Consumer-facing food companies have changed — seemingly permanently — as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
With COVID-19 ravaging countries around the world, restaurants, wholesalers and grocery stores have had to find new ways to feed people and keep their businesses alive. Instead of greeting people at tables or in stores, they were sending out everything from gourmet meals to cardboard boxes filled with fresh fruits and vegetables.
Now, however, things have changed again.
In a cold store in an industrial estate in south-east London, wholesale food supplier Smith and Brock is adapting its pandemic-proof business model for the third time.
“We started a door-to-door delivery business, which kind of saved our bacon in 2020, and we’re now looking to expand the wholesale business, moving into new premises,” said Nick Fowler, co-owner .
When the pandemic first forced people into lockdown two years ago, businesses dried up virtually overnight. With no hotels, restaurants or events to supply, Smith and Brock packed boxes full of fresh produce and delivered them to people all over London. Then they expanded by partnering with renowned restaurants to offer more personalized in-home dining experiences.
Fowler and his team called the project Knock Knock, and it became a part of the business that a year ago they intended to make permanent. Now the company is downsizing.
“Just because the demand for the lockdown and people going back to restaurants and the usual ways of getting their food has changed. So it’s just not commercially viable anymore,” Fowler said.
This week, Smith and Brock delivered their latest Knock Knock box because, as Fowler said in a letter to clients, they “don’t have the deep pockets of private equity, just the back pocket” of his co-founder/brother Joe’s “ripped jeans.”
Plus, with the weather warming up and COVID restrictions completely rolled back in the UK, people are eager to get back to pre-pandemic laid-back lifestyles.
“People want to go out more than they did before the pandemic, despite the high number of cases,” said Darren Morgan, director of economic statistics at the UK’s Office for National Statistics.
He and his team analyzed payment card data and restaurant reservations from OpenTable. Overall spending, according to their figures, rose 6% from pre-pandemic levels last week, while restaurant reservations soared 22%.
“What people are telling us is maybe they’ve been thinking during the pandemic, life is too short, they want to enjoy it when they can. They want to go out and eat, and they’ve missed it,” Morgan said.
It’s a hot trend in East London’s Shoreditch area. Diners at Mumbai-style Indian restaurant Dishoom sip chai, dip into bowls of black dal and plates of chicken smothered in a rich red curry sauce.
“One thing we really focus on is creating beautiful dining spaces, beautiful experiences for our team, our guests. When the pandemic hit, it was obviously a complete change of events,” said Kavi Thakrar, co-founder of the channel.
Like so many other restaurants, Dishoom quickly turned to home deliveries, offering fan-favorite dishes like the bacon naan roll, which Thakrar showed how to make in a step-by-step video online.
The deals were so popular with customers across the UK that in addition to meal kits, Dishoom launched hot food delivery in several cities and expanded its home range to include potted sauces, jams , chai and even cocktails.
Now, with many restaurants ending their stay-at-home offers, Dishoom is steaming in the opposite direction.
“People who buy our breakfast kits are now trying our grilling kits or our feasting kits or our biryani kits. I think as a larger market the meal kits have gone down but if I look at the business as a whole it will continue as we add new products and kits to grow because I think people are interested in different routines in their own lives,” he said.
As Dishoom continues to add, Smith and Brock’s Fowler said his equation isn’t just subtraction.
“Our dad, he was a tradesman, so he had shops, market stalls, greengrocers and florists, so it was always something we wanted to do,” Fowler said.
In November, Fowler and his team made the dream a reality by opening the company’s first physical store, called the Marketplace. It offers the same restaurant-quality products and meat delivery that customers have come to enjoy during lockdown.
Another pivot that once again proves for consumer-facing food companies, the only constant in a pandemic is change.
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