06 August 2020, 08:00 AM
  • Can innovative food independents hold onto some of their newly converted customers in a post-Covid world? Natasha Lovell-Smith of Great British Food meets the traders who have everything to play for
Lessons after lockdown: part one

The Covid-crisis proved that – with the routine convenience of supermarkets taken away – shoppers will wholeheartedly embrace the reassurances of local produce, quality and personal connection that only independents can offer. Already well-versed in innovation and adaptability, farm shops, markets and delis were uniquely well placed to think on their feet when lockdown was implemented, stepping up instantly to serve their communities and capturing the loyalty of locals in the process.

Stories of success
The UK food sector may be facing a time of unprecedented uncertainty, but with great change comes great opportunity. London’s Borough Market is an interesting case study in a food business coping – even thriving – under lockdown; a particularly remarkable feat considering how much Borough’s traders rely on the tourism trade. Managing director Darren Henaghan has been pleasantly surprised to see how quickly all aspects of the market have adapted: “‘Pivoting’ seems to be the word of 2020. Changes that would normally have taken weeks, months or even years have been implemented overnight,” states Darren. For example, Borough Market’s hugely popular Cookbook Club quickly moved over to Zoom, as did Borough Talks, where a panel of experts regularly discuss important food topics. “Going virtual has opened our events up to a whole new audience, so this is definitely something we’ll continue with in the future.”

There have also been some positive changes on the market floor. “During the lockdown, Borough Market has felt like a very different place to the crowded, slightly chaotic melee you’re probably familiar with, filled with visitors from far and wide. Clear, orderly queues. People buying, not just browsing. Before, it was more of a spectacle, a sensory overload,” says Charles Tebbutt of nut stall Food and Forest, who admits to missing some of the old buzz. But the change of pace created by the necessity of social distancing has brought with it a major benefit. Borough Market’s traders don’t just sell food; they also, each in their own way, tell stories — about regional cultures, production methods, sustainability and ethics — and those stories have found a bit more space to breathe. “The intense, crazy atmosphere of Borough Market on a normal Saturday afternoon wasn’t always conducive to having those conversations,” Charles explains “People now have a bit more time to listen, we have a bit of time to speak to them, and it’s nice to be able to showcase what we do.”

Shoppers are still abiding by the market’s Come Shop Leave mantra, but the steadier pace means traders have the headspace to interact more during the course of the transaction, and their customers — starved of human contact — are keen to listen and engage. Charles has been able to talk about the types of nuts he stocks, about the concept of agroforestry, about the small-scale, sustainable producers his customers are helping to support. Darren agrees: “Obviously things have been difficult for some of our traders, especially stalls selling hot food, but those offering staples like meat, fish, bread and fresh veg have found that customers are actually buying more. Before, largely because of the crowds, people generally just bought one or two items, but now they’re doing a proper shop because they have more space to browse and chat with producers. Traders love it because they have more time to really talk about their food and offer advice and recommendations to shoppers.” Darren has found that visitors are actually happy to queue if it means they can get around without the crowds. “It’s certainly something to consider for the future,” he adds.


Image: Borough Market

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