26 February 2021, 10:28 AM
  • Cautious lockdown exit plans have been announced in England, but in Scotland fine food retailers are calling for further guidance
“Speciality food businesses need clarity”: businesses react to reopening plans

The government has confirmed its lockdown exit plan, giving food retailers whose on-site hospitality businesses have been shut throughout the latest round of closures a roadmap to reopening – but businesses have had mixed reactions to the announcements.

Emma Mosey of York-based Minskip Farm Shop had planned to open an on-site egg restaurant Yolk Farm Kitchen in April 2020, however due to the pandemic the team was forced to delay the launch until July and then close shop during the autumn and winter lockdowns. She told Speciality Food, “We are really pleased that we’ve been given a date to work towards for both outdoor and indoor hospitality, and plenty of notice to plan our re-launch.”

Under the government’s plans, hospitality venues in England will be able to serve customers outdoors from no earlier than 12th April. Customers will not need to order a substantial meal with alcoholic drinks, and there will be no curfew in place, though table service will be required.

From 17th May at the earliest, restaurants, pubs and hotels will be able to reopen indoors in England, though the rule of six will apply. In Scotland, meanwhile, restaurants will be allowed to reopen from 26th April at the earliest. More details around the plan are due to be announced in March.

Wales and Northern Ireland have yet to announce their reopening plans, although Northern Ireland first minister Arlene Foster said a decision-making framework would be revealed on 1st March.

The plans could have significant impacts for retailers and hospitality venues alike, as footfall at high street destinations is expected to rocket nearly 60% when non-essential retail and outdoor hospitality reopen in England, according to Springboard. “By mid-April, consumers will be looking for sensory and social retail experiences,” said insights director Diane Wehrle. “We are anticipating a strong initial uplift in April that will continue to rise over the summer months as the economy reopens in the UK.”

In the weeks and months leading up to the reopening, Emma said staff will use the time to finesse the operations and services of the café “so we can be on our A-game on reopening”. She added: “We are also looking to the future with positivity and excitement.”

“Muddled announcement”

This attitude was not reflected across the industry, however. In Scotland, hospitality owners have called for more clarity. “We know on the 26th April that we’re going to be open in some way – that’s a date that we can look forward to, but we don’t know whether it’s going to be outside trading or inside trading, we don’t know whether we’re going to be serving food, no alcohol, nothing,” Stephen Montgomery, of the Scottish Hospitality Group told the BBC.

Retailers like Balgove Larder in Fife, which in addition to its farm shop runs a café and a Steak Barn restaurant, are also pushing for a clearer plan on the easing of lockdown restrictions for the hospitality industry.

“We are so grateful to our loyal local customers here at Balgove Larder, but we are also desperate to operate in a safe and secure manner and can’t understand why we aren’t able to do so based on current reducing Covid case levels,” owner Will Docker told Speciality Food.

Will said Balgove is keen to bring team members back from furlough, but without a clear date for reopening this isn’t possible. “Our team is eager to return from furlough and we dearly want to expand our takeaway offering to enable them to do so. However, we are left without clear explanations for how outdoor and indoor hospitality will look this spring let alone summer. Businesses need further concise guidance from both the Scottish Government and local councils,” he argued. “We cannot even begin to plan our return to trade based on interpretations from today’s muddled announcement.”

Event planning is also up in the air in Scotland with the details of the reopening timeline yet to be ironed out. Rosie Jack, manager at Bowhouse, said, “Many speciality food businesses in Scotland such as ourselves need clarity and a suggested timeline of re-opening from the Scottish Government for planning any events this year.” Bowhouse’s monthly market weekends will be affected by any changes to lockdown rules as visitors and traders come from across the country.

Elsewhere in England, business owners such as Johnnie Arkwright of Hatton Estates in Warwick, which includes The Hatton Arms pub, feel it is a “massive blow” not to be able to reopen outdoor areas for hospitality venues in time for Easter. “None of us want another false dawn again, but when we were allowed to open last year we entertained over a thousand people a day without a single Covid case by taking sensible precautions – pre-booking so we could Track and Trace, restricting numbers online, not opening enclosed areas, taking temperatures, installing social distance markers and so on,” he said.

Fine food independents have been applauded for their nimble reactions during the Covid-19 pandemic, and this will stand them in good stead once again as the UK approaches an eventual end to lockdown restrictions. Until the details are announced, it will pay to take a flexible approach.

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