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Over the course of the pandemic, a curious thing happened in the food and drink sector. Communities came together, virtual events emerged and expanded linking like-minded consumers, and businesses teamed up to help one another through a challenging time. “Despite it being very tough for so many people during the pandemic, communities really did come together and rally round; from neighbours supporting each other, to the central role small businesses played,” said Michelle Ovens, founder of Small Business Britain.
Small businesses played an outsized role in their local areas, from providing food and drink essentials to offering a place where customers could safely shop and socialise. “Independent retailers are the beating hearts of their communities and do so much more than just sell goods to customers,” says Narinder Randhawa, national president of the Federation of Independent Retailers (NFRN). “They get to know their regular customers personally and build up relationships that can continue for years, something that larger businesses such as supermarkets can’t offer.”
Not only do independents “genuinely care” about their customers, Michelle says, but they also help keep local people connected. “Whether it was a local greengrocer stepping up with veg box deliveries or the independent restaurant that started doing takeaways, it was often the local independents who went out of their way to help vulnerable people and the NHS, and to make sure people had access to everything from essentials to little luxuries,” Michelle says.
The nation’s appreciation for small firms has reflected these kindnesses, as it reached an all-time high. A survey by Small Business Saturday and American Express found that over half (51%) of people support small businesses more than since before the pandemic, and almost half (49%) feel more positive towards small businesses.
During the pandemic, so many indie retailers stepped up to the plate that the NFRN launched the Shop Local, Shop Little Heroes Awards to recognise members that went above and beyond to support their local communities. One winning pair was Dennis and Linda Williams, who own a convenience store in Edinburgh. “Dennis and Linda set up a set up a hardship fund at the beginning of the first Covid-19 lockdown to help people in their local community who found themselves up against hard times due to the impact of the pandemic,” Narinder says. “To the couple’s amazement, they raised a total of £9,000 in donations from the local community, including a £1,000 donation from Dennis and Linda themselves.” The fund went towards local community members’ bills, shopping vouchers and travel arrangements for locals requiring social care.
When crisis hit, independent retailers and other food industry players acted. But while there are many great examples of how members of the fine food industry responded to the Covid crisis, how can indies keep this community spirit alive post-lockdown, as consumers lives return to a ‘new normal’?
“Firms survived during Covid through adapting to support their customers in new ways,” Michelle says. “The entrepreneurial instincts kicked in, and with the right support, many were able to pivot into new opportunities and avenues, particularly through embracing digital.” Going forwards, she says, it will be important to keep this agile mindset at the fore. “There is huge affection for small businesses, and that is a massive platform to build from,” Michelle says. “Small retailers need to look at their customer base, their local community, and really focus on how they can support people, what they can offer that will resonate and how they will engage them through various channels, particularly online. People want connection and community and small businesses build this, so this is a huge asset they can fire up.”
Narinder agrees that shoppers have started to recognise and appreciate independent retailers’ commitment to their communities, with footfall remaining high. “Even after restrictions were eased, many NFRN members have maintained free deliveries to elderly and vulnerable customers and continue to provide such services as free hot meals and make donations to food banks and other good causes,” he said.
With these examples, one thing is clear: while Covid has caused incalculable, irreparable damage, it also acted as a wake-up call for communities to the services and products their local shops provide. Post-Covid, Michelle says small businesses will take on a larger role in their communities. “The small businesses that make up our local communities, high streets and supply chains will be the driving force behind jobs and economic growth,” she says. “People are now a lot more aware of just how vital small businesses are not just to the economy but to our lives, and that they need to back them for the long-term.”
Shane Godwin, MD at Macknade, has put community at the centre of the business
Community is at the very heart of Macknade and has been for generations. We believe in focusing on what our customers want and ensure we deliver it at every level. Our trilogy of communities –team, customers and suppliers – work harmoniously across every facet of our business, enabling each and every person to truly feel part of what Macknade is to them.
There’s no question about it: communities revolve and grow around food and drink. Our ethos is to create favourite spaces for our customers. So whether they are shopping for fresh produce and specialist ingredients or staying to enjoy a coffee or meal with family and friends in our stores, everyone feels included and comfortable.
The last 18 months have proved to us how important our community is. Covid highlighted the great things we were already doing but also gave us the confidence to engage with different communities in the county and fine-tune our offer to ensure all customers continue to feel safe and valued across all touch points of our organisation.
Paul and Debora Rees, co-founders of Copper Bay Seafood, strengthened their community through e-commerce
We’ve been working with the local fish industry for over 30 years, and the Welsh community has always been at the heart of our business, directly impacting how we operate day-to-day. The importance of building communities was even more prevalent when we trialled our services online for the first time during the pandemic – a pivot that was vital for our customers. After receiving unprecedented support from both our loyal and new customers alike and following a successful trial run we were able to move the brand online permanently.
Local fisherman and suppliers are pivotal to sustaining our success as a business. This was particularly true when we took the leap to move our services online, because we needed their support to meet the high demand during the successful trial run mid-pandemic. Launching our e-commerce site gave us the chance to connect with many new customers, meaning our community has significantly grown and has continued to do so post-Covid.
Jamie Spafford, co-founder of SORTEDfood, explains how online communities can flourish
Our ‘community’ started as our group of friends from school. Over time, more and more people joined in the conversation with us on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, turning SORTEDfood into this incredible community of food lovers around the world. Thanks to the power of social media, we were able to reach people in countries around the world and allow them to join in the conversation with us.
Food and drink is one of the most exciting and innovative sectors to be involved in, and it wouldn’t be possible without the amazing communities of people who support each other and share their passion. We’ve managed to meet so many of our community members from around the world ‘in real life’ on our travels, but online communities really allow conversations to flow regardless of geography – it’s amazing to think about people from all over the world with different backgrounds, different outlooks on life, different traditions, all coming together to share a love for food.
When creating community, there are no shortcuts – it takes time to build trust and relationships with people. It’s something we’ve been working on for over a decade and we’re still learning every day. So be patient and open yourself up to new conversations and new perspectives… you never know where it might lead!
Nidhi Verma, co-founder of The Cookaway, found a way to bring joy to cooking for consumers
We’ve built a strong community of foodies over the last year and a loyal following for our live cookalongs with chefs. We continue to grow our B2C community with each new cuisine launched, especially as our chefs act as Cookaway ambassadors co-promoting the menus.
The time spent in lockdown changed how we think about home cooking – it gave people the chance to re-connect with their passion for home cooking and experiment with different ingredients and more complicated dishes. In addition, the increase in video communication necessitated by the pandemic meant consumers quickly became aware of the potential of virtual experiences. As we move forward, we see the trend for home cooking, particularly community-based cooking, evolving as companies like ours make it easier for people to access authentic ingredients, create adventurous, restaurant-quality cuisines and help them enjoy cooking experiences in the comfort of their own kitchens.
Tom Harrow is co-founder and wine director at Honest Grapes, which helped consumers find solace in good food during the pandemic
Nathan and I first started Honest Grapes seven years ago, and the guiding principles have stayed largely the same: to create a lovely wine club with thrilling wines, a vibrant community, fun social tasting events, and a back-to-basics, no-nonsense approach to wine.
We normally host as many as 200+ physical tastings a year, so Covid naturally had a huge impact. Our events are part of the lifeblood of Honest Grapes, so we quickly took them online with the launch of Wine Therapy, a series of online tastings bringing wine lovers together, sharing a glass across a screen. We were one of the first wine clubs to take their tastings online with our Wine Therapy Sessions: Around the World in 48 Wines, an explorative, escapist series of tastings. Honest Grapes doubled in size during the last financial year, and we’re looking to do at least the same this year.
Physical tastings have definitely picked up speed again, although we are anticipating continued demand for online tastings. At the end of September, we also hosted our first hybrid event, with London-based club members joining us in Knightsbridge for a guided tasting with Burgundy superstars Domaine de la Pousse d’Or. Those unable to attend in person received tasting packs of the wines and joined us via Zoom. It was a resounding success, and we certainly plan on hosting more of these!