However, farming and agriculture are two exceptions to the rule – crops and animals don’t stop growing or needing care because of a pandemic. The restrictions on eating out have thrown up several issues for producers and suppliers, however. Without anyone to buy up their product, what are they to do with the excess stock?
As lockdowns begin to ease across the globe, we talk with three European foodservice businesses owners about how they’re preparing for an uptick in demand.
Keeping the glass half full
The closure of restaurants, bars and pubs across the world abruptly curtailed demand for wine of all varieties, with vineyards left holding the bottle. Fortunately, what is not being poured in restaurants is now being enjoyed at home, with online sales and supermarkets sales increasing in countries across the globe. But for vineyards whose main source of income was providing cases for the hospitality industry, this proved little comfort.
“It completely stopped any order of wines by restaurants, in France and across the world,” says Nicolas Rossignol, owner of the Nicolas Rossignol Estate and Vineyard in the Burgundy region of France.
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This drop in demand will not only affect the vineyard’s sales for the year, but also has further cost implications. “We are lucky, because wine is not like some salad that you have to sell quickly before it spoils. But the cost of storage falls directly on our company and we can’t add those costs to the price, because we’ll lose sales if we do that,” Rossignol explains.
The restrictions of lockdown have also had a severe impact on the workers across Rossignol’s vineyards, who now have to use personal vehicles, work individually on their own vines, and speak with the rest of the team purely by phone. This lack of comradery, working in isolation away from their colleagues, was instantly felt and has been a difficult adjustment.
“Now lockdown is lifting, we’re able to employ more workers, just in time for the green season in the vines. We have to keep the protections in place, but they can travel further and do more,” says Rossignal. However, he warns that it’s going to be a long road back.
“The whole world is being impacted by coronavirus. It’s not just one side of the hemisphere that will see less business and fewer sales. It will be a disaster for vineyards if the banks do not help them and, even once business restarts, it will take a long time before we get back to pre-Covid levels.”
Crying over spilt milk
For dairies, the prospect of being unable to shift perishable product was a major concern. While demand for milk and butter bought in supermarkets may not have decreased, independent farms and dairies already had orders underway for countless restaurants and hospitality businesses.
Cheese that had been made and left to ripen, ready for delivery, was now in danger of spoiling. This led to numerous cheesemakers having to shut down production and put their effort into shifting existing stock.
One such business was Stichelton Dairy, based in Nottinghamshire, England.
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“The last few months have been a rollercoaster. In early March, we stopped production, furloughed all employees, and sold almost no cheese for three weeks,” explains owner and cheesemaker, Joe Schneider.
“We all had to adjust, my customers included. When the lockdown occurred, restaurants closed overnight, the export market shut and shops lost all or most of their footfall.” This immediate drop-off is indicative of wider issues within the infrastructure and supply chains, says Schneider.
“It’s evident that our food system is broken. When we allow three or four large multiples to control how 90% of the food in this country is distributed and sold, we are vulnerable to huge disruptions. Much better to have locally strong food distribution networks that can tap into the normally thriving local food producers,” he argues.
Schneider highlights the difficulties for small farmers and dairies, whose product is not sought after by multiples, so they face formidable barriers to market. “How broken is it that farmers were tipping milk down the drain when supermarkets were running out of milk? Or delicious cheese sat rotting on the shelves because it had no route to market?” he says. Fortunately, he is now back in production, boosted by promotions from names like Neal’s Yard Diary and Jamie Oliver, which encouraged people to buy local and Save British Cheese.
“One thing I will say is that I am grateful and inspired by how well and quickly our customers started selling cheese online. But I don’t want this to be the new paradigm,” he says. “I don’t get much satisfaction selling boxes of cheese through the post to people I don’t see. I need to be able to stand in a shop or in front of a market stall and see people, talk to them, let them taste the cheese.”
While social distancing may be here to stay for some time, he rejects the notion of this as the ‘new normal’ and hopes the pandemic will change people’s relationship with food and how they shop.
“People should explore farmhouse cheese (and other local foods from small producers) like an odyssey. Learn about the wonderful flavors out there and the great people behind the cheese, and spend less on mass produced cheeses indifferent to flavor or genuine expression of place,” explains Schneider.
“Either people will recognize what is at risk, highlighted by the Covid pandemic, and choose to make their food shopping experiences more durable, more humanly rewarding by supporting a different kind of food system, or they will ignore the lessons learned and eventually lose the best bits of British food culture.”
Knowing on which side your bread is buttered
Bakeries have perhaps enjoyed a slightly more privileged position during the pandemic. Often made on the day, rather than weeks or months in advance, and definitely classed as an essential item, many shops have seen queues around the block for fresh bread and pastries.
But it hasn’t all been plain sailing. The Domberger Brot-Werk (The Domberger Bread Factory), based in Berlin, Germany, lost 20% of its business due to restaurants being closed and had to introduce stringent social distancing measures to protect staff and customers.
Fortunately, the business was able to open up its mobile bakery at the Zeltinger Platz market in late April, to make up for some of the lost revenue. “It also allowed me to keep my staff busy, because the bakery in the store was getting too tight and I needed to keep the distance between employees,” explains owner and baker, Florian Domberger.
During lockdown, the bakery has seen an overflow of local support, even running out of produce on some days. “A whole new bunch of customers are coming to us that clearly are working in their home offices and are looking for a little bit of change during the day,” says Domberger.
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“They’re looking for a new experience and better bread, and I hope it has something to do with people thinking about the quality of their food.”
One thing the crisis has given the bakery and opportunity to do is check on the feasibility and sustainability of its own supply chains.
“We had one very minor hiccup in the early days – so minor it only took two phone calls to resolve. You could call it a miscommunication,” Domberger explains. “But it made me realise we had to be careful. We don’t have a lot of suppliers, because we’re a simple business, but we took the opportunity to look at our relationships and ask, which are good relationships, which are stable relationships, and where can we rely on these suppliers?”
As lockdown lifts across Germany, and restaurants reopen, the bakery is now seeing a slight decrease in sales week-on-week. “People are eating less at home and thankfully they are supporting the restaurants,” says Domberger, understanding the importance of getting these businesses back up and running. All of his restaurant customers have returned in the last few weeks and restarted their orders.
And, despite the uncertainty, he is clearly confident that business will continue to thrive. With a strong and effective team, and a good customer base, he is now thinking about how to establish the new normal. “I am not worried about the long-term outlook,” he says. “But as lockdown eases further, it’s time to look at how much of what we have experienced and put in place will sustain us until there is a vaccine.”