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When products not only please the taste buds but keep heritage skills alive, create precious rural jobs and tell a story of a region, the buying public is invested in supporting those businesses that make, store, transport, and sell them.
In fact, our SME fine food chain holds so many cards when it comes to riding the rollercoaster of a global pandemic. Here’s our top 10.
The pandemic wasn’t the end of the world for Welsh distiller In The Welsh Wind; with staff furloughed and production shifted to hand sanitiser instead of fine craft gin, this small business battened down the hatches. But when it became clear that nearby Bluestone Brewing Company was facing tougher times, and planning to pour away 3,000 litres of beer intended for the pub trade, a daring collaboration took form.
“Alex is the kind of person who loves a challenge, and felt this couldn’t be allowed to happen,” says distiller Ellen Wakelam of her husband and distillery co-founder Alex Jungmayr. “Within a couple of days he’d worked out we could use it to make vinegar.”
Inspired, the distillers approached Orkney Craft Vinegar to buy a vinegar ‘mother’ culture and a bit of technical support; a Celtic collab was born. “It’s been in the barrel for six months and we’ve been tasting regularly,” says Ellen. “It’s almost ready to go. For us as a distillery our gin sales have been minimally impacted by the pandemic, but Bluestone has seen a massive impact on their business, so we hope the vinegar turns a profit and proves to be a valuable addition to the Welsh food scene.”
When the hospitality shutdown slashed demand for farmhouse and speciality cheeses, it just took a rallying cry from within the food industry to mobilise help. One of the clearest calls came from Jenny Linford, a food writer who felt compelled to act after sensing that her contacts and friends in the dairy industry were facing an existential crisis.
“I thought what is happening to these people – the retailers, the makers? There were things going wrong but there was no way to get out to speak to people.” Determined to tell cheesemakers’ stories Jenny rang around the artisan cheesemakers. “It’s incredibly powerful to hear the human voice angry or upset or frustrated, which everyone I spoke to was.” One of those was Graham Kirkham whose farmhouse Lancashire saw a 70% drop in demand overnight.
“His story really struck a chord with readers because it was really direct and powerful,” says Jenny. “He said, ‘I normally sell 120 to 150 cheeses a week; in the first week of shutdown I sold nine cheeses.’ It was a very stark message.” Jenny’s article caught the attention of mainstream media and soon broadsheets and food magazines and radio shows were each spreading her plea for consumers to support traditional farmhouse cheeses.
With Jamie Oliver, Nigel Slater and other icons of the British food scene also sounding the alarm, the buying public did indeed act, flooding cheesemakers with orders. “I think the cheesemakers were really heartened by that response, because it showed people cared,” says Jenny.
“Early on in the pandemic our big fear was that lots of brilliant producers would close down and our supply chain would fold,” says Laura Pickup, founder of e-tail platform Discover Delicious Wales. “So many of the fabulous rural producers in Wales supply food festivals, farmers’ markets and hospitality, we felt they’d struggle to survive.
“We set up originally to support amazing indies, so we took a step back to work out how we could help them through this impossible challenge,” says Laura. “We always try to practice what we preach; we don’t take a massive commission but we immediately removed it to make sure every penny we took went straight to the producers. The demand from consumers looking for those special and hard-to-find foods online increased so much that the impact of the pandemic was that we ended up with a lot more visitors and transactions.”
Food and drink SMEs have quite literally gone the extra mile since lockdown 1.0, with delivery services, postal meal kits, takeaway offers, mail order forms and e-tail platforms mushrooming to meet the needs of stay-at-home shoppers. Urban areas have seen eco biked deliveries blossom, while rural deliveries have offered businesses the chance to connect with new customers in their hour of need.
When Daniel Humphrey, director of whisky subscription service Summerton Club, realised his St Albans whisky festival would be a casualty of Covid restrictions he took the bold step of attempting a virtual event. “Instead of lamenting how it couldn’t be the same as our physical festival, I chose to focus on the positives of being virtual, such as being able to meet the actual whisky makers rather than the brand ambassadors that do shows,” says Daniel.
“The response from the whisky community was fantastic,” says Daniel, “supporting our efforts and making the hard work worth it.” As the pandemic has continued, Summerton has made efforts to improve contact with members, holding regular virtual pub evenings, launching a new community home on the social media platform Discord, and committing to making the virtual whisky festival an annual event. “The key thing is that instead of focussing on all that is not possible, we’ve taken this time to improve how we interact with our members,” says Daniel. “That’s something that will stay long after this period of lockdowns and social distancing is over.”
There are few stresses as heavy as safeguarding the livelihoods of staff; at Macknade Food Hall commercial director Shane Godwin was well aware of that responsibility. “People were naturally afraid at the start of the pandemic,” says Shane, “and while the majority of the population were able to furlough and shield away from the virus, we asked our team to come in every day and not miss a beat. It was a massive task for us to keep them safe.”
Retail workers have rightly been celebrated as key workers but in smaller retail outlets every member of staff really counts to the success of the organisation. “Paying wages was our number one priority,” says Shane. “I remember standing in front of everyone on day one and saying ‘Our number one goal is that we secure jobs.’ We worked really hard on team engagement: that transparency of regular written, verbal and video updates. With staff who were at home furloughed or doing jobs they never thought they’d do, being honest and open and engaging was important at a time when things were scary.”
When Hortense Julienne took her gourmet snack brand Miss Nang Treats from side hustle to main earner, she made big plans for 2020. Then the pandemic hit. “I was bewildered during the first lockdown,” says Hortense. “I could see that this thing was here to stay, so by the time we got out of the first lockdown I was preparing for the second.
“I joined a business academy, upgraded my website and got some knowledge on how to use Instagram effectively,” says Hortense. “I got over my perfectionist obsession and started looking at my business from a new perspective. I also stocked up on everything too: boxes, ribbons, ingredients, ink for the printer labels…”
The preparation paid off. “In November and December I sold more online than I’ve ever before. I’ve learnt to communicate via live video and be the visible person behind my brand. I used to hide, but no longer! My flavours are really quirky, and it’s a real pleasure to live chat with my Instagram audience about healthy snacking. My clients love it and that’s my joy.”
When the first lockdown saw interest in home baking spike, specialist mills found themselves in the eye of the storm. As the new COO of British spelt millers Sharpham Park, Tom Myatt has seen a spectacular transformation in sales. “When lockdown hit sales just went through the roof,” he says. “It was a case of all hands on deck to make sure we could meet demand. Luckily we had really good grain levels but the mill was working seven days a week.”
Scrambling to meet an explosion in demand isn’t easy, but the small team at Sharpham rose to the challenge. “We were all facing into the great unknown, but we had a tight management team headed by the leadership of Roger [owner and Mulberry founder Roger Saul]. We were able to turn on a sixpence. Our direct-to-consumer sales have seen massive growth. Around 15 months ago our website saw £3,000 a month in sales. That’s up to £65,000 a month.” Having solved packaging crises and haulage headaches early on Sharpham Park is now forging ahead. “We’re looking at expanding our operation: the warehouse and mill. We’ve seen customers buy into British spelt and home baking; organics and spelt for gut health are forecast to continue to grow.”
When it comes to sharing food stories far and wide on social media, fine food SMEs really are the kings of content. You may have seen a tearful Katie from Colchester Oysters share catastrophic news from their unreliable couriers, or a dusty Jane from Y Felin stonemill shouting over the din of the mill stones. Recent dramas playing out online include sledging through the vines at Ancre Hill vineyard, a huge haul of black winter truffles at Wiltshire Truffles, pink forced rhubarb bursting out of the laminated layers of a hundred craft bakeries, and so much more. How can multiples hope to contend?!
“Our initial model was a direct to-consumer offer so we provided the platform and did the marketing,” says Laura from Discover Delicious Wales. “Consumers could buy direct from the producer who’d fulfil the order themselves. That works for gifting but we began to see people putting lots in their basket and discovering the multiple delivery costs at the check-out: a bit off-putting. We quickly switched to working with a wholesaler to offer a consolidated delivery service for people wanting a standard grocery shop. It’s been a challenge for us to get the user journey right but we’ve seen a huge increase in traffic as shoppers look to support independent businesses with their grocery shop.”
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