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One year on: How lockdowns and levels have affected the food and drink industry in Scotland

As lockdown restrictions are set to ease, and with the reopening of hospitality on the cards potentially by the summer, Rosalind Erskine finds out what changes customers can expect.

Published: March 16, 2021
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It has been a year since Boris Johnson appeared on our TV screens telling us not to go to pubs and restaurants, an announcement that caused confusion and anger among those working in the sector.

A year on, the industry has faced prolonged lockdowns, level systems and curfews. With a glimmer of hope of reopening on the horizon, what has been the impact, both good and bad, of Covid-19 on the hospitality industry in Scotland?

During the past year I have been hosting Scran, the Scotsman’s food and drink podcast, which has been a great platform for talking to those in the industry about the ongoing and changeable working environment in which they found themselves.

One of the first people I spoke to in April 2020 was Scotland Food and Drink CEO James Withers, who urged Scots to save their favourite businesses by shopping locally.

He said: “If there’s one thing the general public can do to help get Scotland through this crisis,it’s to support businesses in their community by buying local.

"I’d also urge shoppers to look out for local Scottish products as well. These things will help get these businesses through an unprecedented challenge.”

New online businesses offering local and seasonal food delivery popped up and did extremely well from people moving away from shopping in supermarkets.

One of these was Edinburgh based Romaine Calm, created by friends Jeremy Downton and James Henderson, who set up the small business to offer delivery of artisan products from Scottish and independent suppliers.

Co-founder James thinks that the way people shop for food has changed due to the pandemic, saying: “People have realised that the supermarkets are not the only answer when shopping for food.

"They’ve gone to their local butcher or greengrocer and realised the quality level is immense in comparison and not as expensive as commonly perceived."

While we have had options for buying food, going out for a meal has been a distant memory for most.

lockdowns scotland

Lorna McNee, head chef at Cail Bruich Picture: John Devlin

Graham Suttle of Kained Holdings, who own multiple bars and restaurants in Glasgow said that the impact on the industry in Scotland has been massive.

"There have been multiple cases and continues to be in numerous instances of severely negative impacts on the industry and also working in it. However there have also been a few learnings which have led to some degree of positivity.

"I think it’s key to caveat that any positivity really comes at the end of a very long line of detrimental impact on the industry.”

A positive outcome for Kained has been the success of their steak restaurant, Porter & Rye’s cook at home kits - something that many outlets have offered.

Cail Bruich, which recently won Glasgow’s first Michelin star in years, is one of these. Head chef Lorna McNee explained that these cook at home kits will not continue after lockdown.

She said: "As soon as we go back to doing proper restaurant stuff, the meal boxes won't be there anymore. My main focus is the restaurant and where I want to take it with regards to food."

Jordan Charles, general manager of Meldrum House Hotel in Aberdeenshire agreed with this, saying: “People want to get out and about and enjoy food again where there is an atmosphere and they don’t need to cook for themselves.”

Meldrum set up outdoor dining domes last summer and these have become a permanent fixture.

Jordan added: “We have waiting lists at weekends for them. Bookings are coming in thick and fast prior to reopening this year.”

This outdoor offering success was also seen at the Chester Hotel in Aberdeen as general manager Stephen Gow, explained: “The major success for us in 2020 was our outdoor dining experience.

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"We operated alfresco throughout the summer, with the exception of the localised Aberdeen lockdown period of three weeks, and the popularity of this took us by surprise.

"From July to the end of September we served more than 16,000 diners; with up to 400 on some days.”

Alfresco dining is a change from Covid-19 that those in the industry are expecting to stay when restrictions relax. N

ick Nairn is overseeing a revamp of his cook school with a focus on dining in the garden (think pergolas and fairy lights), which has beautiful views.

But while some chefs looking to the future are keen to ditch the cook at home option (more than one mentioned how sick they are of filling plastic containers), this offering has been of huge success to some, so much so that it will continue.

Nick Nairn foresees offering a cook at home option for seasonal dates such as Mothers’ day or Valentine’s while chef Dean Banks saw huge success with the nationwide delivery of his Haar at Home boxes.

"For us, the pandemic has been a blessing and a curse"

He said: "The big success for us has been Haar at Home, taking our offering nationwide.

"It has been a massive success, almost three times as big as the restaurant itself – Haar in St Andrews - ever was. Lockdown has made everyone start being a bit more creative and come up with a new industry, one that didn’t really exist before."

One of Dean’s suppliers is the Amity Fish Company who saw immediate demand for direct to customer sales.

This has been so strong that their business model has changed to continue to serve consumers directly as well as supplying trade.

Jenna Urquhart of Amity said: "Fast forward a year and our consumer sales are strong enough that going forward our business will remain half consumer, half b2b sales.

"We invested heavily in a new website and online store and now ship our fishboxes to homes anywhere in mainland UK every week."

Edinburgh-based chef Paul Wedgwood said: "For us, the pandemic has been a blessing and a curse.

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"We are devastated the restaurant has been closed for most of the year, but it has forced us to think outside the box and come up with creative ways to give customers a restaurant experience at home.

"Our ‘Alfresco’ dining experience is definitely here to stay, since we launched it last summer it has been a huge success and I have cooked in lots of gardens all over Edinburgh and beyond.

"When the industry starts to reopen, I envisage a few more closures, however I do think there will be a rise in small independent operators, especially those who have run successful pop ups during lockdown.

"There will be a lot more choice and it is really fantastic to see. Hopefully we can all go and support our peers as soon as possible”.

For those not cooking at home have increasingly turned to ordering online. Third party delivery firms became king in lockdown, with Just Eat reporting a growth in sales of over 50 per cent.

More localised delivery services, such as Zippy D, which is used by restaurants in Dundee and Perth, has plans to expand to cover other areas of Scotland.

Managing director Neil Robertson found that they’ve taken on unemployed or furloughed chefs, and he thinks that this work has offered support, camaraderie and some earnings at this time.

The loss of chefs and hospitality workers from the industry is something that concerns Nick Nairn.

He said: “At the start (of the pandemic) I thought recruitment was going to be one of the few good things that would come out of this.

"I thought there would be loads of people looking for work. But a lot of people have left the industry - it’s a real loss.” 

On the positives, Nick said lockdown has given him more time to really get stuck in and train his staff.

“I've now got time to teach young chefs - just to show them how to do things properly,” he said. “Normally when you're in service, everything's going at 100 miles an hour and you don't have time to train properly sometimes.”

One of the inescapable features of the past year has been Zoom - something that the drinks industry professionals have used to host virtual drinks and tasting events.

While whisky makers I spoke to agreed that virtual Zoom tastings are here to stay, for their global audience reach, restaurateurs weren’t as convinced.

Nikos Matsikas at Brasserie Ecosse in Dundee said: “Anything that involves Zoom will go once this is over. I think we are all Zoomed out and want to start human face to face interactions asap.”

Zoom aside, many drinks businesses had to quickly adapt their e-commerce offering, as Stuart Cook, joint managing director at Harviestoun Brewery in Clackmannanshire near Stirling, explained, saying: “We’ve very much improved our business model for e-commerce, both from our direct to consumer website offering, which we’ve had many plaudits for, but also through the major markets sellers like Beerhawk and Beer52.

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"It has been a fantastic way to keep the beer flowing and I very much think it will continue, even after the reopening as consumer habits have changed. The convenience and choice will mean consumers continue to order this way."

Online sales from Beer supplier Flavourly were up over 300 per cent, as customers stocked up while pubs were closed.

Assean Sheikh, co-founder and CMO of Flavourly said: "Lockdown restrictions saw demand for our at home deliveries skyrocket as people sought to treat themselves at home - for example, sales in April 2020 were 392 per cent up on the previous year.

"Overall sales in 2020 trebled to over £10 million. The most satisfying aspect has been our ability to support our partner breweries and share the uplift in sales with them at a time when they are experiencing drastically reduced orders from the hospitality sector."

Mark Wilson of Blendly Coffee echoes the need to be online in order to survive when the pandemic hit.

He said: “There was a scramble to get online if you weren’t before, and if you were, to make your platform as efficient and noticeable as possible. It could be the difference between going under and surviving.”

"We all need to value our local, independent businesses and use them or lose them”

Indicative dates of further lockdown easing are due this week, with a possible return to the Levels system last used in late 2020.

The Scottish Hospitality Group (SHG), UK Hospitality Scotland, Scottish Licensed Trade Association (SLTA), Night Time Industries Association (NTIA) and the Scottish Beer & Pub Association have suggested a series of tweaks to the current Levels system that would allow the sector to meet both public health and economy objectives as strict Covid-19 measures remain in place.

If the government was to open with the proposed Level 3 industry change, 73 per cent of businesses could be operating, generating a turnover of £927 million and supporting 53,300 jobs.

Carlo Crolla from East Coast in Musselburgh, East Lothian, added to this saying:“The future all depends on if things ever get back to the way they were.

"If they don’t it’s going to be a constant struggle and there will be closures left, right and centre.

"In a perfect world we’d reopen in the near future with minimal restrictions and things will only improve and we’d hopefully, eventually get back to how it was before."

While we wait to see what the outcome of the last year is, the things that have kept businesses going - local support from customers, buying Scottish produce, attending virtual events, and an up-to-date online presence - are partly going to be what helps the survival of our food and drink industry.

As Stephen Gow of the Chester Hotel said: “We all need to value our local, independent businesses and use them or lose them.”

Known for cake making, experimental jam recipes, Champagne and gin drinking (and the inability to cook Gnocchi), Rosalind writes for The Scotsman on all things food and drink related.

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