Rose column: “Stay positive, stay safe”

Firstly, let me thank everyone who has carried on working in depots, DCs and delivery vehicles throughout this crisis, putting the needs of others above their own in the name of feeding the nation.

I don’t have the words to express the admiration this entire industry has for you and I hope one day we’ll be able to gather together to demonstrate our gratitude in person.

It feels like we’ve been through all the stages of grief in the past two months as we’ve seen the foodservice side of wholesale distribution, an £11bn industry last year, come to a crashing halt.

There was disbelief and then anger; then a long period of negotiation with government, suppliers and customers that is still going on; and now perhaps the acceptance there is no quick and easy route back to where we once were.

It will take some time for that realisation to sink in and for its implications to play out, and for some there will be very difficult decisions to be made, particularly if the government’s support for wages comes to an end before the hospitality sector re-opens in any meaningful way.

In the meantime, we remain open, supplying and supporting the care homes, NHS facilities, and emergency services that have enough on their plate without having to worry where their next meal is coming from. FWD moved very quickly to set up the Food2Care online portal where care homes can find a local supplier who understands their residents’ needs and saves staff going out to shop in supermarkets.

Across the sector we’ve seen home delivery and click-and-collect services springing up, meeting a local need where the established supermarket delivery services were floundering. FWD members have been involved in providing care packages for the vulnerable and where it hasn’t been possible to move on catering stock from warehouses, they’ve worked with charities to make sure it doesn’t go to waste.

Those of our customers who have been able to offer takeaway and delivered menus still need supplying and we’ve invented and adopted safe procedures for stock rotation, picking and delivery.

However, despite all the publicity around these great initiatives, we have to keep them in perspective. Many of FWD’s foodservice wholesale members are trading down by 60 – 80% and some operating at a loss to ensure continuity of supply to the vulnerable and care sectors. If the sector doesn’t open in any meaningful way, or there is no cash support from government, we’ll inevitably see casualties.

Our focus now falls into two areas: getting the support foodservice wholesalers need to survive until they have a viable customer base and then getting further support to invest in stock, bring people, premises and vehicles out of limbo – and start the wheels turning again.

FWD plays a critical role in this. It has always been my belief that wholesale distribution is an overlooked industry, given its size and importance to the economic and social fabric of the country, and the service it provides to remote communities and the more vulnerable and less mobile among us. The FWD team have done a fantastic job of highlighting this at the highest levels of government and in the national media, and the profile of wholesale has never been higher.

There is a clear case for financial support for the sector, based on very strong evidence and detailed financial data provided by members. At the very least, the companies who supply the hospitality sector – and without whom it will not be able to resume – should benefit from the same support that has been offered to their customers.

Suppliers have a role here. It’s in their interest to maintain this channel. There’s a competition aspect to our new landscape, in that a significant reduction in end-user operators restricts the marketplace and it will be those with the most resources that pick up whatever slack is available. More power in fewer hands is never a good proposition for a supply chain and the wholesale channel and its entrepreneurial customer base has always been the antidote to that.

So, please, continue to help us with payment terms. And on the retail side, availability of grocery products needs to improve to meet the new trading landscape. As we start to see light at the end of the tunnel, we’ll need to work closely with you to ensure we have the appropriate offer for both fodservice as it comes back online and retail as people continue to shop locally.

There is a feeling that every day spent in lockdown reduces the chances of businesses in our sector surviving. It’s incredibly frustrating to stand by and watch, but the government, the opposition and hospitality sector all agree that a phased resumption, perhaps over several months, is the only way to ensure we don’t take a step backwards.

So my message is: stay positive, stay safe and keep supporting FWD’s efforts to persuade government to prioritise support where it is so badly needed.

Coral Rose coronavirus covid-19 Foodservice FWD wholesale