Husband and wife duo Jonny and Christina Taylor have been fully booked this Christmas preparing for the festive season at both their establishments in Belfast, Shed Bistro on the Ormeau Road and fine dining restaurant Blank on the Malone Road.
Showing me a picture from the night before they bought Shed, Christina explains that the last five years have been a whirlwind.
“We didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into,” laughs Jonny.
Originally from Antrim, Jonny is both owner and head chef, having worked at senior level for some of the best-known chefs in the industry including Paul Rankin and Jamie Oliver.
We started doing the heat at home boxes during lockdown and that Christmas, when we weren’t allowed to open, we made up so many we couldn’t even get into the walk-in. If we hadn’t have done it we probably wouldn’t be here— Jonny Taylor
Christina, who is Slovakian, takes care of the front of house side of the business as well as marketing and social media.
“We tried to buy somewhere when we lived in Edinburgh and then the opportunity arose for me to move home,” explains Jonny.
“But the job that I had lined up fell through and I ended up in Shed, helping out the previous owner - she left me to it and I was running it pretty much like it was my restaurant.”
The couple officially bought Shed in 2018 and have made it a must-try - not only because of the quality of their food but also their iconic décor, from the big bright flowers and fairy lights around the outdoor area to the eye-catching bright red leather seats inside.
Buying and renovating a restaurant is no easy task, however, but it was not the only big change occurring in the couple’s life at the time.
“When we bought Shed, I was pregnant and we didn’t even know,” says Christina.
“We only found out about a month later and I was already around eight weeks.”
Since then, the couple’s business and partnership has gone from strength to strength, working on several successful initiatives together including opening Blank in 2021, which Michelin has named among the city’s best.
“We bought over Shed in 2018, we did a refurb in July 2019 and then we did another refurb in October 2020 where we doubled the size of the restaurant and moved the kitchen and then the following year, we opened Blank,” says Jonny.
“Our solicitor rang us and said they had somewhere for Christina and I to look at and we both said no, we thought it was far too early but he encouraged us to just come and look at it.
“We walked in, we could just see the restaurant, we could see it how we wanted it.”
“That was the end of us, we just completely fell in love with it,” adds Christina.
Boxing clever with ‘Heat at Home’
In addition to running the two restaurants the couple have also been offering Christmas ‘Heat at Home’ boxes since 2019.
“I obviously work a lot and I cannot be bothered cooking a Christmas dinner at home after I’ve worked so much. I had customers asking me if I could make them up a Christmas dinner they could just heat up at home,” Jonny recalls.
“So, we were doing it for people pre-Covid, but just for the regulars. We started doing the heat at home boxes during lockdown and that Christmas, when we weren’t allowed to open, we made up so many we couldn’t even get into the walk-in.”
It was a business-saver during a very difficult period: “If we hadn’t have done it we probably wouldn’t be here,” admits Jonny.
However, despite their success Jonny and Christina have felt the effects of the cost-of-living crisis just as much as the rest of the restaurant and hospitality industry.
“Every single week and every single month I’m looking at what we can trim or what we can do without,” explains Jonny. “We bought these napkins, and we wash them at home because a napkin is 35 pence each to wash, so we take them home three times a week.
“We have to put the wash on after 1am because that’s when the electricity is cheapest and it means we’re spending hours at home, when we’re not working, washing laundry.
“The biggest costs are gas and electricity, though. When we first opened Shed, we were paying £600 a month for electricity, it’s £2,500 now.
“Restaurants are lucky if they’re breaking even; one month we’ll break even, the next we might make a loss and when that happens you just have to decide what does get paid and hope the next month will be better.”
The biggest costs are gas and electricity, though. When we first opened Shed, we were paying £600 a month for electricity, it’s £2,500 now— Jonny Taylor
Although the current financial climate can cause major stress and anxiety, the couple still manages to give each diner an enjoyable experience at both Shed and Blank.
“The only thing you can do is make sure you are serving the best possible product all the time so that when people come in, they want to come back – I would rather close than jeopardise the quality of our food,” Jonny insists.
However, it is clear the couple’s relationship has also been a major factor in ensuring both their restaurants remain open.
“I could never do it without Jonny,” confesses Christina. “You need someone to lean on and the security of knowing that if something happens the other person will be there to help you fix it.”
Jonny says they each “have a very different skill set”. “I look after the kitchens and most of the financial side of stuff, Christina looks after front of house, branding and the hundred million things that I am just not capable of doing - I couldn’t do it without her either.”