the future.

"The worry about expanding is the workload, which during the summer was full-on. But now that the school holidays are finished, it's quieter during the week, and once we've got the new systems in place that I talked about last month, things should be running more smoothly. So I will have some free time. And I do enjoy working."

A focus on strategic decision making

"I want to design a job for myself that's about 30 hours a week of strategic decision-making within the business, and I think I can comfortably manage that with a couple of venues. It's not about the money – I'm really not that bothered about big profits – but like any game, you want to move up a level and challenge yourself with bigger things.

"I'm really excited about the concept of experiential hospitality and retail and developing what we do with that, because I don't think many people are doing it. I’d love to be a pioneer in this space and become an expert based on first-hand experience."

Update five: October 2021 – “Switching over to a new till system has been a nightmare”

When Rob Downham opened The Steel Cauldron with his wife last year, he knew the till system he launched with would need improving sometime soon, and that a "smarter" one could become the backbone of the whole business. D-day came in September, and while the end result will be worth it, the co-founder discovered that putting his faith in new tech was a challenge.

We chose our moment

"We decided to switch over our system after the school holidays had finished and before Halloween, when we'll be fully booked. So we settled on September to implement the changes, which were mainly to do with our till system, but have much wider implications that will affect the whole business. We knew it wouldn't be a walk in the park."

We got off to a bad start

"Our old till system was working fine when it came to recording whether someone had bought a retail product, some food or a drink, and it could help me do VAT returns, but it didn't allow us to take orders at the table from the customer, so we'd been relying on pen and paper. This had been leading to mistakes and delays, and it was critical to me that we needed some sort of hand-held device to sort out orders at the table and allow people to pay individually.

"We implemented that, but a whole load of IT issues came with it. Some days the order just didn't go through about half the time, and we quickly had to go back to our old pen and paper system. Other days we couldn't take any payments at all. The problem we had was that we were guinea pigs for this system, and there were some real problems with the IT install. I spent most of the month with the software provider, the till provider and the payment provider going round in circles."

We can see the light at the end of the tunnel

"I think by the end of this week we'll have the system exactly where we want it to be. If we were a big organisation, we'd have fully road-tested the new system behind the scenes and then had two systems up and running while making the switch, but we couldn't do that. It took a lot of negotiation with the various suppliers to get to where we want to be."

We'll have a rock-solid system going forwards

"Pretty soon, the new system will enable me to reduce staffing costs by about 20 per cent. The tech is costing me £50 a month more than what I was paying before, but I think it will save us £1,000 a month, so it's worth it. It will also let us stock control ingredients coming in, cross referencing them with a finished product, such as a Wizard's Tea: it will know exactly what was on that plate and give us really good, up-to-date feedback. We'll be able to take lots of data in and out of the system and that will open the doors to a new website which will allow for a much simpler customer journey and a much more efficient booking system."

We're looking forward to our second Halloween

"We've learned that if you advertise something, such as 'We're having a magician coming round the tables today,' people will sometimes leave a bad review if they don't get to see the magician – even though it's free. So with Halloween, we know we'll be busy – and rather than putting on extra events we've decided to be different and Halloween-y by decorating the bejesus out of the place, playing Halloween music and having a few other fun things that we don't need to shout about up front.

"At the moment, we are still having quite high staff absence rates due to Covid and related issues which makes guaranteeing certain specialist entertainment tricky."

Update six: November 2021 – “It's not going to get any easier, but you've got to keep on keeping on”

An ever-positive Rob Downham, co-founder of wizard-themed Sheffield venue The Steel Cauldron, has seen countless ups and downs over the past six months, and hones in on some of them in this short six-month video update.

Update seven: December 2021 – “It feels like we're having to park up certain plans because of Covid”

The hospitality sector has been one of the biggest casualties of the coronavirus, and Rob Downham, co-founder of wizard-themed venue The Steel Cauldron in Sheffield, is feeling the pandemic's pinch once again...

“The start of December was really quiet, not just for us, but for other people we've been talking to in the hospitality sector. I think it's a combination of bad weather – we had some heavy snow here in Sheffield – plus people not wanting to venture out and risk catching Covid in the run up to Christmas. I also think that during the first weekend of December people just decided to stay in and put their decorations up.

“The run-up to Christmas and even a week or so after look better because we've got a series of 'Eat, Drink and Santa' events which are proving to be a hit. One ongoing difficulty we have is with staffing, though – a lot of the staff are young, and there seems to be a 'misunderstanding' over the whole idea of start times for shifts. It's a drain trying to keep on top of that, as well as various absences.”

A new senior addition to the team

“The good news is that we have just taken on a really great, new senior employee – a very experienced guy who was the acting chief executive of Barnsley Civic Theatre. He's been in hospitality for 20 years, and I'm now in this transition period of handing over a lot of those staffing issues to him.

“My wife and I recognised that if we're going to have a lot of young staff within the business, we need to be able to invest in helping them to learn about the job, what's expected of them, and help them to grow into mature, sensible employees. Having someone dedicated to this should make a world of difference, and will also free me up to look at some of the other things I want to explore, such as opening a second venue.

“There have been lots of systems changes recently, which I've mentioned before – we've implemented new kitchen and till systems and they're now doing about 95 per cent of what I wanted them to do, which I think is as good as it is going to get because there have been lots of teething problems. I knew it was finally working, though, when I heard one of our less-technically-minded members of staff saying she really likes the new kitchen system.”

Maximising the mailing list

“One thing I definitely want to do is use the tech we're now using to start a new loyalty scheme. Considering we've only been trading for about seven months because of lockdowns, we've done amazingly well to have 15,000 names on our database, and when we email them almost half open the email. Our new tech will really let us start to take advantage of the database, and hopefully boost turnover, which was one of my business goals for 2021-22.

“We'll be closing for a couple of weeks in January to have a new kitchen installed – I am just looking at the capital allowances that the government has announced to encourage businesses to invest in improving their equipment. If I understand it right, we'll be able to spend £20,000 improving the kitchen but put more than that cost against my tax.

“I'm not waiting for the world to get 'normal' before we do ballsy things, but Covid is definitely making it really difficult to work at our full potential. We'll make money this year, we'll keep on planning for the future, and I'm not greedy – but it does feel like we're having to park things up a bit because running the business safely is more important than maximising every business opportunity.”

Rob Downham dressed as Santa at The Steel Cauldron

Despite staffing issues, The Steel Cauldron's festive events are proving to be a hit

Update eight: January 2022 – “I'm taking a little time off from the business”

It's been one knockback after another for Rob Downham, co-founder of wizard-themed venue The Steel Cauldron, whose optimism for his young business was dealt a hammer blow this Christmas when Covid prompted people to stay at home. In this short audio update, Rob explains why it's time to regroup and rethink his plans.

Update nine: February 2022 – “We both had Covid – and some time to think”

Last month Rob Downham was struggling to find much enthusiasm for his wizard-themed business, which had been knocked for six by the pandemic. Ironically, catching the virus himself this month has given Rob a new burst of energy – and an appetite for change.

"The whole family has just had Covid, which meant that my wife and I simply weren't able to go to work. I'd already taken a few weeks off to think about the business – including three lovely days in the Lakes with my parents – but hadn't really found the enthusiasm I had been hoping for to jump back in.

"But when we all caught Covid, we had no choice but to take more time off and basically let the staff get on with it. They worked flat out – not least because half the rest of the staff were off with Covid, too. They warned me that things had been so difficult – with some customers waiting 40 minutes or more for food and drinks – that we'd probably be getting some bad reviews.

"But we didn't. Out of 40 reviews we had during that period, all but one were five stars, and the one that wasn't was four. What it proved to us was that the staff were capable of performing without us.

"It comes back, in a way, to one of our key goals for 2021-22, which was to train up the staff. During quiet times in particular, we've been able to let more junior members of the team casually learn on the job – and it has paid off. When Nikki and I couldn't come in for our usual 16-hour-a-day shifts, the staff stepped up. They reinvented themselves to avoid a potential disaster.”

Inspiration from business books

“While we've been off, Nikki and I have spent a lot of time thinking about the business, and I've read and re-read a whole bunch of business books because I've had the time. We've settled on this idea of 'the one thing': what was the one thing we really wanted out of this business? And it wasn't to be able to buy a villa in Spain or a nice car – it was to get our work-life balance right. To be able to reduce the stress we currently feel, and only work around 20 hours a week each.

"Each day from 6.30am for an hour, we're now going to work out the single most important thing we want to accomplish that day. We're going to go to the gym every morning, and then go into work from 11 until four. Whenever we're there, we reckon the staff work 30 per cent less because we're there to pick up the slack. But we don't need to be. We've got a good general manager, and the staff have proven they can do it.”

Three new focal points

“The three main areas Nikki and I now want to focus on include marketing, because we're very good at that, and I feel confident that by really mastering it I can greatly increase our visitor numbers. The second thing is training – we're hoping to train staff members to do all the things that we currently do.

"The third was inspired by a young employee who kept letting us down by rejecting her shifts, and while it was tempting to send her an email saying she was fired after she'd done it so many times, instead I went to see her and discovered that her personal situation was really complicated, and that she actually needed a hand.

"So that has guided the third thing we want to work on – what kind of 'employer brand' is The Steel Cauldron? If we develop a clear idea of how we can work with and support our team, and everyone knows what's expected of them, there'll be less time wasted and agonising about how to deal with things when they come up. We also want to be decent human beings to our staff when they need our help.

"So, strange as it sounds, catching Covid may have been a blessing in disguise. It's allowed us to work out what to do next, and will hopefully free us up to be able to actually enjoy the business and concentrate on the things where we'll have the most impact.”

Rob with his parents in the Lake District

Update ten: March 2022 – “If we focus on making people happy, then the business will be successful”

Wise words from Rob, who reminds us in this short video update that there's room for some fun in everyone's life. He also explains how his plans to reduce his hours and work more "on" the business have been temporarily shelved while he and his wife fill in for some lost staff, but this too is an opportunity, he says.

Where to go next

Rob isn't the only leader sharing his journey this year. Six other businesses across the UK are providing monthly updates as they emerge from the coronavirus pandemic and work to achieve their "definition of success" statements.

Follow their progress so far:

Lessons learnt

Rob established an outdoor area to accommodate a small number of customers before they were able to open indoors.

When the only thing you can control is your time, put it to good use. Rob improved processes, changed the site layout and created products to sell in future.

Things don't always go to plan, so be prepared to adjust the goalposts when necessary.