Haute cuisine to food bank: How one couple lost everything - and what happened next

Hugh finds fulfilment in his work nowadays (Supplied)
Hugh finds fulfilment in his work nowadays (Supplied)

Hugh McNeill remembers the moment he felt his life hit rock bottom. 

It was Christmas Day 2013 and despite smiling as he welcomed guests into his family-run restaurant in Warwickshire, he and his wife Debbie felt their world was falling apart.

"Everyone was celebrating but Debbie and I were in the middle of a nightmare," says Hugh, now 61. 

"We carried on smiling but we knew that when the guests had left, we would cease trading that day, let the staff go and close the doors for the final time. 

"We were losing £2000 a week and we had a mountain of debt piling up. It was heartbreaking."

The couple’s turnaround of fortunes is proof that anyone can fall on hard times. Until 2012, Hugh worked for Southampton County Council and Debbie was a community pastor. 

Read more: Food poverty at record levels – a children's book on food banks shows how normal it has become

But that year, they quit their jobs and moved back to Warwickshire to take care of their four-year-old granddaughter Charlie, whose mother had become too ill to look after her full-time.

Both Hugh and Debbie, 58, had backgrounds in hospitality and needed jobs that provided flexibility. They invested tens of thousands of pounds in the new restaurant but within weeks, they were losing money.

Hugh and Deb, before hard times hit. (Supplied)
Hugh and Deb, before hard times hit. (Supplied)

"We hold our hands up and say we didn’t do our homework, and running a restaurant is a lot more work than we realised," says Hugh. 

"Things started going wrong from the start – our location was next to a building site which put off customers, we were let down by chefs and everything that could go wrong went wrong. 

"It put an enormous strain on our marriage. Debbie and I barely saw each other because we were working opposite shifts and when we did see each other, we were consumed by the business and looking after Charlie. We were both exhausted."

Watch: Britons flock to food banks as COVID continues

The couple were left without an income and soon couldn’t pay their bills. Sadly, both were ineligible for benefits, due to being self-employed previously). 

When they realised they would not be able to feed themselves – or their little granddaughter – properly, they turned to their local foodbank in Coventry, founded by a friend Gavin Kibble MBE.

The menu of Hugh and Debs' restaurant
The menu of Hugh and Debs' restaurant
A dish at Castle Keep, the restaurant the couple lost. (Supplied)
A dish at Castle Keep, the restaurant the couple lost. (Supplied)

Sadly, they are far from a unique case. In 2008, around 26,000 people visited a food bank. Last year more than 2.5m people had to visit one, unable to buy basic essentials for their families.

"It’s not only the shame and guilt you feel when you have to turn to a food bank but you feel emotionally crippled when you set out to succeed in business but then fail," says Hugh. 

"Everything we had worked for was completely wiped away and all the time we had to present a normal front to our granddaughter, telling her to get up and get ready for school each day. It was really hard.

"We knew Gavin through our church and he had offered Debbie a part-time job in the church café. When he heard about our situation, he told us the food bank would support us and that came as such a huge relief.

Hugh began volunteering at Coventry food bank (Supplied)
Hugh began volunteering at Coventry food bank (Supplied)

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"But then Gavin asked me if I wanted to volunteer for the food bank and I wasn’t sure what to do. I needed to be job-hunting. But Debbie persuaded me to do it and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. 

"I didn’t realise how broken I’d become. I needed to be in a safe place, around people who didn’t judge me and build up my confidence again. That’s what volunteering did for me and I haven’t looked back.’

In fact, a year later Hugh became a paid project manager and has worked full-time for Coventry Food bank ever since. 

In June, it celebrated its tenth anniversary. With a 25,000 square foot warehouse, a dozen outlets around the local area and up to 200 volunteers, it is one of the largest foodbanks in the UK and last year they helped their 200,000th client. 

Now, they plan to open an education centre, develop more relationships with local businesses to offer job schemes and help people gain the skills to find employment in the future.

Hugh says he gets real fulfilment from being able to help others. (Supplied)
Hugh says he gets real fulfilment from being able to help others. (Supplied)

"Being part of the food bank is one of the most defining and rewarding things I’ve ever done," says Hugh. "We see it changing people’s lives all the time. One young lad came down last year with his dad and was too afraid to even come into the building. 

"He had anxiety and depression. I said to him: ‘Next time you come, just come into reception and I’ll have a cup of tea with you.’ So that’s what he did. Gradually, we built his confidence, he got a job in the warehouse and is in a new relationship.

"I’ll never forget how the food bank held Debbie and I up when we were at our lowest point and it’s an absolute honour and a privilege to do the same for other people."

Watch: COVID-19: 'Summer of closures' for hotels and restaurants

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