'We were robbed' - Olympic dream turns nightmare...
... for Leyton small businesses
BY INGRID BROWN ASSOCIATE EDITOR — SPECIAL ASSIGNMENT firstname.lastname@example.org
LONDON, England — The concept was sold as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for small business operators in Leyton, East London: The tent-like food shops, which cost as much as £27,000 to rent, would attract thousands of persons attending the Olympic Games — as many as up to 80,000 per day.
But that dream has turned into a nightmare for the business operators, who are now forced to dump thousands of pounds of rotting food daily.
The operators, who are made up of Jamaicans and other ethnic minorities, say they re-mortgaged their homes and borrowed high-interest rate loans to pay for the small tent-like shops, stocking them with goods in anticipation of a bumper Olympic crowd.
However, a week after the start of the Games opened, the operators are yet to see even a handful of customers, as not even pedestrians are passing by the no-traffic stop zone.
When the Jamaica Observer visited the wayside shops, there was not a single customer in sight, but there were health and safety inspectors getting ready to dump hundreds of pounds of uncooked, seasoned meat which had gone bad.
The jerk pans, which should have been brimming with tasty Jamaican cuisine, were cold and many of the shutters remained down as several of the 33 operators had closed shop. Those who remained were at loss for words as they contemplated where they would get the money to repay their loans.
"I can't cry," said Talent Mundy-Castle, as she watched the health and safety officers inspecting hundreds of pounds of spoiled meat. "The disappointment is huge."
She told the Observer that she had re-mortgaged her home for £70,000, £27,000 of which she used to secure a stall. Mundy-Castle explained further that she purchased £6,000 worth of meat and £10,0000 worth of other items as well as hired eight women to work for four days to clean and season the meat.
"Now I don't even have £3,000 left in my account," she said, looking around in a daze.
The operators said they were only given one very small refrigerator to keep hundreds of pounds of meat, which they blamed for the spoilage.
An article, posted earlier this year on the North London Business website, spoke of how the local businesses jumped at the opportunity to participate in the Leyton Market project during the Olympic Games, brought to life by Skateco and North London Business on behalf of Waltham Forest Council.
It noted further that the purpose of the project was to ensure local businesses benefit from the increased footfall, estimated at 80,000 plus, that would flow through the Leyton area during the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Kevin Burke, a Jamaican operator, was hoping that the reggae music from his car stereo — which he had turned up at full blast — would have helped to pull customers. But even that proved useless as there was just no one around, as everyone was inside the Olympic Park where no outside food is allowed. The main food sponsors of the Games are fast food giant McDonald and Coca Cola.
"We were robbed," said Burke, who paid £10,000 to acquire his space, which he had stocked with food and flags for sale.
"Four days now mi ah cook and four days straight me haffi throw it away because dere is no one to buy it," he told the Observer, adding that he had thrown out more than £300 worth of food.
Pointing to the time, Burke said, "look, is midday and some ah we just opening; but at the same time we can't go ahead and cook because it won't sell," he lamented.
A Jamaican woman, who identified herself only as Antonette, was next to tears as she told the Observer how she and her husband took a loan from the bank to pay for the shop and even used the rent money to purchase food for sale.
She pointed to the contract signed between herself and Skateco UK Limited and which required her to pay £12,150 plus tax to operate at the wayside venue from July 27, the day the Games opened, to September 9 when the Paralympics end.
"This is daylight robbery and the most they can do is give us back the money we paid so we can give it back to the people we borrowed from, so at least we don't pay this high interest rate," she said.
The mother of three said she feels hopeless, as even if by some miracle people begin to stop by she had no money to restock.
"Every day people are just throwing away all that food. Some people have thrown out a minimum of £4,000 worth of food," she said
She said all efforts to speak to the Waltham Forest Council, which granted the licence, have proven futile as no one is willing to meet with them.
"The Council claimed that they only granted the licence but they [operators]should have done their checks...," she fumed.
The organisers, she said, erred in that they did not advertise the venue as promised, and also an entrance which was to have been created for Olympic patrons was blocked off. "The only customers we have seen are a few of the soldiers who were walking by looking for a hot meal. They said nobody in the village knows that we are here," Antonette said.
Another distraught operator, Tsitsi Makoni, pointed to the fact that the people who bought into the vision are all ethnic minorities and as such nothing is being done to help them.
"They want the big conglomerate to get the Olympic business first, and then whatever is left can trickle down to the small man; but that cannot be right," she said.
She believes the only acceptable solution to what she described as 'injustice' is for the operators to be given 20 days to sell inside the Olympic Park and for them to be refunded at least £5,000.
She further explained that her boss paid £40,000 to acquire two stalls and was promised his own refrigerator and toilet, but that did not happen.
Debra Alexis-Halimi, who operates a Jamaican food shop, explained that the contracts were signed between North London Business and the operators for close to £13,000, but that some persons had sublet their stalls for as much as £27,000.
"There is a man who paid £50,000 for the two stalls he has, and nobody can get back their money," she told the Observer.
She noted, however, that it would be difficult to make a case against the organisers as they provided what was promised in the contract, such as electricity, running water, security, and other amenities. The issue, she said, is not with the location, but simply that there were no customers.
She explained further that they were told they would have had access to all the passengers coming through the Leyton Station, but that had not been the case since most persons get off at Stratford Station and head directly into the main entrance to the Olympic Park.
"The expectation is what has not been met," she said.
She said they have since been promised by the Transport of London authorities that the trains would be staggered so that more could terminate in Leyton close to where the shops are located.
She also lamented the fact that the contract required them to set up shops too soon, long before the bumper crowd was expected.
"Maybe if we had all started today (yesterday) then it would not have been so bad because hopefully by the weekend when [Usain] Bolt is running the crowd would have increased," she said
Meanwhile, she said was fully aware of the risks and as such she did not invest more than she could afford to lose.
"I can remain calm, but many others cannot because they went ahead and took out loans," she said.