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The impact of the lockdown on London: ‘good, bad and ugly’

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LONDON — Hello from Lockdown London. Here in the U.K., we have been in full lockdown (no. 4) plus since January 4, 2021, and there is no sign of an immediate release. This means that all nonessential retail — i.e., everything except food, pharma and petrol — is closed, and the population is advised to work from home if at all possible, in order to save lives and protect the National Health Service (NHS). Sound, if salutary, advice, given the death rate from COVID-19 is approaching 120,000 since the start of the pandemic. Vaccinations, to date over 15 million, will be our salvation, but, until then London remains a subdued city.

The impact on the capital has been a game of three parts. Let’s call it “the good, the bad and the ugly.” The ugly has undoubtedly been nonessential retail — apparel, beauty, home — in fact, anything you cannot eat. “Of course”, sales have pivoted online, but the constraints of “last mile” direct to the consumer delivery providers is an obvious limitation. Another “of course,” is the fact that it has not led to the fall into administration of department store chains like Debenhams or fashion icons like Arcadia … but, it has catalyzed their demise. Some London-based retailers — e.g., The White Company and Loaf — have fared well and surpassed last year’s revenue growth despite having all stores closed, but the process of constructing forward-facing merchandising plans can be likened to Russian Roulette, with the suppliers in far-flung corners of the earth being the ones to suffer most.

The good has been food retail, as people are forced to stay home. Food retailers from supermarkets to convenience stores to farm shops have seen a surge in demand which shows little sign of abating. However, it is the bad, the hospitality sector, I want to focus on this month, just to show the ingenuity of humankind to find a silver lining to even the darkest cloud. Restaurants, pubs and hotels have been closed intermittently since March 2019, and, despite government support to furlough employees, give business rates relief and loan schemes, the effect on their livelihoods, and those of their trusted food and service providers, has been catastrophic … well, at least for some.

A whole new service sector has emerged from behind the closed doors of some of the finest hotels and restaurants, as well as some of our very modest, yet enterprising, cake shops, delis and coffee bars. What is this “covert” movement? It’s one that recognizes that “eating in is the new eating out.” As I write this it is Valentines Day, Sunday, February 14, when we would normally have treated ourselves to a meal at one of the finest London restaurants. Instead, we had a Michelin Star meal from Caper & Berry. Just drool as you read the menu, all prepared in just one hour.

This is one of the myriad businesses that have risen to the challenge, some catering companies, others small enterprises that transformed themselves from “eat in” to “eat out.” I salute these brilliant entrepreneurs and classify them into four “buckets.”

Firstly, there are the takeaway and eat/reheat experts, everything from gourmet burgers to ethnic specialists and Sunday roast dinners. Restaurants have devised innovative ways of delivering, from “Kerbside Collection” to “Shepherds’ Huts” in car parks and delivery bikes (petrol or pedal power) to deliver to home. There is even a fleet of tuk-tuks delivering delicious Indian meals around London.

Secondly, there are everyday scratch production meal specialists, with all those fiddly ingredients that you never have in the refrigerator, but give that unique flavor in the box. They are tailored to carnivorous, pescatarian or vegetarian tastes; respect all allergens; and come with timings for preparation and calorie counts. The rise of such companies, many of which have spread from small production units in London and nationwide delivery networks, has been fuelled by COVID-19, and has attracted the attention of FMCG juggernauts, keen to kick start their D2C strategies with small venture-style acquisitions. So, Mindful Chef (mindfulchef.com) has been snapped up by Nestlé and Pasta Evangelists (pastaevangelists.com) by Barilla, and who knows who will be next. There are certainly plenty out there eying the market.

Let’s subtitle the third bucket, Michelin Star direct. This where seriously good chefs have turned their restaurant kitchens into locations for providing both gourmet meals for restaurant-starved gourmands, plus donating free meals to food banks in the capital and elsewhere. Check out Supper London (supper.london). This is not just a London or city phenomenon either. Situated on the edge of the beautiful Ribble Valley, in Lancashire, Northcote (northcote.com) has held a Michelin Star for more than 20 years. Executive chef, and Great British Menu regular, Lisa Goodwin-Allen, got a taste of creating food boxes during the BBC show, which was impacted by COVID-19 restrictions and saw her produce versions of her winning dishes for the celebratory banquet guests to finish at home. Goodwin-Allen admits the challenge to adapt has been a learning curve, with the restaurant now serving gourmet boxes, priced at about £105 for two people. They are prepared, packed and sent out to customers across the U.K. to finish at home. “Novel” and “exacting” are the key attributes, which see best-sellers, such as salt-aged beef with marrowbone crust, smoked pancetta and mushroom bourguignon selling 350 boxes a week, versus her normal 450 covers.

The fourth bucket is a favorite of mine, Michelin Star with education thrown in. These menus are complete meals, often with a wine flight, which are conceived by Michelin Star chefs and take you through, from raw ingredients to restaurant style presentation on an easy-to-follow “cook along” style, downloadable video. Great learning, entertainment and, at a range of prices and a choice of chef, good fun for all the family. Banquist (banquist.com) is such an offering. Set up by two young academics age 26 and 27, with an interest in food and very brief commercial careers, who found themselves out of work. Based in Barnet, North London, this is just the sort of enterprise I applaud. Only 150 reservations taken per week, per menu, and there is a waiting list … says it all.

So, menu boxes may not have saved hospitality, but they have saved many of the businesses servicing it, and have breathed life into London, Manchester, Newcastle upon Tyne and the countryside pubs, restaurants and hotels that have all shown the “bulldog” spirit.

Happy dining until we meet again next month.

Christine Cross is an MMR correspondent based in London (christinecross.com).


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