As the UK lockdown continues, the food and drink industry faces a huge challenge to diversify and, for many businesses, survive - but there is light at the end of the tunnel says James Withers, CEO of Scotland Food and Drink.

2020 was set to be the year of shedding light on brexit plans and moving forward, but now everything has changed thanks to the coronavirus crisis and lockdown measures in place.

Like many industries, Scotland’s food and drink businesses have had to completely change the way they operate, or shut down altogether.

One of the leading bodies in the sector – Scotland Food and Drink – has been at the forefront of providing its members help and advice as the pandemic continues.

Here, CEO of Scotland Food and Drink, James Withers, discusses the fallout of the coronavirus crisis and how the industry can navigate its way through.

James chatted to me during an interview for our podcast, Scran, which is available in full below.

A year of two halves

“We came into the start of 2020 off the back of 10-12 years of growing the momentum of Scottish food and drink – we had a growing reputation, exports were more than doubling, and sales at home were continuing to grow really rapidly, James explains. “We were a bit scared about a possible no deal brexit – that was definitely causing a loss of sleep – but none of us saw this coming.

“It really has pulled the rug from large parts of the industry and so many Scottish food and drink businesses have built their futures around supplying our hotels and our restaurants and our bars – not only in in Scotland – but  bars and restaurants right around the world, and that market just closed overnight.

“This has had a devastating effect of both domestic trade and export trade for  so many different businesses. So we’ve gone from thinking that this year was going to be another celebration of the quality of Scottish produce to being into crisis mode.

“Like so many other parts of the economy in so many different households. We really are and have gone from peacetime to wartime, it feels in some ways.”

Innovations and adapting to change

But despite this huge and overnight change, Scotland’s food and drink industry has adapted and innovated. Distilleries and breweries who would normally be providing bars and restaurants, have turned their skills and stock into creating much needed hand santiser.

Local restaurants are offering takeaway and delivery and there has been an influx of virtual drinks tastings – from beer and wine to whisky and gin.

James says: “despite the huge personal challenges that the coronavirus has meant to the individual people working in industry, and the huge business challenges, you have to keep food and drink supply moving and food in people’s fridges and freezers.

“Despite such a strain on the food supply chain due to the coronavirus crisis, the industry and food producers and farmers and fishermen have done an incredible job at making sure that, despite the potential disruption, the supply chain has kept moving, which has been brilliant.”

It is this sense of purpose and a link to local community that will see many producers and businesses through this crisis, as James explains.

“The one thing that characterises so many of our food and drink businesses is that they are are rooted in their community. When faced with challenges like this, a community instinct comes to the fore and that human reaction (more than the business reaction) has been the most the most impressive thing.

“I think that’s what is standing businesses in good stead as well, because people are trying to support these businesses and I think they will stick with them both in the short term, but crucially over the longer term too.”

How consumers can help

So how can customers help the industry during this coronavirus crisis? Buying local is the key, says James: “If there’s one thing the general public can do to help get Scotland through this crisis, is to support businesses in their community by buying local.

“That might mean buying differently, but look at how you can connect with local producers to get direct deliveries – this may be your local shops and convenience stores. 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 at the moment.”

Ultimately it’s the survival of businesses that is key to keeping the industry going, and diversifying is a large part of survival – as is customer support. But what can the food and drink industry expect at the end of this?

Dealing with uncertainty 

“One of the most difficult things about this current situation is the uncertainty,” says James. “If you could say that by June we will be back in our offices, by July there will be gatherings, and by August there will be events that producers could supply, there could be concrete plans in place – but you just can’t do that.

“My sense is that all the ingredients that are required for Scottish food businesses to be successful now are they same as they were at the start of January. It’s about quality products, high production standards, building brand and reputation and having a good spread of customers at home and overseas. That remains the same.

“What we’re doing at the moment is providing injections of crisis support to make sure that when we get to the second half of the year, we’ve got businesses that will absolutely drive recovery.

“We don’t want to end up with really good businesses that are very well run, producing brilliant products, doing everything that people have asked of them failing and collapsing through absolutely no fault of their own.”

To find out more about Scotland Food and Drink and their coronavirus hub of information, please visit their website.

About The Author

Rosalind Erskine

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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