Posted: 13/05/2020

Industry prepares for change as government introduces new COVID measures

Following a raft of government announcements, fine food businesses have told FFD that they are relieved that support will continue but are also preparing for changes to their working patterns as the coronavirus situation develops.

As well as a loosening of lockdown and workplace restrictions, the government has also extended the furlough scheme until October and given garden centres the all-clear to re-open to the public.

In response, businesses have been increasing their safety measures and anticipating increases in trade, including more people in stores.

‘People are saying let’s go for it’

At Delilah Fine Foods in Nottingham, owner Sangita Tryner said she had already noticed changes in the movement of people.

Sangita Tryner

“It was busy in the city yesterday,” she told FFD. “I was surprised by how quickly it’s happened after the announcement, but people are saying ‘Let’s go for it’.” 

The shop is currently open on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, with Tryner selling online and doing home deliveries alongside, but she now wants to concentrate on restoring the shop.

“We’ve gone from doing the day-to-day to looking for big orders. Satisfying one customer takes a lot longer online but then the basket spend is bigger,” she said. “The web is going to be a bigger part of our offer going forward because we’ve learned how to do it better.

“We are now looking at how we can get Delilah physically up and running again.”

Tryner has been exploring how she can make her physical shopping experience safer for customers, and one solution is paring down her range.

“You’re going to have less space in the shop for that because your customers need space to walk around. We’re going to have to get rid of a couple of units.”

She added that her plan for the café area in the future would see her reduce 77 covers to 22, in order to be safe, and even then the seating would just be for consuming takeaway food – rather than table service.

While the extension of the furlough scheme will prove to be a relief for retailers like Delilah, Tryner said she was still concerned about costs she might have to bear as an employer. She told FFD that staff holidays were a tricky situation because any time taken off during the furlough period would have to be paid by her, the employer – not covered by the government. Ignoring this cost would only lead to problems further down the line.

“You bring your employees back because you need them and then they’ll have to take their holiday,” she said.

‘Tremendous contribution from the government’

The retail director of one popular West Midlands farm shop has breathed a sigh of relief at the chancellor’s announcement that the furlough scheme will be extended, but has ramped up the shop’s PPE in anticipation of an increase in footfall.

Ian Comer

With 62% of Becketts Farm staff on furlough, Ian Comer said he was delighted to hear Rishi Sunak’s announcement of the four-month extension to the government’s support. “This is a tremendous contribution from the government and will certainly sustain our loyal workforce during such uncertain times, we look forward to working with them again at some point in the future,” he said.

The shop has recently introduced new transparent screens, completely shielding all staff from customers at the tills. “They work very well,” said Comer. “We have a developments team on the payroll and they quickly manufactured them for us.”

Comer also hopes that those who have frequented Becketts Farm shop during lockdown – taking advantage of the consistent stock, lack of inflated prices and safe shopping environment – remain loyal as restrictions are eased.

He added: “Having our own bakery on site, we have flour and yeast in abundance and this has really attracted lots of new clients to us, I understand the larger supermarkets have been unable to satisfy the demand.

“Only time will tell if they remain customers for the future.”

Comer said that overall the farm shop has seen trade up around 80% consistently since mid-March (year-on-year), but that its food-to-go operations had suffered. Despite this, he kept them open. 

“We are now seeing a slow return to normal turnover,” he said. “We took the decision to keep these departments open, some staff were re-deployed on other sections and many emergency service workers have really appreciated still being able to grab some food mid shift to keep them going.”

‘They’re doing the right thing’

Anthony and Sue Johns

North Devon deli owners Sue and Anthony Johns are predicting a small boost to trade as restrictions on travel are relaxed and people are allowed to meet others outside their households but are not expecting a large influx of day trippers that many rural areas are braced for.

“The tourists have been so compliant so far, bar a handful in the minority, and we think that they’ll still stay away for theirs and our safety,” said Sue Johns, who runs shops in the villages of Instow and Appledore.

As previously reported in FFD, the owners of Johns of Instow are looking forward to the return of loyal out-of-town customers when restrictions are eased further. “We get messages every day from people missing the area and Johns, which is very special but they’re doing the right thing,” she said.

‘There’s no clear direction’

The owner of preserve and condiment maker The Bay Tree was trying to source face masks, when FFD contacted her this week.

Emma Macdonald

Having slowed and staggered production over the last few weeks, Emma MacDonald is now gearing up for a sustained period of activity at the company’s Ivybridge site, with at least a month’s worth of work scheduled from 25th May onwards.

While demand has been steady from food retail customers – large and small – The Bay Tree has also received some unexpected orders from foodservice distributors and MacDonald is also expecting her garden centre customers to re-emerge now they have permission from the government. 

“I expect the likes of Dobbies and Notcutts will open to support the nurseries, because they are in a desperate state. If they don’t sell their plants in the next month it would be a disaster.”

Like many in the industry, MacDonald said there is a good chance Christmas will be successful and has not adjusted her plans for stock levels up or down.

“Restaurants might still be struggling by December but the retail side won’t be any different,” she said. “Whether they are going into a shop or buying it online, I think everyone will want a very decent party.

“If we don’t get a second spike people will want a family gathering.”

But MacDonald also told FFD that, despite the upturn in production, gearing up for it and getting people back to work is not straightforward.

“We, as employers, are keen to get people back to work and we’re going to have to put in measures for employees to feel safe and comfortable,” she said, adding that all staff would be consulted whether the PPE and other measures put in place were working for them too.

“But what we realised on Monday is that there’s no clear direction,” she said, adding that the furlough legislation doesn’t cover certain situations that most employers will encounter – staff who have children.

“Legally, you’re not allow to furlough people just because they don’t have childcare. That’s not how they set out the legislative act.”

 “How is the employer being supported? If you get this wrong, you could be in breach of contractual agreements.”

Read more industry news and views in the latest edition of Fine Food Digest – read online here.

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