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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.

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."

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."

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.