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Britain’s food and drink industry has again been a tale of two halves as the third lockdown shut down the nation. While food retailers have started the year on a strong footing after a bumper end to 2020, for hospitality venues, it’s been another uphill challenge.
The government is seeking to crack down on rising Covid-19 transmission rates. In Scotland, even tougher rules were announced this week: from Saturday, only shops selling essential items will be allowed to offer click and collect, and customers won’t be able to go inside takeaway food and drink venues. Across the nation, some retailers are also making similar changes – John Lewis, for instance, is suspending its click and collect services.
For some shops, the difficulties of surviving the pandemic are starting to pile up. The Federation of Small Businesses’ (FSB) latest Small Business Index revealed that a record number of small shops are planning to close over the coming 12 months, putting the UK on course to lose more than a quarter of a million businesses.
Further help is needed to boost struggling businesses in 2021, argued FSB national chair Mike Cherry: “This government can stem losses and protect the businesses of the future, but only if it acts now.”
However, even with lower footfall at UK retail destinations, the local shopping boom has led many farm shops, food halls and other fine food retailers to be incredibly busy throughout the pandemic – and especially during lockdown periods.
Supermarkets have struggled to keep up with demand for home deliveries, and the multiples have faced tighter restrictions on numbers in store. As with previous lockdowns, this makes smaller, independent food shops more appealing to consumers – and some retailers have used this opportunity to develop innovative shopping ideas.
For instance, the team at Hillam-based farm shop Bert’s Barrow have ropened their award-winning drive-thru to provide a safer way for the local community to shop. With supermarkets limiting numbers and cases still rising, owner Charlotte Thompson told Speciality Food she expects business at the drive-thru to pick up.
The drive-thru utilises the shop’s barn, which in non-Covid times would be used for weddings and events. “We have lost our wedding and event venue and our destination customer, so we needed to find a USP, which we feel is the drive thru. It helps us, our lovely producers as we are still buying from them, and our customers,” she added.
Producers have also found innovative ways to continue getting their products in front of consumers during the pandemic. Napton Cidery in Warwickshire was forced to close a brand new tap room in 2020 before it had even opened. With no events or festivals, owners Jolyon and Charlotte Olivier had to rewrite their business plans.
“All these things have forced us to pivot our focus as a business and concentrate our efforts on local home deliveries and supporting our off-trade business partners,” explained Jolyon.
“To diversify our efforts we offered free local delivery to our customers throughout each lockdown, which is the least we can do to support our local cider enthusiasts in these challenging times,” he added.
Online sales have helped keep the business on its feet, while also fostering a sense of community spirit. “We have really enjoyed getting involved with the local deliveries and it has helped us get to know our local cider drinkers much better. We have been working closely with local businesses; co-promoting each other’s products, which has also been rather exciting,” Jolyon said. The business has launched a new crowdfunding campaign to help regrow after the unfortunate closure of its tap room.
Elsewhere, there is hope that the embattled foodservice sector will be able to gain further support after a motion to give a voice to the hospitality industry by appointing a Minister of Hospitality achieved cross-party support in Parliament. UKHospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls said it was clear that “a great many MPs” recognise that additional support will be necessary if the sector is to “survive and lead the national revival” in 2021.
But for those businesses that are able to keep their doors open, or continue making their products, innovation and flexibility appear to be the keys to success.