The future of foodservice

Cafés and restaurants will look very different when they reopen, but there are less visible changes needed too, says David Burrows.

Before the coffee gets cold is about a café in a small back alley in Tokyo where, sat in a particular chair, customers can travel back in time. It’s a wonderful book, following four hopefuls as they venture back. It sounds tempting, doesn’t it? I’d certainly jump at the chance now, to head back just three months to sit in the local coffee shop with my daughter reading books in “our big red chair”. For the time being, homemade cakes, poorly poured flat whites and the garden bench will have to do.

Indeed, in our locked down world I found Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s story particularly apposite. It is June 2020 and we are in the midst of a global pandemic that has left the hospitality sector longing for the past and wondering anxiously what the future holds. Talk is of coronavirus-proof cafés and restaurants being reinvented. Few believe that a return to normal is possible, but wider reopening of cafés, fast food chains, pubs and restaurants is now tantalisingly close.

In fact, the original date of July 4th could be brought forward, if reports are to be believed. Talks between ministers and the industry have intensified this week and the chancellor Rishi Sunak reportedly told Tory MPs: “Somehow Greece and Italy are opening up. This country can’t be the only place in the world where people can’t go and have a drink in the pub.”

It won’t be The King’s Head as we know it, though. Discussions between industry and Whitehall remain chaotic rather than the calm required during a crisis, and these are delicate negotiations. There is seemingly pent up demand for coffees and pints out but more than three in four consumers (76%) want strict rules in place to “prevent contagion”.

The rules over social distancing, in particular, have come into sharp focus these past few days. Some industry groups have been lobbying the UK Government to fall into line with other countries (like the Netherlands and Australia) and relax the 2m rule to 1.5m. Or even 1m, like France and Italy. At the weekend, senior Conservative MPs joined the chorus, provided the science shows it is safe. Shrink that measurement and suddenly you stretch the potential of businesses to operate at a profit.

But let’s not get carried away, here. Many foodservice companies were struggling before Covid-19. Burger chains and high street restaurants were already going out of business. As the food writer, restaurant critic and proprietor of Cambridge-based bakery and restaurant Fitzbillies Tim Hayward noted over the weekend, a subsector of the industry has developed involving “… a toxic triangle of property, investment and catering businesses” that was “always unsustainable”.

So, what does a sustainable foodservice business look like post-pandemic? More hygienic for sure: the Perspex screens, the masked (and even begoggled) staff, the continuous wiping down of “touch points” and contactless service will all help reassure consumers. However, I wonder when they are resumed, whether those stories on our big red chair will bring not the past a sense of delight but a feeling of danger, as staff don masks and plastic screens help cordon off customers.

Unfortunately, there will (rightly) have to be visible changes to every foodservice outlet for the foreseeable future. But in the rush to reopen for business, are we forgetting the hidden ones? I’m thinking of the staff who have struggled by on minimum wage plus tips; the menus heavily weighted towards sugar and fat; the unnecessary single-use packaging; and the cheap meat from who-knows-where. At the centre of all this is the age-old question: has food become too cheap?

“What we’ve become aware of more than ever before is just how difficult it is to make money as a restaurant,” Andrew Stephen, CEO of the Sustainable Restaurant Association, told me in a call a few days back. “If we want the sort of shift in UK foodservice that we need for food, the planet and health we have to address consumer spend on food.”

Whether now, as we enter what’s likely to be a period of prolongued hardship for many, is the time to be talking about the price of food is a moot point. Businesses will be desperate to get as many socially-distanced customers through their doors as possible, but capacity will be painfully down and the chances of a cost-cutting frenzy are high. “[I am] certainly not saying [these topics] will be easy,” Stephen explained, but it’s “the right time to tell the truth”.

Stephen passionately talked of central government, local authorities, landlords and others working together to develop a foodservice ecosystem that rewards businesses for delivering public benefit. He has already started work on the metrics that could be used, too: transparent procurement, increased plant-based sales, payment of the real living wage and redistribution of surplus food are “great places to start”.

If there are calls for government bailouts for polluting sectors like aviation to come with environmental caveats, then why can’t the same logic be applied to support schemes for food businesses? This is public money so “what’s the return on that investment?” is a valid question. If it is better conditions for staff, healthier consumers, less waste and a smaller environmental impact then isn’t it money well spent?

In Kawaguchi’s story, time travel also comes with strings attached, notably: that the past won’t change and you have to finish the coffee before it gets cold. We can’t change the past, but as the government decides how to restart and support the hospitality sector, there is a small window of opportunity to change the future. Let’s embrace it.

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