May 1, 2020
Something fascinating has been happening in the North East food and drink scene in recent years. There’s been a surge of artisan producers, independent cafes and restaurants, deeply individual in their offering yet united by a commitment to quality and provenance.
The region has two Michelin-starred institutions, The Raby Hunt and House of Tides, and a growing number of outstanding restaurants listed in the coveted Michelin Guide. We also have an enviable number of internationally recognised craft breweries from Wylam to Anarchy, Tyne Bank and Almasty.
At the same time, we have several heritage producers, whose brands are household names like Fentimans, Phileas Fogg, Ringtons, Newcastle Brown Ale and Primula Cheese. Not to mention the nation’s favourite, Greggs.
We have dozens of markets scattered across the region giving residents and visitors a chance to sample the very best breads, cheeses, pastries, sauces, sweets and meat products – all made here in the North East.
This rich, diverse ecosystem, where there’s room for the independent food entrepreneurs and the large corporate food brands, was not built in a day. Equally, it will not disappear under the weight of challenges unleashed on the sector as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
But the challenges are massive, and it is true that many food and drink firms will not re-open their doors after closing in March. Already, we have seen food chains that were marginal coming into this crisis, like Carluccios and Chiquito, go into administration. This is likely just the tip of the iceberg.
Scores of small-scale producers and operators, of which there are many in the North East, will also struggle to survive an extended period of being unable to trade.
Indeed, a recent survey to measure the impact of this by new trade organisation Food and Drink North East (FADNE), found that 74 per cent of businesses would not survive for longer than three months, with only eight per cent saying they could survive six months.
Of the 148 businesses who responded, the average loss was estimated at £204,000, equating to £30 million in lost turnover overall. Seventy-six per cent said they expected the pandemic to put up to five jobs at risk.
FADNE was set up by international and fair trade specialist Chris Jewitt to bridge the gap between North East food chains and artisan independents, creating a unified voice and strategy for the sector.
“It’s a project I started working on three years ago,” says Chris, who I speak to ahead of the launch of the FADNE Virtual Market – a trade resilience initiative that has taken on new levels of importance as the coronavirus pandemic intensifies.
“It was a post-mortem of other trade initiatives that had failed,” he continues. “We created FADNE to provide sector-specific, specialist advice and prove to people that we’ve got the influence to ensure they get what they need at a regional or national level.”
Chris wants to use FADNE as a vehicle for many different industry aspirations. Among them are, getting the food and drink sector onto the local industrial strategy, maximising the potential for GVA in the region, advocating for iconic local producers, tackling food poverty and public health, supporting firms through the coronavirus pandemic and doing all of the above in a sustainable way.
It is estimated that the North East’s food and drink sector accounts for only 1.8 per cent of GVA to the regional economy whereas in Yorkshire & Humberside and the North West, it makes up 11.2 per cent and 10.7 per cent, respectively. “There’s an incredible opportunity here when it comes to food and drink and it isn’t just an industry or sector, it’s permanent,” Chris adds.
“We want to leverage the muscle of business to have a transformative impact and grow food and drink to ten per cent of GVA by 2025.”
The permanence of our food and drink scene is under threat at the moment, as the coronavirus lockdown has taken away many businesses’ main route to market. That is why FADNE is launching the Local Heroes Virtual Market to ensure firms can still reach their customers.
“But the virtual food market is not a sticking plaster,” Chris clarifies. “It’s a campaign to ensure immediate route-to-market for producers, but it will also give us a platform that will outlast the crisis.”
He continues: “This all comes back to trade resilience. A lot of these businesses rely on two or three markets per month, for example. If they don’t trade, they don’t get paid. It’s as simple as that. We, therefore, need to do something dynamic ourselves to make sure people survive.”
The virtual market will not only support businesses struggling because of the coronavirus. It will also help individuals through a 15 per cent community premium on every box of produce sold.
Chris continues: “It’s charitable, the customer won’t even notice it because it’s built into the cost of the box and it will enable us to get food to the vulnerable, NHS workers and others in need.”
A fully green logistics operation will support the market in association with Z-Move, which provides zero emissions smart delivery.
The North East has approximately 7500 food and drinks manufacturing companies and 1600 independent retailers, which support, directly and indirectly, 826,000 jobs across the sector.
But more than that, food and drink is one of our most basic human needs. As the region fights to retain its newly-found status as a gastronomic destination, we should keep that fact at the forefront of our minds.