The long winter lockdown for the hospitality industry is by degrees being loosened across the country. UK nations allowed the return of outdoor dining in April, though with only around a third of venues able to be opened, a more significant milestone was indoor dining’s reopening on 17 May.
But ahead of that date, we canvassed a cross-section of UK catering equipment dealers to see how they were helping their operator clients to prepare for the big restart.
At Wiltshire-based Total QSR, marketing manager Joanne Herridge reported: “Many of our QSR clients have carried on with drive through or delivery provisions throughout the pandemic – these are the best prepared to restart. The units that have been closed for months need the most prep such as smaller pubs or cafes who have also not run takeaway during lockdown.”
The distributor is assisting operators to reopen by ensuring compliance and PPM is up to date, as some of its customers delayed their scheduled PPM due to being closed. “We are completing any outstanding remedials that were flagged up from engineer visits,” said Herridge.
Its team is also ensuring that icemakers and storage and refrigeration equipment have been sanitised before use, that grease traps are clean and clear and that ducts are clean and fire suppression systems are serviced and in date. Herridge added: “We have made sure our vans and stores stock are full to support engineers’ first time fix efforts.
She noted that there have been many requests for hot beverage units, BBQ and grill equipment and pizza ovens from those looking to expand their outdoor areas, but that Total QSR is well stocked and its supply lines are “fully reliable”.
Nearby Fulcrum Commercial Kitchens is being similarly proactive. According to director, David Burnett: “On social media we are regularly posting advice on starting up kitchens safely after the extended dormant period. We are also keeping customers updated with any procurement issues, delivery lead-times etc so that they don’t get a nasty surprise after ordering their new kitchen.”
He revealed: “The larger multi-site operations are the most prepared and structured in their approach to re-opening. The smaller independents appear to be far more reactive and urgent in their enquiries. Quite often we are finding they have wasted a lot of time searching for cheap equipment on the web or trusting to less than reliable service engineers – the call comes in and we are tasked with pulling the rabbit out of the hat! And, of course, we’re always glad to assist.”
In terms of leads, Fulcrum has received a number of kiosk and mobile vehicle enquiries as pubs and café restaurants aimed to take advantage of the outdoor dining available from 12 April. “Some new restaurant kitchen projects are including an area for takeaway or a separate grab and go offer,” said Burnett. “Others, especially the rural pub sites we deal with, are busy building outdoor ‘pods’ and taking advantage of the pleasant landscaped environments they have – although the spark of thought has been triggered by Covid it also gives a year-round outdoor dining option for the future.”
The distributor only stocks project installation ancillaries such as hand basins, flykillers, oversprays, gas hoses and bins, with Burnett reporting that none of them are in short supply, underlining: “Heavy equipment is ordered to our warehouse on a just-in-time basis. We’ve had a couple of issues with extended lead-times and freight delays but not as much as expected. We are also not aware of anything looming so hopefully availability will remain good.”
Up at Gateshead-based CNG Foodservice Equipment, MD Clive Groom revealed that the firm is closely monitoring fabrication lead times and ensuring it has engineers available for installations. The distributor has performed some kitchen refurbishments and minor modifications in the run-up to reopening, but hasn’t noticed a major difference in requirements between indoor and outdoor venues.
Groom commented: “Between April and June this year, CNG will invoice around 60% of the total level for ’20/21. We have seen a spread of businesses that have planned for the roadmap and others who have suddenly thought, ‘we’d better do something’. For example on the afternoon of 8 April we were asked if we could service items to be ready for opening on the 12th.”
Tim Taylor outlined a similar situation with Buckinghamshire-headquartered Eco Catering Equipment’s customers, saying: “We’ve seen a marked increase in spare parts enquiries or new equipment sales with a greater sense of urgency. As people are getting their equipment up to speed or testing it they’re finding issues. Customers are generally wanting deliveries ASAP. People who we quoted months ago are now giving the go ahead and needing it quickly.”
He emphasised: “We can understand why customers have held off, but things are a little trickier than pre-Covid. Demand is increasing across the board. When you combine that with reduced courier services and availability from manufacturers as they contend with social distancing, furlough, the Suez issue etc. it does add an extra layer of difficulty. So far we’ve been able to fulfil the majority of requirements or find suitable alternatives and I can only see things improving as everybody moves towards a more ‘normal’ working environment.
“More recently we have been supplying equipment for some smaller projects and quoting more. This shows there’s confidence coming back into the market and it does feel far more positive in all areas.”
At Eastleigh-based Catering Equipment Support, MD Simon Tavender has noticed the biggest increase in trade has been from hotels and large event hospitality sites such as motor circuits and racecourses. “They are investing into multi-point food outlets to prevent overcrowding,” he detailed. “We have also seen a large increase in outdoor dining experience with open air kitchens and food transportation equipment enquiries and sales.”
Tavender recalled: “For new clients we have been working hard to turn around projects quickly in a cost effective way. We have been keen to find solutions to their needs, having built up a supplier picture from our manufacturers on lead times and stock availability.
“We have a strong connection to our manufacturers and have ensured that we meet demand by holding a raised level of stock along with real-time delivery dates.”
And for existing clients, he highlighted: “We have been working with them over the last year with the knowledge we would all be opening fully again one day and that they would operate in a different way. Some of this has been showing that cooking technology can reduce the need to have too many staff in one area.”
In the north east, Grimsby’s Sylvester Keal has been offering support and advice regarding re-opening a commercial kitchen after lockdown via its own blog and social media. This includes an in-depth guide by equipment type on how to restart appliances, and the checks and procedures that need to take place.
Marketing director Irene Keal said: “Caravan parks in coastal areas and holiday accommodation such as hotels seem to be the most proactive about opening up after lockdown, followed closely by restaurants and bars.”
She reported increased sales of outdoor furniture including heaters, too. “Many customers are looking to create different areas for cooking including upgrading their catering equipment within their kitchen so they can continue their successes of offering takeaway meals as well as in-house dining options.”
Plus Keal underlined: “We have a huge warehouse of stockpiled stock and have a robust supply chain to get more if required.”
Heading west, Stockport-headquartered Stephensons has benefitted from its onsite cash and carry. MD Henry Stephenson revealed: “It’s been really busy with people just popping in and picking up bits and pieces they need. It’s quite handy for them to be able to wander around and look – that prompts them for other things they may need as well.”
On which sectors have proved particularly active, he said: “Takeaway has been a really massive thing for us over the last 6-12 months. We kept relevant with customers through supplying that, and it’s really helped. It’s all about the basics: have the stock and get it to them on time if we possibly can. Or tell them if we can’t, that’s the other key thing.”
And Stephensons knows all about rapid runs on products, with Stephenson recalling: “When we reopened in July last year it was all about new products to our customers and to us, like dispensers, alcohol gel, PPE, virucidal cleaning and fogging. It all happened in one go, so last July/end of June really hit us –suppliers just fell over and we didn’t have what people needed.
“This time round we’re more prepared. We’ve brought a lot of people back from furlough this time – they are ready to go, ready to jump in when they need to. We’ve been able to get the orders out and we’re trading in products that were new then and we now understand. The best thing we can do for our customers is not be a problem, to have product on the shelf and get it to them in time for their reopening.”
In terms of stockholding, he explained: “We ordered up over the last month or so, back up to our traditional stock levels. Part of the problem is pre-covered stock levels now are in some cases completely irrelevant. We don’t know who is and isn’t trading, without digging into individual lines. There may be lines that we used to stock in-depth for customers that maybe aren’t there anymore or aren’t looking to reopen for a while longer.”
Stephenson concluded: “In a way we’re quite lucky, as an independent distributor we can be quite flexible, we can decide to increase or decrease stock levels manually. Whereas if you’re a larger business and you’re reliant on automatic reordering, all those systems are completely out the window because there’s been no pattern to anything for the last 12 months.”