Rose: Wholesale finally being heard, time for one more push

Seven months into what is surely the biggest challenge any of us in the wholesale sector have experienced in our working lives, and with no clear end in sight, it would be easy to become despondent about the future of our hospitality route to market.

Many of us have already made the desperately difficult decision to lose colleagues and friends from our payroll, or close satellite depots, or even in a few cases shut the doors for good. Even then, with the various regional Covid restrictions leaving our hospitality customer base confused and nervous about ordering, some of us are trading at a loss to fulfil our contracts to those customers who need us most – the care homes, hospices, schools and hospitals.

The hospitality sector’s recovery will be painfully slow, and it’s beyond doubt that its supply chain is going to have to endure some of that pain as well. What has hurt just as much over the last six months is that while the government recognised that restaurants, pubs, hotels and leisure venues needed support in the form of grants and rates relief, it refused to acknowledge that none of that investment would be fully effective without equal consideration for the wholesalers who supply and support them.

Now, at last, that’s no longer the case. Minutes after announcing new support measures for hospitality, Chancellor Rishi Sunak confirmed that wholesalers would be eligible for discretionary Local Authority grants and the extended Job Support Scheme. Hearing it from the man himself at the Despatch Box might not seem like much, but if you take into account the clamour to catch the Chancellor’s ear, from every pressure group and every business sector, it’s actually a remarkable achievement.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let’s start with all those FWD members who wrote to their MPs outlining the need for support and suggesting they put questions to Ministers. Then there’s all those who responded to Defra’s requests for sensitive data, or contributed their experience to FWD’s representational efforts.

What about all those who dropped everything, often at very short notice, to respond to FWD’s call for TV, radio and print interviews? I wasn’t the only one who found myself on national television at 5.30am, or in a chilly fruit and veg market explaining how food distribution works to seven million people eating their breakfast. Across the country wholesalers bravely stood up to tell individual stories that represented all of us in foodservice.

Then you might wonder how the Chancellor came to be victim of what he called a ‘co-ordinated attack’ in the House of Commons, a few days before his announcement. MPs from both sides accused him of ignoring wholesale, and a day later another MP explained why the answer he had given was not only unsatisfactory, but factually incorrect. Again, this was no accident, it was expert political lobbying by FWD’s public affairs team. For months, the team were in constant contact with Defra, providing the tools for ministers and officials to dig their way through the walls of the Treasury.

And the question that triggered the Chancellor’s specific reference to wholesalers’ eligibility for grants? Yes, we had a hand in that too.

As FWD Chairman I want to thank everyone who got our voices heard. But it’s pretty weak October sunshine that we’re basking in, because we all know the measures don’t go far enough to prevent more job losses, more closures, and just as important, disruption of supply to those who rely on it most.

So despite the enormous pressure of our day jobs it’s straight back to the collaborative work for all of us. Defra has made it clear that sentiment only gets you so far in politics; every pressure group in the country has tried appealing to the government’s better nature, but when it comes to finance, decisions are made with the head not the heart, and the Treasury talks in numbers, not words.

We’re calling for FWD members to pick up the placards again, this time with spreadsheets and accounts ledgers in their arms as well. It’s a different kind of demonstration; not of emotion or anger, but of stone-cold solid irrefutable numbers, to three decimal places.

We still believe the government has made a mistake in excluding wholesale from the business rates relief offered to hospitality and retail and from what we’ve seen in recent weeks we know we are finally knocking on the door of the Chancellor’s office.

It’s going to take a concerted collaborative effort, but with one big collective push we can knock the thing off its hinges.

Coral Rose coronavirus covid-19 FWD Government hospitality Job Support Scheme Rishi Sunak wholesale