While we encourage everyone who can to safely get out there and enjoy restaurants, we also have an opportunity to continue to support those specialist suppliers, both national and local, who pivoted their businesses to provide the public with doorstep meal kit deliveries of restaurant-quality fish, meats, cheeses or exciting new ingredients throughout the past year. Many of us – foodies and food producers, alike – are keen to keep that new relationship going. As restaurants reopen, we celebrate how the best lockdown initiatives have given us more choice, and explore why local is more important than ever.
See how many of our restaurants have reinvented due to lockdown here.
As the UK reopens, many of us have already dined al fresco in a pub garden or on a restaurant terrace, reconnecting with family, friends and colleagues over a glass and – at last – a meal not cooked by ourselves. Perhaps, as you soaked up the atmosphere, you reflected on the seismic changes since we were last allowed to get together in a meaningful way. Much of it was positive: we had more time to be creative in our kitchens, experiment with new ingredients, develop new skills and experience high-quality dishes from chefs in the form of assemble-it-yourself restaurant meal kits.
Of course, we missed interaction, non-screen communication and a sense of belonging to a community. In short, the experience that restaurants, pubs and cafés provides to many of us. Now, we have more choice. We can visit our favourite restaurant or cook its menu at home.
And, while we encourage everyone who can to safely get out there and enjoy restaurants, we also have an opportunity to continue to support those specialist suppliers, both national and local, who pivoted their businesses to provide the public with doorstep deliveries of restaurant-quality fish, meats, cheeses or exciting new ingredients throughout the past year. Many of us – foodies and food producers, alike – are keen to keep that new relationship going.
Restaurant meal kits
Many initiatives launched in lockdown are here to stay. Take meal kits, for example. Daniel Woolfson, food and drink editor at The Grocer, expects a dip in demand when restaurants fully open, but predicts kits are a permanent fixture. “There’s been a lot of investment in them, and big companies don’t spend quickly in one sector unless there are long-term prospects.”
Rick Stein, whose company has been selling 8,000 Stein’s at Home boxes weekly, would agree – and such changes in dining habits affect us all. In Manchester, street food market Grub’s lockdown delivery service revealed a previously untapped market for products such as weekend brunch kits from traders including Archchi’s and Yum Yum Manc. It now plans to build a click and collect store at its Red Bank site. Thanks to the convergence of technology and delivery logistics, we now expect almost instant access to high-end products as standard, be it day-boat fish from online marketplace Pesky Fish or bottled negronis. “We’ll definitely be continuing,” says Andy Kerr, co- founder of bar group The Umbrella Project, which now offers nationwide cocktail deliveries. “It’s become its own business.”
Suburban food hubs
Where we eat out will change, too. Most observers predict quieter city centres, with people eating and drinking closer to home. There’s talk of food halls flourishing in the suburbs. “Grub is not going to abandon the city centre,” says co-owner Jason Bailey, but, just as he envisages street food traders heading into suburban markets, pub kitchen takeovers and cheaper spaces on failing high streets, Grub is also looking at out-of-town opportunities.
With a world of ingredients now one click away, cooks are digging deep to fuel their creativity. At online store Sous Chef, searches for black garlic, sichuan pepper and seaweed are up as much as 600%. Owner Nicola Lando predicts a boom in ambitious post-lockdown dinner parties and, with holidays restricted, plenty of exploration through flavour: “People have found joy in the sense of travel through the meals they cook. That’s unlikely to fall away.”
If specialist producers started selling restaurant-quality ingredients direct to foodies as a pandemic necessity, many now regard it as a positive. That wider clientele makes them more resilient. Previously mainly a trade supplier to chefs such as Nathan Outlaw, the Cornish Fishmonger is now committed to home delivery, accounting for 50% of its business.
Many street traders, such as Zosima Fulwell (aka Mama Z), have begun to make condiments, sauces and seasonings to sell online, as have some supper club hosts and food bloggers. The hot sauce market has never been, well, hotter. “It’s been more successful than I thought it would be,” says Manchester-based Fulwell, known for her Filipino banana ketchup. “People are supporting smaller local businesses.”
At Somerset ewe’s milk cheese producer Homewood, Angela Morris has, through direct farm sales and a continuing spot at Bath farmers’ market, enjoyed this chance to renew local connections: “It’s more effort but it’s rewarding being rooted, so we hope that’ll be a strong element of what we do.”
Many breweries in particular have gone to extraordinary lengths (Instagram live tastings, virtual festivals and Zoom brewery tours at Buckinghamshire’s Malt) to build a sense of online community around their beer sales, which people may cherish long into the future. In the past year, Cloudwater created more than 135 hours of content for its weekly “virtual tap room” gathering, significantly increasing its online sales. All breweries want to get back to selling into pubs but, says Mark Welsby from fellow Manchester brewery Runaway, with many bars closed for good and others reopening slowly: “Short-term, breweries will need that extra margin they get through selling to the public.”
Producers still need our support, and we still want those mini-keg, rare-breed meat or cheese club deliveries. “As humans, we look to food for security, nourishment, family and community connection,” says Aine Morris, co-founder of Bristol Food Union. “Hopefully, what comes out of this crisis is more people understanding the value of this and willing to take that extra effort to support local suppliers.”
The information in this article was in line with the government’s Covid-19 restrictions when we went to press, but please check with restaurants before visiting.
Here come the chefs
The market for delivered meals exploded during lockdown, creating an opportunity for semi-pro home chefs eager to feed their neighbours
• Late 2020 saw the launch of several platforms – Bristol’s All About the Cooks (AATC), Northampton’s GRUBie and London’s NoshyCircle – that connect hungry diners with amateur cooks (and a few furloughed chefs) who are making food in domestic kitchens for collection and delivery. GRUBie co-founder Dee Perera, who grew up eating his mum’s Sri Lankan dishes, says: “I wanted passionate cooks like my mum to be able to share their cooking.”
• The number of cooks involved is small at the moment but, in March, GRUBie had 1,250 cooks signed up ahead of its national roll-out and, in the past year, around 44% of new businesses registered with the Food Standards Agency have been home-based.
• Many see cooking commercially at home as a neat sideline or new career. “Having only recently arrived from Vietnam, I thought it was great to be able to celebrate my culture through food and share this with Bristol,” says Trung Trinh, who hopes to establish Saigon Kitchen on AATC, as well as branch out into events and one day open his own restaurant.
• Missing the buzz of cooking for friends was Aqsa Gill’s motivation for joining AATC. Preparing vegetarian Pakistani dishes for AATC customers one day each weekend has been a way to replicate that, but in a manageable way that fits around her full-time job. And she thrives on the positive feedback. “It’s important that I’m still able to make people happy through food,” she says.