A gold rush and a day of reckoning looms

The Ivy On the Square St. Andrews Square - Edinburgh
The Ivy On the Square St. Andrews Square - Edinburgh
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As is traditional, it’s time for our annual food and drink review of the year served up with a side order of predictions for what the next 12 months may bring.

2017 was another bumper year for the food and drink sector in Scotland. The first six months saw a 9% rise in exports to a new record total of £2.5 billion making the overall industry worth £14.4 billion annually. In March a new Ambition 2030 strategy was unveiled which aims to more than double that value to £30 billion in the next 12 years. In these challenging times for the economy, we are lucky to have an economic sector as valuable as food and drink.

It was also a successful year in terms of the predictions made here 12 months ago. As suggested, artisan drinks production has diversified away from gin and beer into new areas like vodka and rum. We’ve also seen the start of the predicted consolidation with established brands buying up the new arrivals. Expect to see much more of that in 2018.

A year ago this column also predicted the demise of the clean eating craze and sure enough it has receded to the point where only a few desperate bloggers are still pretending avocados are interesting and kale smoothies are anything other than inedible. The final prediction 12 months ago was a restaurant boom in Edinburgh and the arrival of big name brands like The Ivy in the city centre. That klondyke is also a good place to start looking ahead.

This year has seen more new restaurant openings in Edinburgh than at any other time in memory and no one seems to understand why. Sometimes a rush of restaurant openings reflects a wave of general economic optimism or specific major job growth in an area. Since we don’t have either, it looks like nothing more than an old fashioned gold rush. Speculators have wrung London dry so are looking at new places to roll our brands and the word is out that there is gold in Auld Reekie. Where one goes, the others follow so if Wahaca believes Edinburgh is a good investment then Wagamama won’t want to miss out and Dishoom, Gaucho, Cote and The Ivy won’t be far behind.

But the great Yukon gold rush was over in just 3 years and Edinburgh’s restaurant boom may be lucky to last even that long. With further openings expected this year, something has got to give and it’s not likely to be the chains which can subsidise a quiet months with profits across the business throughout the year. The challenge will be for the local independent restaurants struggling to pay rising food costs and wage bills as well rents, rates and VAT as well. Sadly, some of them might not survive the wave created by the landing of the ruthless national chains.

More than anything else, 2018 will be the year Brexit bites. If this was the year we set ambitious targets for food and drink growth, next year we will start to understand if they are achievable. Some remain optimistic the sky is the limit when we are untethered from the shackles of the European Union and the world is our oyster. Others are gloomier. This year one farmer told me 2018 would be the year he would decide to invest more in soft fruit or get out of the sector totally, all dependant on reassurances about the availability of EU labour.

On the cusp of a new year, there is much uncertainty ahead but also great opportunities. Food and drink may be the last thing on your mind after the great festive feast but where and how you choose to eat out and spend your cash will matter like never before in 2018. So eat well, drink well and very best wishes for a happy, healthy and well fed New Year.