‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.’ Charles Darwin’s famous quote could well be a mantra for our times.
In the space of a week, supermarkets went from being well-stocked establishments to apocalyptic wastelands devoid of toilet roll and eggs. Restaurants, cafés, bars and pubs were decimated overnight – a potential disaster when you consider Britain’s hospitality industry contributes more than £120bn a year to the economy, which is more than the automotive, pharmaceuticals and aeronautics industries combined.
Yet some businesses are not only surviving, but thriving. Here's how…
Weeks into lockdown and it’s still very difficult to book a supermarket delivery. Hail existing services rising to the challenge, and to the demand, by scaling up to fill the gaps. Milk and grocery delivery service Milk & More already made 1.3 million deliveries a week. They’ve had to advertise for 100 additional milkmen and women to join their 1,000 strong team to meet extra demand from 25,000 new sign-ups.
New businesses are capitalising on the new world order, too. The Ethical Butcher launched as a startup e-commerce site in February 2020. Two months later, co-founder Farshad Kazemian saw they were meeting a level of demand they’d anticipated to hit in year three. ‘Our sales increased by 1,000 per cent from February to March,' he says. 'We’ve had to make major internal structural improvements to adapt, have tripled our workforce and already outgrown the original premises we used for processing our meat.’
Glass milk bottles on the doorstep aren’t the only traditions seeing a revival. Sainsbury’s has repurposed one of its smaller outlets at Blackfriars in London as what they're calling a ‘dark convenience store’, functioning as a hub for a cycle delivery service called Chop Chop. In a nod to the grocer’s and butcher’s bikes of the 1950s, essential groceries are biked the same day to customers living within 3km of the shop.
Some shoppers are abandoning supermarkets altogether, returning to the local greengrocer, butcher and fishmonger. Many restaurants and cafés with guaranteed supply chains from wholesalers have also reinvented themselves as these traditional shops, filling a gap for their communities. These include 11 Leon stores, Quality Chop House, Petersham Nurseries and Top Cuvée, which has renamed itself Shop Cuvée for the duration.
Many restaurants have concentrated on serving the same clientele, just in a different way. Deliveroo reported almost 3,000 new UK restaurants registering on its platform in March, including Dishoom, Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant Hakkasan, and Restaurant Gordon Ramsay.
Others are reaching a new audience entirely and going direct to the consumer. Karol Chamera, AKA Mr Lemonade, has sold craft drinks brands to restaurants, cafés and bars across London for four years. Now he’s switched to selling to retail consumers through his website, offering next-day delivery.
Max Bergius, founder of fish curers and smokers Secret Smokehouse, has also moved his business into a new territory. ‘Fortnum & Mason may have closed their doors, but a huge surge in online sales mean they’re currently sending out 5,000 parcels a day from us,’ he says. ‘Retail packs take much more manpower to slice, pack and label, versus when we were selling whole sides to restaurants and hotels. Our hope is all this amazing direct-to-customer demand will stick.’
Under normal circumstances, Natoora supplies high-quality organic and artisan produce to restaurants in London, Paris and New York. But its founder, Franco Fubini, faced the prospect of losing 30 per cent of his workforce and 60 per cent of his business once the lockdown came into force. Natoora began to offer deliveries to retail consumers and since then, it’s not only matched but increased turnover in both the US and UK. ‘Our ability to reach this number of customers, to be able to promote seasonality, eating from better sources and improving the food system, is a golden opportunity for us to reach a wider audience and to have a greater impact,' he says.
You wouldn't necessarily expect to buy groceries from a wine shop, but that’s exactly what Passione Vino is offering during lockdown. In line with its Italian branding, Passione Vino expanded its offering to include olive oil, cheese, pesto, and stuffed pastas along with matched wines.
Covent Garden-based seafood bar and kitchen The Oystermen has expanded to offer next-day delivery of fresh fish from the coast, along with meat, fruit and vegetables direct from New Covent Garden. In fact, the only thing you can't buy from them are oysters, which can’t be kept fresh enough to deliver.
And the reinventions continue. Neither Bao in Soho, known for round-the-block queues for its Asian buns, nor Nanban in Seven Dials Market, famous for ramen, are selling what they’re renowned for. Instead, they’ve launched Rice Error and Little Nanban respectively to offer delivery-friendly rice dishes.
The lockdown has forced some businesses to focus on one key proposition. Highball Brands, a luxury drinks distribution company with a portfolio of spirits, has partnered with bars in London and Manchester to create The Drinks Drop. This gives bartenders jobs as ‘delivery-tenders’, serving drinks in chilled pouches to make sure consumers enjoy them at their best.
Collectiv Food, meanwhile, saw speed as its USP when noting the waiting times people were experiencing. Focusing on its existing capacity for same-day restaurant delivery, it now offers a ‘within the hour’ consumer food service called Farmshop.
Founder Jeremy Hibbert-Garibaldi explains: ‘We realised our supply chain was still up and running, and thought we could redirect their great products to end-consumers. It took us 10 days to build our landing page, put the logistics, stock and inventory management in place, set up a kitchen in Battersea, create the new branding and marketing assets, and then start. It’s been exciting for the team, and is helping us to create a supportive and great community.’
Perhaps the most nimble of all food businesses is the corner shop, which has seen competition over the decades from supermarket convenience stores. During the lockdown, corner shops have proved to be community lifelines. Figures from The Retail Data Partnership shows that convenience stores have on average posted a 35 per cent year-on-year sales increase, with the average basket spend increasing by more than a quarter since 16 March 2020. Never has the UK been prouder to call itself a nation of shopkeepers.
In this current climate, priorities are shifting and businesses are taking up the challenge to provide a public service. James Sommerin, head chef and owner of the Michelin-starred restaurant James Sommerin, has turned his restaurant's catering kitchens into a service for key workers and the hospice behind his restaurant. James, his wife and daughter prepped and delivered over 5,000 meals in March.
Similarly, Le Bab has temporarily reopened as The London Restaurant Co-operative. It’s offering financial relief to chefs and waiters who’ve lost their jobs, providing a contactless delivery service, and supporting UCL hospital staff as well as those at The Connection homeless shelter at St Martin-in-the-Fields. All the profits go to the team – owner Stephen Tozer is personally covering set-up costs, and all surplus food goes either to the shelter or the hospital.
Johanna Derry Hall is a food and travel journalist who writes for the Evening Standard, The Telegraph and Mr Porter, among others
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