Restaurants and takeaways should not be afraid of making changes to face the “new normal” after the coronavirus lockdown, a fish and chip industry head has said. Andrew Crook, President of the fish and chips representative body the National Federation of Fish Friers, spoke to BritShish about the impact of Covid-19 on his sector and what could come next as the situation changes.
1. How has the lockdown impacted your members’ sales?
Much of the fish and chip industry closed down for four to five weeks but we used that time to look at our operations and how we could open safely. We have seen fairly strong demand since reopening, especially at weekends, so most shops are operating reduced hours as it enables us to operate with minimal staff in the businesses for now. In my own shop we are 100% electronic sales, online has been crazy since reopening and people are happy to pay by card … it’s only less risk for my team and customers not having to pass money between each other and I have to say I hope it continues … my accounts are much easier, I don’t have to get change and count tills and it’s safer and much more hygienic. I cannot think of a legitimate reason not to at least take card payments after this.
2. Have many of your member restaurants been able to stay open and trade as takeaways during the lockdown?
Most did close as we found it was impossible to operate back in March and we were concerned for the safety of our teams, much of the guidance was to protect customers and not much mention of workers, as employers the safety of your employees is your most important job. Our industry network is fantastic and businesses used this time to share ideas that worked with other shops to help get more of us back open. The big problem we have with fish and chips was that everyone wants to order at 6pm on a Friday so a standard click and collect would not be manageable. My friends at a shop in Exmouth was using a system with time slots similar to a supermarket delivery system. It means we could control the flow of trade to protect our teams and our customers … it was a game changer.
Some have started deliveries but insurance is very expensive, I don’t think many takeaway operators know that you need hire and reward insurance to deliver food and without it you are not legal. Some of our members have teamed up with taxi companies to overcome this problem and have been very successful.
3. Did the government grants and loans provided provide sufficient support for your member businesses to survive? Do you expect more support from the government?
At the start of this crisis the Chancellor said they would do whatever it takes to help businesses get through this and I really do think they did. The grants helped provide liquidity which was much needed to help service our suppliers and rent commitments, keeping many businesses afloat. The furlough scheme had undoubtedly saved many jobs in the short term, hopefully the Government will see the opportunity to rebuild the economy with a strong hospitality industry and protect those jobs long term. The CBILS did prove difficult for small businesses to access so the Government introduced the Bounce Back loans. These have helped many business invest to adapt to the ‘New Normal’ and provide a cushion if there are any localised lockdowns in the future. The government have been fantastic so far at listening to business and I hope they have the ambition to help us grow in the future.
I really think a strong hospitality industry could be a firm foundation to rebuild the economy on. Prior to lockdown we had an industry in a race to the bottom, with many businesses undercutting each other to try to survive and finding it difficult to recruit employees who want to work unsociable hours for comparably low pay. Just as many of us have had to reinvent our operations I think there is an opportunity for the hospitality industry and the government to sit down and have a discussion of how VAT is levied on food. With most of our inputs being zero rated and our outputs attracting VAT many business struggle to pay the VAT each quarter as other costs increase we end up absorbing them as we fear losing trade through price increases. A fairer VAT system would mean we can pay our employees more and invest in more training and these employees would have more money to spend in the hospitality industry themselves. We may see a short term reduction in VAT in the coming weeks but without reform we will end up with the same issues in the future.
I also think businesses reliant on tourism may need more support to see them through depending on how much of the summer is salvaged.
4. How could the new guidelines announced by the government affect your member businesses? Could a decrease in customers eating-in due to social distancing measures create problems for your members?
I think it depends on the size of operation. If the seating area is only small I would advise the operator to consider if it is viable to open. Many can survive on takeaway only so it’s could be a risk that can be avoided. We have advised members that do consider it safe to open to start off small and expand so they can find safe working practices and keep everyone safe. I operate a takeaway only fish and chip shop and I am still not letting customers into the premises as I don’t feel the need to, it’s about minimising risks wherever possible.
We are likely to be in this phase for some time so it’s important we find ways to adapt and we will be working with members to ensure they have the advice they need.
5. Do you expect some of your member businesses to close down?
We may see some closures in the short term, but these are businesses that have already been in trouble. It’s the medium to long term that is a concern. Globally 195 million people are thought to have lost their jobs in Q2 and as furlough finishes we may see an increase. This could lead to customers having less money to spend and that is obviously a worry. I think takeaways are probably at the right price point on the whole to survive but it depends on how deep the expected recession goes. We are on uncharted territory but I know by pulling together we can adapt and overcome. The NFFF is part of the British Takeaway Campaign abs we firmly believe in joining forces with the other cuisines to create a powerful force to protect all of our businesses.
6. Do you expect consumer eating habits to change radically (e.g. avoiding restaurants altogether)?
I think inevitably consumer habits will change. Online will remain strong, people will be less trusting of being in close contact with others and hygiene and accreditation are going to be key when they choose where to dine. The businesses that will do the best in the ‘new normal’ are those that recognise this and invest in their premises, training their teams and gaining a reputation for cleanliness and quality.
7. What advice would you give your members and restaurants for the future?
The biggest lesson I have taken from this is that when you think you have seen it all something you could not even imagine comes out of the blue. This has been the most stressful period of most people’s careers, but the lessons we have learned will hopefully make the businesses that survive stronger.
My advice is really don’t be afraid of making changes, we have the chance to look at our operations a take stock of what is profitable and what is not, new technology can help your operation and make room for more customers. Fish and chips is 160 years old this year but in five weeks we revolutionised the way people purchase them by using click and collect and operators and customers alike prefer this way of working … and what’s more it allows you to take more money with less stress.