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The consultant’s view: Julian Edwards FCSI

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The former chair of FCSI UK & Ireland outlines how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected the wider foodservice market in the UK

Up until March 2020 the UK and Ireland foodservice and hospitality landscape was one of accomplishment. The high street was enjoying some of the most diverse offers, where a simple idea would be captivated and propelled to stardom overnight – all thanks to the UK and Irish economy booming (as well as the bourgeoning tourist trade) and its people being hungry to try out the next best thing.

Commercial and public sector catering was equally enjoying stability in numbers and income allowing it to explore innovation, organic produce, new dietary income streams and accommodating any trend that had the potential for profit.

Then, within a few weeks while April and the spring was rolling out, sector by sector our industry started to close down. First, public venues, bars, restaurants, hotels then institutions – our schools, colleges and workplaces.

Now, for healthcare catering in hospitals, care homes and similar organisations it’s business as usual – well, busier than normal with demand increasing.

Some education establishments and workplaces are open for limited occupation with a much-reduced food offer. Statistically it is an unimaginable situation with most of the traditional foodservice and hospitality business sector in lockdown. And this will be the case for a while.

An entrepreneurial spirit

There has been a mixed bag of responses from organisations. With some accepting their fate and closing down quietly, others remodelled their businesses to become grocery and delivery outlets.

As an example, The Boardwalk Pub in Morecambe, Lancashire, sits on the seafront and survives a wet and windy winter with a committed regular trade, many of whom use the pub to avoid social isolation and loneliness. Within hours (of lockdown) entrepreneurial owner, Charlie, decided that the booming ready-meals delivery market was missing a trick and he decided to launch his own ‘beer by the pint’ service.

The Boardwalk now enjoys a seven-day operation delivering to its regular patrons at their own home freshly poured, from the keg, as well as other items, including “the gin and tonic experience” that comes with limes and ice.

A new move to technology allows for ordering and payment to be done via an app called Morecambe Eats, which follows similar national models. All deliveries are contactless, managed with social distancing safety rules and within the conditions of the Premises License.

The app has attracted new customers to the Boardwalk. In a town with many pubs, competition is stiff, and since launching the service at the beginning of lockdown, several other pubs have followed suit in offering a delivery service. Many organisations have raised their game substantially with greater demand from the poorest in society ­– a beacon of light has been shining on companies and charitable groups who are out there delivering food parcels, and rightly so as they are risking their own safety and security in the process.

Our National Health Service and key workers have been overwhelmed by the generosity of companies who have gone out of their way to feed and offer free and discounted goods. Many chefs from the closed sectors have donated their time and spirit to support these activities.

E-Foods, a company that provides purchasing services, has adapted its client support and opened itself up to the wider food service sector for un-interrupted supply a customer-focused organisations. Like many customer focused organisations including the likes of Brakes and Bidfood, E-Foods has dedicated their entire management team and boardroom to personally get ‘hands on’ with solutions, including personally delivering, and even donating, personal protective equipment (PPE) to those organisations who must have critical safety systems in place. 

Firefighting consultants

My company, GY5, predominantly focuses on contract management in the public sector. Since lockdown discussions started, we have been overwhelmed with providing solutions to both clients and their caterers.

While the UK government has been proactive in offering support to business with initiatives such as backed loans, rent rebates and the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, for public sector contracts, especially in schools, there has been an enormous task to disseminate the new government guidance and support packages and translate these into temporary contract changes and invoicing methods.

When each client is different, with differing criteria, assembling the right advice and guiding all parties through this has proved our greatest test.

Generally, our relationship with caterers is based on a firm but friendly approach. This applies to both awarding contracts and monitoring them. These days we are here, mainly, to ensure they get the right supplier relief so that they will survive as businesses and be ready to re-boot in due course.

We, at the FCSI UK & Ireland, have started video conferencing regularly in order to share and support – and inspire – each other. Our chair, Matthew Merritt-Harrison FCSI, led the last session, which invited all attendees to share what they were doing and discuss the impact the lockdown was having. The common thread was that we are all busy assisting suppliers, clients and contractors to get through this.

An equally common thread was expressed about the lack of human contact as being exceedingly difficult. And despite electronic communications there is no substitute for face-to face-meetings and getting together in our wonderful industry.

A changed world

We undertook our last audit at a client premises on Friday 20 March 2020. This entailed auditing food safety, customer engagement, food quality – taste, texture, temperature and appearance – and a client/caterer meeting to review the overall delivery of the service.

The session concluded with live feedback and an agreed list of actions for all parties to work on. Within days this client, like many others, closed their doors.

Since then business activity has changed. It has changed beyond recognition in the sense of the industry being all about people, face to face, eating and enjoying hospitality. It is now about online work group meetings, video calls, telephone conferences and the like.

So, we are virtually monitoring, or rather sorting out, temporary contracts and firefighting the numerous issues and even disputes that have arisen daily. So far, our clients have been brilliant and receptive of our continued monitoring, albeit virtually.

Contract awards and negotiations have equally taken on a new approach with extensions and re-financing to allow new contract periods to be based on flexible income targets with shared costs and rewards – how else can one estimate a turnover when at present we are dealing with a below 5% or zero customer base?

The way forward

There have been many hundreds of great examples of catering in uncertain times and compassion shown by our friends and colleagues in the food service and hospitality sector ­– and these companies and individuals will be remembered.

Society wants to get back together. It is desperate for social engagement and coupled with the determined spirit shown by our industry it will return better than ever. The way forward today is to make best use of any spare time for training, new systems development, allergen planning, menu development as well as new methods of safe working and service.

The next phase will be unlocking the doors and re-opening to a hungry and thirsty audience. They will be slow to show up at first, however. It is envisaged that consumer confidence will take time and we will need patience and a cool head.

Operating methods will need to change. The whole economy needs to show an upward trend, then our forbearance will pay dividends in the not too distant future.

So, let’s propel ourselves to this time next year. It’s May 2021 and the sun is out. Streets are bustling, parks are full, our seaside resorts are teaming with people – who would not normally be out this time of year, but, particularly after Covid-19, life more than ever will appear too short and everyday is to be enjoyed and embraced. Foodservice and hospitality is back – leaner, greener and safer than ever before.

Personally speaking, I cannot see it any other way.

Julian Edwards FCSI is the director of GY5.