30 March 2020, 13:25 PM
  • At first glance one might assume that small food and drinks businesses would be some of the first casualties of the current coronavirus landscape with their lean ranges and limited cashflow, says Ian Hills of Purple Pilchard
Don’t bet against fleet-footed food & drink SMEs surviving the Coronavirus

There’s undoubtedly been uncomfortable consequences from overnight streamlining to worrying drop in orders BUT let’s not jump the gun and assume the worst because compact, fleet-footed brands are well versed in fighting for their futures.

According to Peter Craig, founder of Beckleberry’s, “We’ve returned to our ‘routes’ and restarted our home delivery service which is where our business began. The downturn has been difficult for us, since a lion’s share of our turnover was derived from the travel sector.  When planes were grounded, we hoped to limp through courtesy of our strong train, high street café and foodservice customers, however ‘social distancing’ put pay to that.” Home delivery was something Beckleberry’s had been meaning to revisit for years but never got round to. “Social media reached 30,000+ in a few days and the response from locals determined to support their local pud provider was incredible. This is a business venture,” concludes Peter, “that we’ll continue long after the current restrictions have been lifted.”

Dave Smith of Oxford Artisan Distillery is another brand custodian who refuses to get downbeat. “Having to stop on-site tours/close the distillery shop is a big, short-term setback but that’s all! Short-term we’ve focused our efforts on driving our online sales whilst fine-tuning our NPD priorities (making and laying down whiskey to cask), whilst also producing hand sanitiser for local hospital, health care and social services.”

Love Cocoa founder, James Cadbury concurs with changing priorities, “Thankfully our online sales are up 3000% compared to the same time the previous year. We’re also promoting random acts of kindness in partnership with the Duchess of York, by ensuring that for every product we sell, we donate another product to an NHS worker, providing them with a welcome pick-me-up after a long work shift.”

According to Alan Bird, Purition is one business whose fresh, nutritious (and long shelf life) profile means that the team’s finding itself with “less not more time as we blend, prepare and deliver daily.” There’s no doubt in Alan’s mind that the speed of change around food and drinks brands in the future is going to be significant, pointing to the fact that, “When the shops emptied, it wasn’t the processed, fatty or sugary foods that went first but the products with recognisable nutritional worth. In recent times plastic, carbon footprints and social purpose have been priorities. Moving forward I believe healthy and nutritional density will also get the recognition it deserves!”

Alan’s views certainly seem to resonate with those of Susan Gafsen (Pep & Lekker) and Amy Moring (Hunter & Gather). “As an ‘optimal health’ brand,” ponders Amy, “We’re noticing that our online channels are up whilst our independent stockists remain upbeat. From a supporting the community viewpoint Jeff and I will be initiating a series of ‘wellness Wednesday Instagram Lives’ where we’ll talk to key people within the industry, providing workshops/activities for people to join in with at home.”

Elsewhere Susan has focused on promoting the strong nutritional credentials of the Seed Snack range whilst promoting the benefits of healthy eating to everyone strong and fighting immunity. “With the help of a registered nutritionist we’ve written a series of posts for our various social media platforms that will provide positive messages, educate and inform. We’re also accelerating our innovation goals e.g. switching from sunflower to olive oil, to further enhance our nutritional credentials/ making our snacks paleo-friendly.”

As a luxury snacking range with a strong on-trade/supermarket presence, Made for Drinks has seen its sales drop by 70% overnight as food outlets prioritise essentials. “As a young business we’ve prioritised our team & cash position to protect employee jobs, a process that all nine of us were involved in, so we’re in the best position to explode back into the marketplace when things improve.  In the meantime we’re progressing longer-term goals, which include, removing all plastic from packaging, open & transparent supply chain/animal welfare standards by 2020 and completely carbon neutral by 2025! We’re also working with the local council to access our production facility to help feed the elderly and vulnerable of Maidenhead.”

Curiously, premium tier dog treat companies are enjoying significant uplifts in volumes domestic ally and overseas with foreign peers in full lockdown. According to Callum Griffiths of Clydach Farm, “We’re operating at six to seven times our usual weekly volumes and have had to adjust shift patterns to cover a 24/7 pick, pack and dispatch operation.” Prash Patwardhan (Pawfect Foods) says they’re benefitting from the fact that, “pet parents are paying greater attention to ingredient decks, comparing nutritional credentials whilst rejecting brands awash with ‘synthetic nasties’.”

In truth the more one digs the more cause for optimism one unearths. Fitch Brew Co’s Emily Fitchett tells us that, “the hospitality-orientated nature of our brand meant it was vital that we recalibrated our activities to online/direct to customers opportunities and export where we have a meaningful foothold. As for Purely Plantain founder Stef Pellegrino, “the slowing down has given us the crucial breathing space we required to review our business model, fast track new flavour plans and fine-tune our investment model for the long haul.”

In short, food and drink SMEs like everyone else are being buffeted in the current coronavirus storm but you certainly wouldn’t bet against them beating the odds one more time.

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