The New Gastronome
A 2020 Look at Food Supply Chains
by Theo Crutcher
by Theo Crutcher
“Fresh fish coming in” an email from Pesky Fish informed me at 7 am one Monday morning in the midst of the UK’s COVID-19 lockdown. Whilst we are all used to a daily onslaught of spam pushing us to buy everything from fashion to razor blades, this felt slightly different. Pesky Fish were selling the day’s catch from fishing boats around the West Country. They are one of a number of innovative food businesses that, due to the extraordinary circumstances of spring 2020, pivoted from supplying restaurants to the general public. They had heaps of publicity from all corners of the food world and, as a result, by the time I logged in at 11 am, the turbot, line-caught sea bass, mackerel, brill and plaice were already out of stock. Latecomers like me had to make do with pollock or some live lobsters.
The gathering of food and drink, which for much of human existence only needed to compete with procreation for our undivided attention has, over the last century, dwindled in importance to become a rather banal activity requiring little thought, imagination or forward planning. However, lockdown measures – through a combination of overstretched conventional supply networks, a decimation of the hospitality sector and the removal of almost all other distractions – re-elevated the task, giving us an opportunity to rethink the mechanics of how we feed ourselves.
According to a YouGov survey carried out in April 2020 in the UK, 19 million more Brits said that they had been cooking more from scratch since lockdown began. 6% of Britons, that’s around three million people, said that they had tried a veg box scheme or ordered food directly from a farm for the first time.
In the UK, over 63% of all of our grocery shopping is done via the four largest supermarket groups: Tesco’s, Sainsbury’s, ASDA and Morrisons. What unites all of these is their effort to supply everything a household could possibly need under one roof. The only disruption to this turgid sector in recent years has come from cost slashing European rivals, Lidl and Aldi who have taken a combined 14% market share from the “big four” incumbents.
Self-service supermarkets sprang to life in the early 1950s just after the second world war, an event that the media cannot tire of drawing dubious parallels with also during the COVID lockdown. When they first opened, people were alarmed by the lack of personal interaction they had with the suppliers of food, however, they soon became symbols of new modernity and freedom of choice. Any sceptics were quickly converted by lower prices and convenience.
“Pesky Fish are one of a number of innovative food businesses that, due to the extraordinary circumstances of spring 2020, pivoted from supplying restaurants to the general public.”
Supermarket groups went on to become the dominant force in the food supply chain, squeezing producers of agricultural products as they competed aggressively with one another on price. Before supermarket price wars, it was commonplace to have your milk delivered each day directly from the farm by an electric milk float in glass bottles that would get collected and reused – an idea that couldn’t seem more in line with the current zeitgeist and is now back on the rise. Supermarkets, for a time, however, killed the milkman by selling milk and other dairy products at prices often below what they bought milk from at the farm on the basis that if people came for cheap milk they would fill a basket with other, higher-margin goods.
As the power of supermarkets increased, so did the prevalence of “own brand” products. Now, everything from olive oil, soy sauce, beer, meat, fish and pasta can be bought under one homogenised brand. This has caused us to treat many food products as commodities that can only be distinguished from one another on price.
The effects of COVID-19 have meant however that supermarkets are losing their grip on the battle for convenience. The big grocers experienced a rush in demand when lockdown measures were enforced but became quickly overwhelmed. Queues for stores were standard and essentials like flour, pasta and cooking oils remained hard to find throughout the peak of the crisis. Even now, after the worst is over, it’s a challenge to secure a convenient delivery slot with any of the major players.
With the lazy convenience of a one-stop supermarket trip removed, people started looking elsewhere to stock their larders. Those who took time to do so found a whole range of options that not just provided better quality food, but a better approach to food shopping. 33% of people surveyed by YouGov have said that they were throwing away less food and 42% of people said that they had started to value food more as a result of the COVID outbreak.
“33% of people surveyed by YouGov have said that they were throwing away less food and 42% of people said that they had started to value food more as a result of the COVID outbreak.”
Take tomatoes as an example. Waitrose sells “Essential” cherry tomatoes at £1.50 for a 500g pack. They are grown in Spain and year-round they look and taste the same: slightly jaundice yellow, hard and almost completely tasteless. That is because they are picked whilst still green and allowed to ripen in refrigerated transport on the long, overland trip to our supermarket shelves.
The Tomato Stall has been growing tomatoes on the Isle of White since 2007, supplying top chefs, farmers markets and a few high-end food stores. The tomatoes are allowed to ripen on the vine allowing the maximum amount of flavour to develop. It doesn’t make sense to send a single 500g pack of tomatoes, so their tomatoes come in 3kg boxes. At £20, that feels like more than you would comfortably spend on tomatoes in a single hit (although pound for pound it is not so different to the higher end Waitrose offering) and certainly more than you would ever need.
But say you take the plunge, allured by the prospect of a beautiful assortment of multicoloured heritage tomatoes and memories of the perfect Caprese salad during a trip to the Amalfi coast. Your whole approach to meal planning for the foreseeable future has already altered. With this bulk supply of a fantastic ingredient, you will start planning what to eat around what you have, as opposed to what you want, inspired by Instagram trawling or a Sunday newspaper supplement. You will also ensure that every last bit of fruit is put to good use.
“Removing the cost-cutting middlemen by going direct to the source is also a step on the path towards redistributing the balance of power in our food supply chain, creating a fairer system for struggling farmers.”
The success of companies like the Tomato Stall and Pesky Fish in reaching new retail customers in recent weeks has, in part, been driven by the chefs they used to supply. Not wanting to see their favourite suppliers go under, restaurateurs have become trusted promoters of their favourite ingredients. The Virtual Food Festival has been harnessing the power of celebrity chefs including Rick Stein, Angela Hartnett and Jose Pizaro to connect suppliers directly with retail customers through Instagram Live cooking demonstrations. Restaurants including the River Cafe, Brat and the Quality Chop House have also been delivering curated grocery boxes of ingredients from the people that usually supply their professional kitchens.
It could be a telling sign of things to come that Sunday Times chief restaurant critic Marina O’Loghlin has pivoted her weekly column to interviewing chefs whilst being taught to cook by them via Zoom. With restaurants likely to be one of the last places where lockdown measures are lifted, buying a handpicked selection of top ingredients from your favourite chef, then being guided through their preparation from the comfort of your own home could be the best alternative to eating out we will see for some time.
And it’s not just food that is experiencing change as a result of restaurant closures. Some of Europe’s best wines come from small producers who, due to more predictable demand and the need for knowledgeable, hands-on sellers, only supply the restaurant trade. Without that demand, they are looking elsewhere for customers and offering generous discounts in the process. With a bit of research and some forward planning, you can now stock up your home reserves with top-quality artisan wines bought directly from the producer for as little as £10 a bottle, as opposed to popping to the nearest convenience store for a spontaneous bottle of headache-inducing plonk.
This new shopping format is never going to be able to compete with supermarkets directly on price but it could help to save money on groceries by focusing meal planning on fewer but better ingredients and ensuring that less goes to waste. In any case, our spending on food as a proportion of income has been in steady decline for years. The last few weeks have forced us to strip our lives back to the bare essentials causing many people to discover a newfound appreciation for food, not just as a source of sustenance and enjoyment but also as a relaxing pastime. 85% of survey respondents have said that they want to see some of the social changes they have experienced as a result of COVID become permanent, whilst only 9% want things to go back to the way they were before.
Removing the cost-cutting middlemen by going direct to the source is also a step on the path towards redistributing the balance of power in our food supply chain, creating a fairer system for struggling farmers. Tesco’s plan to pay out £635m in dividends to shareholders at the end of this year is, in part, a result of their increased fortunes as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. A more thoughtful approach to how we gather food could instead see that money going directly into the hands of the people who feed us. Breaking up supermarket dominance in this way would bring much-needed wealth to rural communities as well as opening a direct line of communication between producers and the end-users of food. This could be one route to healing some of the social and economic divisions that have fractured the country in recent years.