James Bielby

Bielby: Challenges to face as hospitality reopens

FWD Chief Executive James Bielby lauds wholesalers’ resilience during the Covid-19 crisis, but says restrictions easing doesn’t mean it’s all plain sailing from here

A year of extraordinary resilience in the face of impossible odds is about to be rewarded as our foodservice and on-trade wholesalers welcome back their customers for inside trade in England, with the other nations to follow. They don’t need us to say it, but it can’t come soon enough.

April’s partial return of pubs and restaurants in England brought some welcome relief but the mood among FWD members remains cautious in the short term, with some saying that we’re still as much as a year away from anything we might describe as ‘normal’ trading.

Given the massively reduced turnover of the past 13 months and the running costs only partially ameliorated by the furlough scheme and local authority discretionary grants, many on the foodservice side find themselves with a tense juggling act of balancing cash and credit flow against the anticipated surge in demand.

In the back of their minds there’s always the concern that the roadmap won’t roll out as planned and there will be bumps on the road to recovery. It might be a dip in consumer confidence if Covid case rates increase, or a reduction in spending as furlough comes to an end, or even a further lockdown.

We know from the painful experience of school closures that a last-minute u-turn affects the wholesale sector most of all and despite clearly understanding the issues of excess stock and customer credit they face, the government has been slow to support those who need it most.

This is why we have to keep pushing for government financial assistance for our members, even as their sales increase. In March, the Treasury said it would make available almost £2 billion for businesses effected by the Covid restrictions. In both the announcement of an extension to the Additional Restrictions Grant, and of new business rates relief, the government specifically named wholesalers as a priority for funding.

It was a long time coming and came after an exhausting year on non-stop campaigning by the sector, but it was a vindication of wholesalers coming together to call for support. A month later, members are still not able to access the new rates relief, which is frustrating to say the least. Government has not yet passed the necessary legislation to release the business rates fund or issued guidance to local authorities on how the relief should be allocated.

So while our members set about repairing the damage of a year of neglect by government, we at FWD will be doubling our efforts to ensure they get the support they deserve, even as the existential threat that has hung over them all this time recedes.

We’re already working with individual members to ensure they have access to the Additional Restrictions fund, which is awarded though local authorities. We’ve engaged council leaders and local MPs to make the case for increased funding for wholesalers all over the country – and we’re very pleased to say we’ve been successful in getting thousands of pounds of additional support for those who have enlisted our help.

Talking to our member this month we’ve picked up a real feeling of anticipation and excitement for the months ahead. It’s going to be an unusual, stay-in-the-UK summer, but the sense now is that both in- and out-of-home dining will do well as we all celebrate the release from lockdown. Wholesalers are itching to get going, and need the help of suppliers to make sure they’ve got the stock to cope with the expected demand.

Here’s to good weather, good sales, and belated recognition for the role of food and drink wholesalers in this economic revival.

coronavirus covid-19 Foodservice funding FWD Government hospitality James Bielby wholesale