One year on: How lockdowns and levels have affected the food and drink industry in Scotland

As lockdown restrictions are set to ease, and with the reopening of hospitality on the cards potentially by the summer, Rosalind Erskine finds out what changes customers can expect.

It has been a year since Boris Johnson appeared on our TV screens telling us not to go to pubs and restaurants, an announcement that caused confusion and anger among those working in the sector.

A year on, the industry has faced prolonged lockdowns, level systems and curfews. With a glimmer of hope of reopening on the horizon, what has been the impact of Covid-19 on the hospitality industry in Scotland?

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During the past year I have been hosting Scran, the Scotsman’s food and drink podcast, talking to those in the industry about the changeable working environment in which they found themselves. One of the first guests I spoke to was Scotland Food and Drink CEO James Withers, who urged Scots to save their favourite businesses by shopping locally. New online businesses offering local and seasonal food delivery popped up and did well from people unable or unwilling to shop at a supermarket. One of these was Edinburgh based Romaine Calm, created by friends Jeremy Downton and James Henderson to offer delivery of products from Scottish and independent suppliers. James thinks that the way people shop for food has changed, saying: “People have realised that the supermarkets are not the only answer. They’ve gone to their local butcher or greengrocer and realised the quality level is immense in comparison and not as expensive as commonly perceived.”

Lorna McNee, head chef at Glasgow's Cail Bruich, which recently won a Michelin Star.

While we have had options for buying food, going out for a meal has been a distant memory for most. Graham Suttle of Kained Holdings, who own multiple bars and restaurants in Glasgow said that the impact on the industry in Scotland has been massive. “There have been multiple cases and numerous instances of severely negative impacts on the industry. However there have also been a few learnings which have led to some degree of positivity.” A positive outcome for Kained has been the success of their steak restaurant, Porter & Rye’s cook at home kits - something that many outlets have offered.

Cail Bruich, which recently won Glasgow’s first Michelin star in years, is one of these. Head chef Lorna McNee explained that these cook at home kits will not continue after lockdown. She said: “As soon as we go back to doing proper restaurant stuff, the meal boxes won't be there anymore. My main focus is the restaurant and where I want to take it with regards to food.” Jordan Charles, general manager of Meldrum House Hotel in Aberdeenshire agreed with this, saying: “People want to get out and about and enjoy food again where there is an atmosphere and they don’t need to cook for themselves.” Meldrum set up outdoor dining domes last summer and these have become a permanent fixture. Jordan added: “We have waiting lists at weekends for them. Bookings are coming in thick and fast prior to reopening this year.”

Alfresco dining is a consequence of Covid-19 that those in the industry are expecting to remain. Nick Nairn is overseeing a revamp of his cook school with a focus on dining in the garden, which has beautiful views.

While some chefs looking to the future are keen to ditch the cook at home option, this offering has been of huge success to some, so much so that it will continue. Nick Nairn foresees offering a cook at home option for seasonal dates such as Easter or Valentine’s while chef Dean Banks saw huge success with the nationwide delivery of his Haar at Home boxes. He said: “It has been a massive success, almost three times as big as the restaurant itself – Haar in St Andrews - ever was. Lockdown has made everyone start being a bit more creative and come up with a new industry, one that didn’t really exist before.”

The dining domes at Meldrum House Hotel.

Those not cooking at home have increasingly turned to ordering online. Third party delivery firms became king in lockdown, with Just Eat reporting a growth in sales of over 50 per cent. More localised delivery services, such as Zippy D, which is used by restaurants in Dundee and Perth, has plans to expand to cover other areas of Scotland. Managing director Neil Robertson found that they’ve taken on unemployed or furloughed chefs, and he thinks that this work has offered support, camaraderie and some earnings at this time.

The loss of chefs and hospitality workers from the industry is something that concerns Nick Nairn. He said: “At the start (of the pandemic) I thought recruitment was going to be one of the few good things that would come out of this. I thought there would be loads of people looking for work. But a lot of people have left the industry - it’s a real loss.”

One of the inescapable features of the past year has been Zoom - something that drinks industry professionals have used with great success to host virtual drinks and tasting events.

Drinks brands have had to adapt to online in others ways too. Stuart Cook from Harviestoun Brewery explained, saying: “Our ecommerce site has been a fantastic way to keep the beer flowing and I very much think it will continue, as habits have changed. The convenience and choice will mean consumers continue to order this way.”

Dining domes and a marque at the Chester Hotel in Aberdeen.

More information on lockdown easing is due soon, with a possible return to the Levels system. In response to this, Carlo Crolla from East Coast in Musselburgh said: “In a perfect world we’d reopen in the near future with minimal restrictions. As things improve, we’d hopefully, eventually get back to how it was before.”

The things that have kept businesses going - local support from customers, buying Scottish produce, and an up-to-date online presence - are partly going to be what helps the survival of our food and drink industry. As Stephen Gow of the Chester Hotel said: “We all need to value our local, independent businesses and use them … or lose them.”

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