Food Shopping During Lockdown Doesn’t Have to Be a Miserable Experience

By Phil Haughton

Better Food founder and regular ORFC delegate, Phil Haughton, gives us a glimpse behind the retail frontlines in Bristol, where a shared philosophy between retailer and customer has led to a bonding experience during a time of crisis. 

Only a few months ago we were asked over and over again, are you planning for a no deal Brexit? My answer was NO. We are the last traders in the food chain and we have little ability to influence anything, and we are not in the business of stocking up or panic buying. However we did keep in close touch with many suppliers to check how it might affect them. Wine importers, or non seasonal fresh produce for starters.  We took the view that we would simply do our best to get all we could to serve our customers, knowing that because part of what we do is work hard for local markets, our dependence on importers, while still relatively high, is a lot less than the big supermarkets. The local food networks are a lot more resilient and agile than global trade systems. Many of us had a sense that we would fare better in a no deal Brexit world than mainstream food systems. 

Now six weeks [or more] into lockdown and some of the potential threats from a no deal Brexit have arrived through the door of COVID-19. Our short supply chains, local producers, local manufacturers, local distributors have all played a key part in our business model for decades, and have stood us in good stead and served our customers shopping needs with a lot less shortages than the empty supermarket shelves would suggest. 

At our first COVID-19 meeting, the staff teams were clear our mission is, To be especially generous and thoughtful when looking after our customers, community and teams.

Engaging in this way will deliver increased loyalty, reassurance and better outcomes for everyone.”

Our teams have since communicated daily with each other about what more we could do to look after each other and our customers. It was quickly clear we had a strong and agile team in all stores, and it is this that has been seen by thousands of customers each week. 

The way our customers generally reacted to the threats of shortages of stock was a little more community spirited. They carried the same anxieties for their family’s wellbeing, but on the whole were understanding of the need to share for the good of all. 

From the first days of COVID-19 we, like all food retail businesses, have been trading well above our normal figures. Despite all our cafes closing, we have been over sales predictions every week since. Our senior teams worked to redeploy café staff to our store retail and with over a third of the workforce off at one point, shielding, safeguarding, and the odd one or two with symptoms, we had to employ some temps to help out. Those that joined us got stuck in with the teams and were very grateful for  work, when most of them had lost jobs.

There have been significant management challenges to cope with the changes we have made to stay open and maintain as much safety for all as possible, but we are just so grateful to be able to trade and be there for our communities.

It’s hard to overstate our admiration for so many small independent businesses in Bristol that had to close to trade but have got straight onto helping others. Making food to feed the many without. The Bristol Food Union has formed a collaboration in a time of crisis. 

These are some of the heroes of our time. Better Food and our customers have been able to support some of these city initiatives and groups feeding people by offering food to deliver and/or to cook and deliver to those needing support.  

Looking forward, I think there will be some grief when we are “back to normal” as has been and is so much more an expression of “being human” available to many right now. If the “normal” is to be a long, slow return, it offers us a chance to reflect on how we might like to fundamentally change how we organise ourselves in relation to work and nature connection. 

All that said, I am also aware that we will move into a recession.  All one can say is that the very same community spirit we have had in COVID-19 and the resilience of small localised food systems will be a great resource during a recession. 

An awakening is happening right across our planet to see what we have and what we might lose. I feel Gaia is trying to show us a way out of our — what did we used to call it? — “Rat Race”. COVID-19 has offered us a step toward change. Let’s make that step as big as we possibly can for all our sakes.