Posted: 14/01/2022

Viral shift: how COVID changed the fine food world

While many sectors have not fared as well as independent food & drink during the global COVID-19 pandemic, ours has not been immune to change. FFD sought views from across the industry on the indelible marks coronavirus has left on the sector.

Nigel Bogle,
MD, The EPOS Bureau

We’re not out of it yet, so it’s difficult to say what the true impact of COVID will have been, but a lot has changed.

The fine food world has had to recognise that it can no longer do business in the way that it used to. Overnight, all those plans that people had been talking about carrying out “one day”,  got turned into “right now”. A lot of those businesses launched e-commerce operations and are now operating online. 

Even over these last 12 months where restrictions have been slacker, those food ordering apps, online stores, and other new technologies have remained. A lot of businesses that pre-COVID would have claimed that this is not their way of operating have seen that they now have the facility to serve the customers who prefer the old style of more personal service, as well as a new customer who prefers technology and doesn’t require the same level of service. 

It has made our sector think about how it is engaging with its customers. They have had to find new and innovative ways, and while some have gone back to more face-to-face interaction, that tech remains and provides an invaluable service to those businesses by allowing them to still offer that additional service. 

Consumers are changing, and the buzzword is convenience. People who were in their 20s are now in their 30s and they have grown up with online shopping and convenience retailing and the reality is that if it doesn’t suit the consumer these days, they’re going to shop elsewhere.

Simon MacDonnell,
MD, Papadeli

During its height, the pandemic had – if you can use the word – a positive effect on food retail, and it seems to have had a lasting impact on the way people shop. Since March 2020 we’ve had increased turnover in the shop. It has grown and shrunk, but we remain in a good position. 

There seems to have been a shift in the way people buy – supporting small businesses and embracing independent brands. Throughout lockdown, there was a massive shift because restaurants were closed – treats like truffle oil, chocolate and cheese were big sellers. While this hasn’t sustained at the same levels, those trends have continued. 

One big mark that COVID has left on the business is the closure of our café and scaling back of our foodservice operation. We closed it during the first lockdown to increase our retail space and haven’t gone back since – it’s just worked. We still do takeaway coffee. Our event and corporate catering has changed, too. We’ve dropped the corporate side of things in response to a huge drop in demand, and in search of an easier life. To balance things out, we’ve got a lot more people working from home in the area, so we’ve seen an increase in people picking up a nice lunch from us. 

As a result of these changes, we’ve now got a smaller workforce, but profit has not been impacted – we must be running a tighter ship now.

Caroline Bell,
MD, Shepherds Purse

This period has no doubt shaken everything up and caused much disruption. What we manage to create as we emerge is up to us, collectively. As speciality cheesemakers – with our strong connection to the land, animals, and agriculture, as well as to the kitchen table, hospitality, and retail – we have an important role to play.

There has been a resurgence in the interest and commitment to speciality cheese from the public. A connection has been forged to great quality cheese and to those who produce it with passion and commitment, and there is an increased desire to support and appreciate locally made produce. 

The legacy for us here at Shepherds Purse is a renewed vision and sharper focus on who we are, and the ways in which we can have a positive impact on all our stakeholders via our core purpose of making and distributing world-class artisan cheese. 

Health, great taste, and connection have been defined in our core values for a long time, and we’re working on ways to ensure that we express them in everything we do. I see “connection” as being of increasing importance. Food has such an important role in our traditions and rituals and in bringing people together, and cheese is such a beautiful reflection of our relationship with the land, and animals, nature’s cycles, and our own health. 

We speciality cheesemakers and artisan producers have an important role to play in demonstrating how that relationship and interconnectedness is to be honoured, treasured and valued going forward.

Paul Hargreaves,
CEO, Cotswold Fayre

Some obvious marks have been left on the industry, like the move towards e-commerce and the growth of speciality food and independent retail. However, there is no doubt that sustainability has become much more than a rather vague buzzword over the past couple of years, and if retailers and producers aren’t evidently demonstrating what they are doing to protect our planet, then they will see consumers vote with their feet.

I think the time to reflect and enjoy increased time in nature that many had at the beginning of the pandemic has bought this change on, and it is undoubtedly here to stay. 

The public has been, and is still, ahead of retailers on sustainability, but I don’t think this trend in our industry is wholly driven by consumers. Retailers like the ones we deal with know that they need to reduce carbon in their supply chains and increase their sustainability. So, anything that allows them to do that ticks a box. 

We are now being asked more about what plastic-free lines we sell, and next year we’re going to be highlighting those in our catalogues because we’re getting asked these questions more and more. 

It is likely that carbon labelling will become increasingly important. Some manufacturers are already declaring carbon neutrality and consumers will start to want to know more about the carbon impact of the food they are eating. 

In a recent survey of the new suppliers that have joined us this year, 57% of them said they were attracted to working with Cotswold Fayre because of our B Corp credentials. The certification has benefited us commercially in the last year or so, whereas that wasn’t something we’d seen going back.

Edward Berry, 
Owner, The Flying Fork food and retail consultancy

The big winner of the past two years has to be the farm shop. The failure of the supermarket supply chains gave an opportunity to the more nimble farm shops, who not only had stock but thought of interesting ways to engage with a new customer.

Those that found these people, showed they had stock and did it in a way that wasn’t going to scare them, offered a nice discovery for lots of people. Consumers found that these shops weren’t full of weird and wonderful overpriced stuff, they’re full of stuff that you really do want to buy, is tasty and isn’t eye-wateringly more than they would usually pay.

The biggest challenge of the legacy is holding on to these new customers. As predicted the multiples have come back fighting, but, as ever, most of the advertising and promotions are based on price, and our world is much more about everything else – flavour, provenance, sourcing, seasonality, health. We still have the advantage that these are nice places to shop, and there’s a real person on the till or the butcher’s counter. People enjoyed being exposed to experiential retail again. 

Supporting local has become a big trend during the pandemic, and you shouldn’t shy away from exploiting that. The trend grew because these people were there, they had stock when the multiples didn’t, they were prepared to be flexible, and they were prepared to deliver. So, we shouldn’t shy away from guilt-tripping people into supporting independent food businesses. Because, if we don’t, they will disappear.

Emma Mosey, 
Co-owner, Minskip Farm Shop

COVID has transformed the shop and the size of the business in a positive way, and that looks set to continue from what we’ve seen from our figures. It seems to have balanced out at about double the trade we were at before and it looks stable.

We opened our restaurant last July, and we also did a rebrand in March 2020, so we’ll never quite know the impact of those measures, but COVID has been kind to the business in many ways.

We would have never started doing deliveries, but the chaos of the first lockdown forced us into it, and we’re still doing them now. We were doing around 100 deliveries a day, Monday to Friday, in the first lockdown with two vans on the road. Now we’re doing a maximum of 10 per day, but we also deliver eggs locally – we were doing that anyway to cafés and restaurants – so it ties in with that delivery day. The costs were already there, we’re just making better use of the van.

We’ve been doing everything we can to get back to normal inside the shop and restaurant – we’ve only ever operated the café under COVID so it’s going to be great to run the restaurant now without any restrictions. We’ve made a success of it during COVID, so hopefully, that bears well for the future.

In some ways, it’s been enjoyable to have to meet these challenges, but it will be nice to have fewer of them.

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