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Food retail has been a bright spot for the economy through the Covid-19 pandemic, thanks to the sector’s ‘essential’ status and rising demand for food products from home-bound consumers. For foodservice, the past 10 months have been another story completely.
While in the past many fine food retailers have sought to expand by establishing on-site cafés, food-to-go counters and restaurants, these ventures are now in danger as the UK remains in its third national lockdown. So what’s in store for the future of foodservice, and what can establishments do to ensure they make it through the remainder of the pandemic?
“Cafes and restaurants have indeed faced a challenge in terms of capturing consumer footfall over the last twelve months,” says Will Cowling of FMCG Gurus. But as he explains, the fight for the consumer’s pound isn’t new. “This was something that was already a battle even before the pandemic, due to high levels of discounting amongst foodservice chains and the growth of online ordering making competition even tougher.”
However, the pandemic invariably made the market even more challenging – and the coming months may not bring easy answers. “Once the pandemic is over, the foodservice industry will find itself at something of a crossroads,” Will says. “On one hand, consumers will want to go out and visit places in order to get lives back to normal. However, on the other hand, they will still be conscious about mass gatherings in public places. Reassurance around safety and menu innovation will be key in attracting consumers,” he adds.
Successful foodservice businesses have had to stay agile to adapt to the ever-changing Covid-19 rules. Unable to operate in the traditional sense, they have looked for ways to keep their business ticking over by offering takeaways or selling off their store cupboards. Will these changes be here to stay?
“I think the pandemic has actually aided business in this area when reopening commences,” says Bradley Gough, the founder of Groubook, a group booking app for bars and restaurants in Nottingham.
“Offering takeaways has been a lifeline to many businesses, and although it isn’t what they would normally make if they were fully open, I think it shows that operators can afford to be more dynamic and try new things. The pandemic has accelerated this change, and being more agile will enable and open another potential revenue source after restrictions are eased,” he continues.
Meal kits have been a hit with consumers who are looking to treat themselves. “This element of personalisation bridges the gap between diners and chefs as it enables customers to appreciate the craft of preparing a meal whilst having fun making a dish that suits their personal preference,” writes Trish Caddy, senior foodservice analyst, in a recent blog post for Mintel.
Trish notes that other operators have adapted by pivoting to mobile catering, simplifying their menus, and turning to social media. “We’ve noticed some restaurant chefs using Instagram to entertain and educate through cooking demonstrations or running live stream sessions that include making cocktails (eg. the “quarantini”) in real-time,” she writes.
Will believes that the industry can look to continue capitalising on the Covid disruption by creating community-based schemes. “Indeed, in times of uncertainty, consumers want brands to demonstrate traits such as kindness, compassion, and understanding to their needs. This includes the foodservice sector,” he says.
“Consumers will want foodservice outlets to demonstrate that they have their best interests at heart and those of the wider community. This means helping develop initiatives to deal with the wide-ranging implications of Covid-19 is something that will help shape consumer loyalty in the long-term,” Will adds. Retailers that operate foodservice businesses are in a strong position to make the most of both sides of their business when they join in with community-based schemes.
With Covid-19 vaccines making their way through the population, there is hope that the future might be brighter for cafés and restaurants.
While the ‘new normal’ will be with us for some time, foodservice outlets have shown that they’re keen to embrace new opportunities in the sector. But attracting customers post-Covid will come down to demonstrating safety protocols and offering a product that’s enticing enough to bring consumers back in store.
“If operators can weather the storm, there will be a huge increase in customers both in the door, and via takeaways and click and collects. I hope operators will see the industry bounce back even stronger,” Bradley says.
In the longer term, Will expects wider societal issues to be a significant driver of footfall as consumers seek out brands and businesses that mirror their outlook on life. “Foodservice outlets will need to show more commitment to addressing environmental issues than ever before. This goes beyond offering plant-based options on the menu and instead, demonstrating corporate and social responsibility along the supply chain and also as a key brand value of the outlet,” he says.
This is another area where farm shops and food halls are already making great strides – by prioritising local food and short supply chains and stocking products with a purpose – which they can bring into their foodservice operations.
“Food service has been and will continue to be a huge part of daily life,” Bradley adds. He believes that once the effects of Covid have faded, restaurants, cafés and pubs will once again return as a central part of consumers’ lives. “We’re a huge part of culture, society and relationships, and we will as a community and as a country be back out in droves.”