Experiences of going out to eat

 

By Tim Wilkinson

The Covid road map is very date based. 12 April. 17th May. 21st June. It doesn’t say anything about how those changes might be experienced. In this short piece, I look at the experience of a business owner and at my own experience of going out to eat in the last month.

The reopening of indoor service on the 17th May has been long awaited for by many food businesses. From the customer point of view the rules are fairly simple – something you couldn’t do, now you can! Of course, there are various caveats: indoor eating is restricted to groups of 6 of up to 2 households, and wearing masks when moving around the indoor space is compulsory. An article in Big Hospitality gives more details from a business perspective, for instance on staff mask wearing, groups outdoors and track and trace. Reopening of indoor service has also been met by increased customer demand compared to pre-Covid; The Guardian reported, for example, surging reservations, spend and business revenue compared to the same week in 2019.

Behind the positives of the headlines has been a huge amount of hard work to ready hospitality for reopening. I came across Linda Anderson’s blog this month; which gives a fascinating insight into the journey of The Kitchen Croxley, a café and cake business in Rickmansworth over the last 18 months. The blog records and describes the numerous logistical and practical adaptations that The Kitchen Croxley has made including: pivoting to takeaway, expanding the takeaway offer and developing systems to manage social distancing across different lockdowns. But on top of that, what comes through is the lived experience of making those changes. Reading Linda Anderson’s blogs I got a sense of the energy it takes to run a small food business. There is the mental effort of checking government and industry guidance, the physical exertion of reorganising furniture and cleaning, and the emotional labour of trying to provide a familiar service to customers when so much has changed (e.g. the rising prices of supplies, new staff, new menu items). I thoroughly recommend tracking back through Linda’s blogs: they are a tremendous record of the ongoing adaptations and challenges faced by small business owners in food service industry.

For me, as a pre-Covid customer of cafés and restaurants, I must admit that I’m finding the lockdown mentality a difficult habit to break. Part of me wants to go out to eat but part of me doesn’t. I think it is mainly resistance to doing something I haven’t done for a while. Food critic and broadcaster Grace Dent wrote a tongue in cheek reminder about how to behave in a restaurant in A restaurant refresher course for anyone, like me, who might be struggling to get their head around it again. It has been a while! But I have been to eat out (in a restaurant, outside) and for a coffee (in a café, inside).

On the first May bank holiday, I went to a restaurant for a meal outdoors. The track and trace check-in was part of a cheery welcome and outlining of the rules and one-way system. I found it helpful to get that out of the way so that you weren’t wondering what to do once you were in the restaurant garden. I enjoyed the ‘small’ things like the staff coming to ask ‘is your food okay?’. That was great. As was the background noise of conversation from socially distanced tables – there was something familiar and warming in that. Unfortunately, the food did get cold in the wind though, and so did I. There was no inside option at this point and the restaurant doesn’t control the weather, so we made the best of it with blankets and coats.

Later in May, I met a friend at large café for a coffee indoors. There was a long-ish queue for the tills – it looked like track and trace was taking time to complete – with those taking orders also dealing with technical and check-in issues. The wait gave me a while to get my head around the scene beyond the tills – of perhaps 60 mask-less people eating and drinking indoors. Very novel! I felt for the staff who pre-Covid might have been focused on food service, but were now having to be app experts and explain Covid rules to anxious or confused customers. Once we’d got our hot drinks, we walked through into the hall-like cafeteria. It was noisy – not unpleasantly so, I think I had just forgotten how loud a room full of people with teaspoons and forks can be!

All this reminded me that going out for food is an experience – it’s not just about the food, but the atmosphere and being around other people. As a consumer, it is easy to forget the experience of business owners, staff and other customers – for everyone this is new phase. It’s not a return to ‘normal’, but a new encounter that comes with many thoughts and feelings about how it was before Covid, and how it should be now. We can expect to be pleasantly surprised, but there is a continued need for understanding as new processes are developed and refined. It would be easy to forget the last year, and the challenges that hospitality businesses have faced.

Consumer Trends in the post-COVID World

 

By Prof. Michael Winter

One of the tasks in this project has been to keep an eye on what is usually called the ‘trade press’. And one of the publications, which I confess I was unaware of prior to this research project, is Speciality Food.  For anyone who is interested in following food news, especially as the title indicates at the top end of the UK market, I strongly recommend this magazine. I get newsfeeds from it most days and it is really informative and usually gives its sources too, which is far from a universal practice in investigative journalism! In this instance, I have been able to use those sources to dig a bit deeper into the story headlines.

This reflection is based on a piece entitled 7 Characteristics of the 2021 Shopper.  The piece outlines ‘seven key qualities of the modern customer that will help retailers succeed through the remainder of this year and beyond.’

 

1.  They’re optimistic despite Covid

 Notwithstanding the obvious economic impact of COVID and higher rates of unemployment, Speciality Food (SF) draws here on two recent pieces of market research showing a growing spirit of optimism among consumers. Firstly, research from Kantar[i] undertaken in late April involving interviews with a representative sample of 1,115 adults in Great Britain, shows the highly uneven impact of the pandemic on income. 62% report that their personal income ‘has not been impacted’ by coronavirus, and although 21% have seen their savings decline as a result of the pandemic, a similar proportion (20%) report an increase in savings with 41% reporting no difference. There is a marked age difference with older people more likely to have increased their savings: 30% of over 65s compared to 15% of 25-34 year olds, for example. Just 11% of 65+ year olds report a reduction in savings compared to 25% of 25-34-year-olds at 25% and 28% of 35-44 year olds. SF also cites evidence of growing consumer confidence citing the IGD’s measure of shopper confidence growing to its highest level in five years in April, since before the Brexit referendum in fact. SF concludes that ‘For fine food retailers, this could be good news as more shoppers may be willing to stick with the food and drink upgrades they made during lockdown in the “new normal”’.

 

2.  They’re working from home

Cut to another survey – this time of 2,000 UK companies by CIPD the UK professional body for HR specialists and we find strong evidence for a continuation of home working in some sectors of the economy.[ii]  Their research was based on interviews with 32 senior managers and directors between October 2020 and January 2021 and an online survey with a total sample size of 2,133 senior decision-makers in UK organisations, conducted by YouGov between 14 December 2020 and 4 January 2021. Key results of the research are as follows:

  • 63% of employers plan to introduce or expand the use of hybrid working to some degree.
  • 45% plan to introduce or expand the use of total, five-days-a-week homeworking to some degree.
  • 48% plan to introduce or expand the use of flexitime (formal or informal; employer-led or employee-led) to some degree.

SF conclude from this that food retailers can expect to see demand for restaurant-quality food at home remaining.

 

3.  They’re (still) shopping online

 Under this heading SF turn to work by Opinium Research for Barclaycard[iii] which found that almost 60% of British consumers expect to continue buying some of their groceries online even after all Covid-19 restrictions end. Of those using click and collect more often during the pandemic, 90% plan to continue. SF caters primarily for high-end independent retailers and therefore the message is clear: giving customers flexibility to choose the shopping method that suits them, with online as an option, will be key to maintaining market share going forward.

 

4.  They care about the planet

Under this heading, SF turn to the 2021 Global Buying Green Report[iv] based on a survey of more than 15,000 consumers from Europe, North America and South America:

  • 67% environmentally aware (same as for the previous pre-Pandemic year).
  • Fewer than a third of consumers de-prioritized Sustainable Packaging due to COVID-19.
  • 83% of consumers among younger generations showed a willingness to pay more for sustainable packaging.
  • 67% of consumers find recyclability of packaging important; however, the perceptions do not always match recycling facts.
  • 54% of consumers say the sustainability of the packaging is a factor in their product selection process.

 

5.  They’re cashless

 Given the drive to cashless transactions for hygiene reasons, contactless limits were increased to £45, and then again to £100 to support consumers and retailers during the pandemic. Again SF urges its clients to ‘keep up with this fast-evolving payments landscape in order to ensure customer transactions can be performed quickly and smoothly.’

 

6.  They’re happy to go al fresco

 Here SF speculates that even after inside dining is allowed, the move to and investment in outdoor activities and events will continue: ‘So if you created a temporary outdoor dining experience in place of your café or restaurant, consider if it would be worth keeping around in the longer term – or at least while the warmer weather remains. Stores can also consider boosting their food to go range as more shoppers will be keen to pick up a snack to enjoy while socialising with friends or family outdoors.’

 

7.  They’re spending more on food

Finally SF turns to Generation Z’s (i.e. teenagers) top spending priority being on food this spring. A survey, conducted between February and March 2021, in the United States found that almost a quarter of the spending of Gen Z shoppers was on food. How easily a US trend amongst young people translates across to the UK teenager is less clear.

 

[i] More Britons say their personal income is not being impacted by COVID-19 (kantar.com)

[ii] Flexible working: Lessons from the pandemic (cipd.co.uk)

[iii] Lockdown legacies: the 10 shifts in consumer behaviour for retailers to be aware of (home.barclaycard)

[iv] 2021BuyingGreenReport.pdf (triviumpackaging.com)

 

 

A bit late, but some more thoughts on the labour question

 

By Prof. Michael Winter

Even in the best organised research project – and I am not claiming that epithet for our project! – it is  possible to miss some really valuable research. So back in June 2020 a report snuck past me and only came to light as a reference in a recently published journal article (Tougeron and Hance 2021). Commissioned by a consortium comprising the National Farmers Union, the British Growers Association, British Summer Fruits and British Apples and Pears, John Pelham of the consultants Andersons produced a report entitled ‘The Potential Implications of Covid-19 for the Costs of Production of UK Fruit & Vegetables in 2020’.

The report is based on a postal survey and follow-up interviews with 27 fruit and vegetable growers, with a combined turnover of over £600 million.  What is so useful about the research is that it really delves into reasons why labour was and continues to be such an issue for this sector, albeit looked at entirely through the costs lens. One sentence in particular caught my eye in this regard:

… the cost of labour for wheat production – the most widely grown crop in the UK – is typically in the range £80-150 per hectare; the range for field strawberry production, for example, is typically £40,000-70,000 per hectare.

 What a difference and to think that we bracket these two radically contrasting production systems together as part of the same industry!

The report details the various ways in which labour cost were affected by the first wave of the pandemic as follows (taken from pages 9-10 of the report):

 

Worker Availability and Recruitment

Whilst some growers have been able to recruit their seasonal workforces without extra cost, many reported incurring additional expenditure to acquire adequate staff, either from the EU or UK. Additional costs have included:

  • New recruitment campaigns.
  • Funding transport (including, in some cases, air travel).
  • Agents fees.
  • Processing, selecting and interviewing new applicants.

 

Training

One indicator that growers use in measuring labour productivity is the proportion of their workforce who have been on the farm in the previous season or seasons – the so-called ‘returnees’. This measure is important in that these workers have already been trained and gained the experience to be able to operate at productive rates. Many growers will target a 60-70% returnee rate.  Conversely, new workers lack both training and experience, so not only incur additional induction costs, but also – without experience – have much lower productivity. Some new workers may not reach commercial work rates until their second season on a holding.

For certain growers (although not all), Covid-19 has reduced the number of returnees, to as low as 30%; training costs, for new workers, have increased accordingly.  Ensuring that all employees are fully briefed on new Covid-19 procedures for social distancing and hygiene has also increased the requirement both for initial and continuing training.

 

Accommodation

Reasons for cost increases in this area include:

  • Acquiring additional accommodation to provide quarantine facilities for newly arriving workers / suspected Covid-19 cases.
  • Payment of workers’ wages during quarantine period.

Acquiring additional accommodation to reduce density of occupation and enable worker groups to be kept separate to counter potential cross-infection.

  • Engaging new employees specifically for additional cleaning/hygiene operations.
  • Setting up of on-site shop facilities to avoid workers having to leave the grower site.

 

Transport and Logistics

Where accommodation and working sites are close together transport is not an issue, but will be where workers have to travel (some growers will have working sites in both categories).

The two main increases in costs arise from:

  • Increased vehicle movements resulting from significantly reduced vehicle occupancy rates.
  • Cleaning of vehicles between trips.

 

Operations

All growers have seen cost increases in this category, both from new costs (e.g. additional staff or equipment) and from reduced productivity of existing or replacement employees.

Some examples include:

  • The need for additional training and supervisory staff to ensure that social distancing in the workplace is organised, understood and maintained; for nearly all growers their ratio of supervisors to operating staff has increased.
  • The introduction of new shift patterns for crop husbandry and harvesting operations to reduce/remove contact between worker groups (to reduce risk of cross- infection).
  • A higher turnover and significantly lower work rates in newly recruited staff.
  • The requirement in packhouses to introduce additional shifts to maintain social distancing, with additional overtime costs, together with the new cost of “deep cleaning” between shifts.
  • The cleaning down of operations machinery (for example mechanical harvesting equipment) at operator changeover.

 

However, despite these significant new costs Pelham also emphasised that labour costs had increased even more sharply as a result of changes in the National Living Wage which had seen an increase in labour costs of 34% between 2016 and 2020.  Returning to the strawberry example, Pelham estimates a COVID related increase in labour costs of around 8%. This is one of many examples of where COVID-induced changes have to be seen in the context of other changes, here labour costs, but often Brexit related changes.

John Pelham’s report bears the legend ‘A First Report’. John informs me via email that he has not been commissioned to produce a second report. This is a great shame because the issues he identified are certainly worth another look in the context of both Brexit and further rounds of lockdown.

 

Tougeron, K., & Hance, T. (2021) Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on apple orchards in Europe. Agricultural Systems, 190, 103097. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.agsy.2021.103097