Schools uncertainty “big problem” for wholesalers – Mullineux

Caterforce Managing Director Gary Mullineux has called on government and local councils to clarify plans for school reopenings – or face putting more pressure on foodservice wholesalers.

Mullineux, who has faced a baptism of fire since becoming MD in January, says while his buying group’s sales have shown an “incredible turnaround” in the past two months, the sector still faces an uncertain future as some Covid-19 restrictions remain in place.

And while the nation’s children prepare to return en masse to schools for the first time since lockdown was announced in March, he says some of the detail the food and drink supply chain needs to move forward is still lacking.

“The big question mark for us is what’s happening with schools and they’re answers we need pretty quickly,” said Mullineux.

“It seems to be varied by area, but we really need those school meals to be back on. If local councils and schools start doing just packed lunches, that’s going to have a massive impact on our business because we rely on those schools businesses outside of the summer. If that doesn’t turn back on, we are going to see more redundancies coming through, which will be a real shame.

“There are several different scenarios and talk of a potential week on, week off. It’s not just bad for us in terms of supplying schools, it’s bad for education, kids and stops people getting back to a normal life. The key thing is getting schools back in and back to normal hours.

“We need to know what’s happening because it’s potentially going to cause us and everyone else in wholesale a big problem.”

Mullineux’s plea comes at a time when Caterforce – and others in the sector – are grappling with availability issues on certain key lines as demand has exploded due to Eat Out to Help Out’s success.

And that could translate to supplying schools too, with notice periods needed to ensure the required products are ready to deliver when the doors reopen.

Despite these struggles, Caterforce has recorded an encouraging July and August, with revenue already tracking back on the same level as this time last year.

Some of this has been achieved by running a lower-cost model, though, and making the most of government initiatives, such as Eat Out to Help Out.

“We know this [Eat Out to Help Out] isn’t a long-term initiative and we have to capitalise on it now to try to support our customers and make sure they’re still here when the scheme ends, which is why everyone is pushing for it to be extended into September,” adds Mullineux.

“What’s great to see is that we’re getting more sector-specific support as opposed to just one-size-fits-all because some areas have done well and some have struggled, and travel and hospitality are by far the worst impacted. We do need some bespoke initiatives like Eat Out to Help Out in order for the industry to survive.

“For us, we are expecting the summer holiday season to be longer this year. Where a lot of people would be going abroad, with everything that’s going on with travel at the moment, a lot of people are staying in the UK. Those without children will be looking to holiday in September and October, and a lot of the holiday campsites there we be supply will be fully booked.”

Caterforce coronavirus covid-19 Eat Out to Help Out Gary Mullineux Government schools