The Independent Food and Drink Sector – Planning for Post-COVID-19

Leeds Business School has launched some e-workshops to provide support for members of the Independent Food and Drink Academy, and is one of the delivery partners for the Small Business Leadership Programme. Professor David Devins writes about some of the ways in which the sector is meeting the challenges of COVID-19 and invites businesses to sign up for the free workshops to share knowledge and make plans for the future.

COVID-19 has hit the Independent Food and Drink Sector particularly hard and business leaders in the Sector are facing challenges that they have never had to face before. Pubs, bars, cafés and restaurants have closed and ‘gone into hibernation’ and business leaders are facing the most difficult of choices associated with sustaining their businesses. In a recent survey of businesses, the British Chambers of Commerce found that a majority of firms in the economy have just three months (or less) cash in reserve. Reducing costs has been a priority for many with businesses cancelling all non-essential spending and working with stakeholders to reduce costs through a variety of means including rent holidays, breaks from duty, VAT and PAYE payments and reduced credit terms. Many are considering how government support measures can help them and have chosen to retain or furlough employees as well as considering various financing options to cover costs.

At the time of writing it is very difficult to envisage a particular date when the lockdown will end (but it will). Levels of demand for services and products in what many economists are forecasting to be a recessionary economy are also hard to predict. Despite the gloomy economic outlook it is difficult to imagine that there will not be an initial surge in demand for food and drink services post-lockdown and some businesses in the sector are using hibernation to prepare for the longer term. Some are using scarce resources to invest in maintenance and development of premises. Some are refitting or refurbishing to improve the customer experience, others are investing in security systems to mitigate the risk of damage that may come from criminal activity. Some have been able to take advantage of the dramatic increase in demand for takeaway food and delivery services and to diversify revenue streams, with the adoption of good practice guidelines an important consideration in the safeguarding of staff and customers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some have introduced digital technologies to develop communication channels and provide routes to new markets - including export markets. Some are undertaking detailed scenario planning to prepare for different eventualities in a post-COVID-19 era.

This is an important time for businesses to draw on networks of support and advice and to keep communicating with other small businesses to share ideas and innovative practices. Christian Townsley, co-owner of Leeds based North Brewing notes that

"the most valuable part of all our activity during the crisis has been constant communication with the teams, our peers, advisors (professional support) and other business owners – the latter not necessarily in our industry. It’s been a roller coaster and regular chats have helped manage anxieties and keep spirits up. Phone calls and e-meetings with other business owners have provided a great sounding board and helped to share experiences and make us feel less alone".

These views are echoed by many other businesses as they manage their way through the COVID-19 crisis. Some, particularly the newest and smallest businesses, may not have the networks that more established businesses are able to draw on. The Independent Food and Drink Academy was established to provide peer-to peer support for start-ups and small businesses operating in the sector in Leeds. We have been running some e-workshops and will participating in the new Small Business Leadership Programme to help members share knowledge, cope with change and to make plans for the future.