Although it was only completed four weeks ago, March’s issue now looks like it’s from another century – or, indeed, planet. The only mention of the coronavirus – or ‘Covid-19’ as it has mutated into lexiconically – is in the Big interview, with more than one columnist flagging up Brexit as being the main cause for concern for the industry. We were, perhaps naively, looking forward to The London Coffee Festival and our own StrEAT Food Awards.
Since then, we have had to retrain ourselves, from being armchair experts in international trade to epidemiology; from ‘hard Brexit’ to ‘herd immunity’. You can chart its slow but sure progress up our priority list from recent industry events. The Arena Savoy Lecture where consultant Peter Backman had to step in to do the introductions as chair Steve Norris was obeying a new Nestlé company-wide scale back from attending events; HRC, where the usual favours of sweets on stands were replaced with hand sanitiser pumps and the rumour doing the rounds was that the forthcoming Casual Dining Show was set to be postponed. Elbow-bumps and 2m boundaries were still things of the future, though.
Now, as I type this, the day before we go to print, it has just been announced that the government’s string-puller in chief, Dominic Cummings, has gone into self-isolation with symptoms, joining Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock; though, in happier news, Prince Charles has just recovered. The world has been turned upside-down and back-to-front, and new rules and priorities apply. The Conservative chancellor Rishi Sunak has issued a set of rescue policies so socialist that he makes Gordon Brown look like Phillip Green. Daily exercise is now looked forward to as a treat. For those without children, weekdays spent at home are conveniently filled with work, while apparently-elongated weekends are one large, challenging blank canvas that requires filling. It is possible to posit that one day in the not too distant future, toilet roll will become a more valuable currency than banknotes.
Throughout all of this, the plight of the hospitality industry has been front-page news – in the nationals, not just trade journals. Finally told to close by the government, outlets (including workplace canteens) are still allowed to operate takeaway and delivery services, though it is difficult to fathom which caterers are doing so. With the nation now working from home, it is more likely that catering staff are being furloughed en masse; joining the customer base in not-so-splendid isolation while the government subsidises 80% of their wages, having somehow located Mrs May’s once mythical ‘magic money tree’ (or, more likely, printer).
While it may be a boomtime for supermarkets and some delivery services, the outlook is poorer for the rest of the sector. The old industry maxim that ‘people will always need to eat’ barely applies during a sustained period of involuntary reclusivity.
“Two factors have caused me to tear up forecasts that I made just recently,” Backman tells me of a situation that is evolving ra[idly. “They are, first, the subsequent paper from Imperial College which, in effect, has extended the likely period under which the effects of Covid-19 will last, and second the shutdown itself. My initial assumption had been that dining out would fall by an average of 90% for three months. I now expect it to be closer to -95% for at least four months with a slower upside trajectory than I had originally thought. Amid the gloom, there is the macabre thought that feeding in the healthcare sector will actually increase, while practically all other sectors will see previously unimaginable declines for several months.
“According to my calculations, the foodservice market was down by -9% in Q1, but the catastrophic hit will come in the next quarter – April to June – when the market will be down by 93%, as a result of many closures and consumers simply not being able or allowed to spend money. Assuming the pandemic is contained as the government hopes, we should start to see a slow improvement in Q3 when the market will likely be down by -53%. Overall, this year I expect sales in the sector to be down by over £22bn which, I need hardly add, is going to be an unthinkable hit for the sector and its supply chain.”
The result is that the industry has gone almost eerily quiet, with my colleague Jane Renton recently commenting to me (via phone, of course), in the sort of gallows humour that I’m sure has become familiar to many, that it’s the first time in history that no-one wants even good PR. Thankfully, Compass Group took the time to update us on how its operations have evolved with the changing landscape and recognise the great work being done by staff at the sharp end.
Many of its workers are now employed in NHS hospitals and critical services up and down the country. This includes sites like the new field hospital at ExCeL London, schools for key workers and vulnerable children, and the armed forces, police, national infrastructure and government buildings. Other Compass employees are helping in supermarkets, with the caterer’s supply chain being redirected to provide essential provisions for frontline workers, while money is being donated to provide food in local communities.
“Across the UK, Compass employees are playing an invaluable role in the country’s battle against coronavirus, ensuring NHS patients and staff are fed and their wards are kept clean, and supporting key workers in the education, defence and infrastructure sectors,” says Robin Mills, managing director of Compass Group UK and Ireland. “I am enormously proud of them and want to thank them for the incredible dedication they are showing in unprecedented circumstances. As a business we are doing everything we can to support the national effort.”
With the country essentially being on a war footing, supply is vital – especially as, even as far back as its briefing of 21st March, the government estimated that households were already stockpiling £1bn of goods. In response, Brakes and Bidfood have joined forces to support a new government initiative to deliver hundreds of thousands of weekly care packages to people at high risk across the country.
In a joint statement from Hugo Mahoney and Andrew Selley, CEOs of Brakes and Bidfood, they said: “During this national crisis, Bidfood and Brakes, the UK’s largest wholesalers, have joined forces to deliver weekly food and essential supply boxes to many of the 1.5m extremely vulnerable people in isolation. Moving at record pace, we have worked with government departments to create a service capable of reaching every corner of England through our national depot networks. Our security-checked, professional delivery drivers are hugely motivated and proud to be playing their part in serving their local communities in this fantastic endeavour.”
We are living through extraordinary times, but it is heart-warming and encouraging to see our sector coming together to do more than its fair share to provide a way forward. Once the dust settles and the UK emerges and evolves, foodservice and hospitality will have a huge role to play in sustaining the nation and lifting spirits. It will need to show the type of resilience, spirit and ingenuity that Compass, Brakes and Bidfood are already illustrating already, though, in order to fit into what is likely to be a markedly changed marketplace and, indeed, society, as Backman says: “The hospitality industry prides itself on being innovative, adaptable and capable of meeting consumer demand. Covid-19 could be the cause of some seismic shifts for the industry as we know it.”