Sitting in the Chesford Grange hotel’s conference suite on 16 September was quite a surreal experience. The return of the UK catering equipment industry’s events scene after 18 months of shutdown was led by the FEA Conference, and seeing around 200 familiar faces in the same room at the same time was both business as usual and yet highly exceptional in these times.
The event’s discussion day served up two distinct themes: recovery from the pandemic and meeting the challenge of climate change. Indeed, one of the main sessions was a panel on business recovery. This saw Advance Group chairman, Steve Coates, describing how he headed back to the coalface of the Dunstable-based distributor at the start of the pandemic, when sales had dropped 90%. “We had to grasp the situation we were facing and come to terms with its impact, but balance this with hope,” he said.
Advising how best to deal with crisis situations, he continued: “The temptation when your business is under pressure is to think about your balance sheet, but you also need to think about your people.”
Coates put the company’s recovery down to what he called the ‘Advance triangle’, comprising team engagement, customer experience and financial wellbeing considerations. “When we faced difficult decisions, it became our guide,” he said.
Fellow panel member Mark Davies, MD of caterer ISS Foodservice, described how his company was dealt a double blow in spring 2020, as 2 weeks before Covid struck the UK, ISS fell victim to a malware attack, and so entered the pandemic period without any of its IT systems being operational.
As the caterer had contracts in place with many customers who were forced to shut in lockdown, ISS had to quickly renegotiate these agreements, as well as looking at its own supply chain to see who it could partner with, aggregate or consolidate. And with many more people working from home, Davies analysed: “Workplace catering is undergoing profound change – there is huge jeopardy, volumes are down, but there is also huge opportunity.”
He further detailed: “We created a strategy called ‘connected by food’, bringing people together and giving them great experiences”, but warning: “Foodservice volumes will be volatile into 2022, so we need to mitigate risks and closely manage staffing and supply chain challenges.”
The final member of the panel trio, Paul Dickinson, described how he was put on furlough from his role as director of food at the Fuller, Smith & Turner pub chain in March 2020. “I used the first lockdown to look back at my vision for food at Fullers, and I still believe in it. My mission at Fullers is to create consistent perfect plates of seasonal food created by talented chefs.”
However, he revealed: “We smashed up the infrastructure of the business, optimising the supply chain. We went to a model of ordering food 3 days in advance.”
Earlier in the day Future Foodservice’s Simon Stenning analysed how far along the road to recovery the foodservice industry currently is. Explaining that the foodservice industry has lost £124bn of revenue throughout the Covid period, he analysed: “The foodservice sector will be worth £65bn by the end of 2021, up from 2020’s £51bn – the best performing sector is fast food because of its ability to do drive-throughs and takeaways.”
Stenning explained the growth of fast food sites means they are now often replacing casual dining chains, though Covid accelerated the polarisation of restaurants, with fast food at one end and destination dining at the other.
Noting that dark kitchens are now transforming into warehouses with 10-20 brands operating within them, he said: “Virtual brands and multiple use of dark kitchens is here to stay.”
And so what of the future? “The foodservice industry’s overall revenue forecast for 2022 is £91bn, which is still 7.5% down on 2019,” he predicted.
Prior to Stenning’s presentation, Terry Boniface, assistant director, electronics and machinery, advanced manufacturing at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) revealed how this government arm is engaging with the electronics and machinery sectors in the wake of Brexit and Covid.
Last July, BEIS issued a hospitality strategy to help reopen foodservice venues, though currently he acknowledged how much the HGV driver shortage and the global materials scarcity are impacting the industry.
In terms of regulations, BEIS is aiming to help manufacturers by postponing the end of acceptance of CE markings on products until 31 December 2023. He reported that BEIS is balancing the fact that if they move product regulation away from EU rules it may impact the goods that can be sold in the EU market, with the possibility that differing UK regulation could be used to spur development of new products that can be exported.
And on Northern Irish trade, he recognised: “The government’s view is the Northern Ireland protocol is currently unworkable, so we are looking to create a trusted trader scheme.”
Later in the day, Boniface’s BEIS colleague Sam Balch, deputy director for home retrofit and energy-using products, focused on the other main subject strand of efficiency and environmental consideration. He claimed: “The UK has decarbonised our economy faster than any other G7 country.”
Citing that there is a strong economic argument for reducing carbon, Balch commented: “The hospitality sector has high energy use per square metre so there’s a lot of potential for reduction.”
He relayed that BEIS also wanted to encourage product repairability and end of life usage. The department has also just introduced a foodservice equipment category on the Energy Technology List, which gives independent verification of a product’s efficiency.
Also during the day, the Zero Carbon Forum’s CEO Mark Chapman had detailed how his organisation is interacting with operators at board level so that over the last couple of years even chief financial officers are seeing the wisdom in cutting carbon.
And with a typical restaurant using the energy of 28 houses, he believes: “We can get to net zero carbon quicker together rather than working individually,” underlining: “We will give foodservice operators joining our forum guidance and a roadmap to reduce emissions.”
He told the assembled suppliers: “If manufacturers can create more energy efficient technologies for foodservice, we can help get the sector engaged with them. We can help operators understand the total cost of ownership of more efficient catering equipment.”
Subsequently, Julian Shine, MD of Shine Catering Systems, discussed establishing a standard for the safe delivery of kitchen projects, focusing on net zero carbon.
Conference host Chris Mason closed the main proceedings, regaling delegates with reminiscences of his role as the BBC’s political correspondent, and the weight of responsibility he felt in reporting on the coronavirus crisis.