Gina Long talks to Infusions Group co-founder, award-winning chef John Jackaman and Sarah Stamp, director of operations about how they’ve re-emerged from the ashes, against all odds following the Covid-19 pandemic and a devastating fire

Eastern Daily Press: The new airstream outside Infusions. Pictured, from left, Sarah Stamp, Lou Jackaman and John JackamanThe new airstream outside Infusions. Pictured, from left, Sarah Stamp, Lou Jackaman and John Jackaman (Image: Archant)

John Jackaman and his wife Lou started this year ahead of the game. Their Infusions Group of companies was growing steadily and their biggest challenges were recruiting drivers and launching their new evening menu in their restaurant. Then, on Monday, March 16, the prime minister announced social distancing measures to reduce the potential impact of Covid-19, including the recommendation that people avoid pubs, hotels, and restaurants. That hit pubs and restaurants hard – the guidance was that they could stay open if they wanted to, but that people shouldn’t visit them, and that led to widespread confusion in the industry.

Sarah Stamp said: “What nobody seemed to think about was companies like us – suppliers to the hospitality trade. Infusions is a small family business, opened 18 years ago by a husband and wife team to supply dry goods to pubs, restaurants, and hotels across East Anglia.

“We employ 50 staff and have a restaurant and cookschool onsite as well as a website selling food, equipment and tableware to professional and domestic chefs worldwide.

“In short, if restaurants were to close, the bottom would literally fall out of our business.

Eastern Daily Press: The aftermath of the Infusions fire earlier this yearThe aftermath of the Infusions fire earlier this year (Image: Archant)

“That Monday night, our board worked through the night to hatch a plan. At that time, supermarket shortages were rife as people panic bought and so we decided to open our warehouse (which happened to be full of pasta and other coveted store cupboard essentials) to the general public to try and help the local community who were panic buying. Overnight we created a brand-new click and collect business, that allowed people to maintain the new ‘social distancing’ by ordering, paying online and collecting at a safe distance. We had staff delivering to local people who were shielding or isolating and the demand was huge with up to 200 orders a day.”

When the news came on Friday, March 20, that restaurants must close, it wasn’t a surprise to Infusions. They had extended their takeaway food offering in preparation, along with creating a new online contactless ordering and payment system, printed new menus and they were confident that with the ‘click and collect’ grocery service, although it would be tough initially, they would be able to weather the storm and keep trading.

However, on Saturday, March 21, while a small team was onsite operating the ‘click and collect’ service and their chefs were prepping for that day’s takeaway trade, a fire broke out in what was the company’s laundry room. The results were devastating. The fire quickly spread and within 10 minutes they had four fire appliances and about 30 firefighters in specialist breathing equipment tackling what had very quickly escalated to a huge blaze.

John, Lou, Sarah and the team stood and watched in tears, totally helpless and shellshocked, as great clouds of smoke billowed from the building that housed the restaurant, cookschool and bulk storage warehouse. Eighteen years of John and Lou’s lives literally, up in smoke. Then the awful realisation hit them, how lucky they had been – had the restaurant been open the car park would have been full of cars, the building full of 80 people tucking into breakfast. The consequences would have been unimaginable.

Looking back, John Jackaman said: “It was the darkest day. It was obvious immediately that the fire would have an extreme impact and that negotiating with insurance companies and contractors during a global pandemic was going to be complicated and slow. What also became obvious as that very long weekend drew to a close, was that the fire had destroyed our entire infrastructure. Our servers, phone lines, accounts office, directors office and bulk storage were now unsalvageable. So, with heavy hearts, we had no choice but to decide to furlough all 50 staff and take the unprecedented and heart-breaking step of temporarily ceasing to trade.

“The next two months were nothing short of horrific as only myself and Lou remained un-furloughed as the owners and between us, we set to work trying to protect the company, safeguard jobs and navigate the minefield of insurance.

“Eventually, after weeks of wrangling and providing information we got the news we had all been waiting for, that the claim had been processed and that we could finally start to rebuild. The phoenix would rise from the ashes.”

Although the restaurant won’t be open until later in the year, with the cookschool needing to be rebuilt and unlikely to be open until early 2021, they have now un-furloughed a core team of 10 and have reopened their grocery ‘click and collect’ and ‘courier services’ to both the public and trade. They are also supplying their core customers of hotels and restaurants many of whom have adapted to offer takeaway meals or are starting to look towards reopening themselves.

Most excitingly of all, they have acquired an original 1960s US Airstream which has been converted with a stone-fired pizza oven and as of this coming Wednesday, they will be back to doing what they do best, feeding people with love as they launch their new ICE takeaway service, offering pizzas, burgers and more.

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