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Rural operators reveal challenges and innovations during coronavirus crisis

03 April 2020 by
Rural operators reveal challenges and innovations during coronavirus crisis

With up to 123,000 jobs in Devon reportedly under threat and tourism body Visit Cornwall urging tourists to stay away over the Easter break, the current outlook for the UK's popular south-western holiday spots seem stark.

But despite the huge financial and logistical pressures experienced by operators in some of the country's most rural outposts, some have found ways to innovate and keep going.

Barbara King, chair of Food Drink Devon, told The Caterer: "Some of the pubs and restaurants are very, very rural and it doesn't matter what they offer - they're not going to get custom and they're the ones that are suffering the most. Others, in villages and town centres, are keeping going by offering take-out meals but with people doing more cooking at home whilst house-bound, demand isn't as high as it would be in more normal times."

King believes that once the hospitality industry starts opening its doors again, the food and drink landscape may be entirely different to before the Covid-19 outbreak and urged those living in rural locations to support their local pubs, restaurants and bars who still had a service to offer.

We hear from some of those affected:

Simon Bryon-Edmond, of multi-award-winning pies and pasties business Chunk Of Devon, (pictured) said the company had lost half its existing business "in a stroke" and had to furlough some of the team whilst seven (25%) self-isolated. He said that stock-hoarding had led to high levels of waste and would mean under-ordering this week. "If this all clears by 1 July, seasonal operations need six months of half-decent trade to pay the bills through the winter. July, August and September have to be bloody awesome to enable bolstering of bank accounts for the long winter."

Mark Higgs, of Salcombe Brewery Co, said that orders being cancelled across the country had led to significant write-off costs. His brewery is now left with significant cask ale stock with no route to market, which will inevitably go past its best-before date and be wasted. He had been busy collecting unsold stock from wholesalers and pubs and helping them sell beer and cider stock in pack formats through a free home delivery services.

He said he wanted "clarity from the government" on any reclaim procedure, such as duty and stock, and also on which rules had been relaxed - for example, being allowed to sell beer in containers supplied by customers.

Chris and Sam, Salcombe brewers
Chris and Sam, Salcombe brewers

Tobias Taylor, of wholesale coffee roasters Voyager Coffee in Buckfastleigh on the edge of Dartmoor, said his business had shifted its focus from wholesale to supplying coffee almost entirely direct to homes across the UK: "With the increase in those at home, either working or relaxing and wanting to order as many things delivered directly to their homes as possible, the only barrier is awareness that there are small food and beverage producers still working in an adapted and innovative way to get everyone the great produce they need."

Tom Bunn, chef and chief executive at ChefRadius an ordering app for chefs, sommeliers and caterers, said that since restaurants had been forced to close he had understandably seen a massive decline in orders from restaurants to suppliers but was forging ahead with renewed focus.

"With a vast number of chefs and bar staff now at home, suppliers are seeing huge amounts of stock, with very few of their customers to sell to, sitting in expensive warehouses. At a time when going to the supermarket is not much fun, we need to make these ingredients available to all."

He said he was working with suppliers to help supply people at home. "As a chef myself I believe all of the food industry is very keen to buy incredible ingredients at home and not from the five main supermarkets, supporting artisan producers."

Bunn is also developing a new not-for profit side for the company that he hoped would provide the general public, food banks and volunteer drivers with a user-friendly "hub" approach for delivery anywhere in the country.

Graeme Wood of Trewithen Dairy near Bodmin which supplies the hospitality trade said he had seen a "massive fluctuation" in demand in the last couple of weeks but some normality was now returning. "In areas that do not fall into the "staples" category we are still trying to understand what the change in consumer buying practices will mean but overall demand for cream, whether retail or to other food manufacturing businesses, has fallen away," he said.

While food supply chains seemed "robust" he believed it was important that we do not see the retail segment "deranging product areas that are considered more discretionary" and said that support for this was needed. "Ultimately, the consumer at home will want to experience a wide variety of foods that they may have traditionally eaten out-of-home."

He said they were working around the clock to supply customers' requirements "in very challenging circumstances" and were looking at ways of increasing their reach locally, being available to new independent business and supporting doorstep businesses too.

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