While no hospitality or catering business really needs reminding that the food and drink supply chain can be volatile, the pictures of empty supermarket shelves in the fresh produce aisle, widely seen on TV and in the papers earlier this year, put the challenges firmly in front of a much wider audience.
A complex set of issues, including bad weather, post-Brexit bureaucracy, higher fuel costs, labour shortages and food inflation all came together to mean a shortfall in supplies of fresh produce imported from southern Europe and north Africa, and no quick prospect of British growers stepping into the breach.
The National Farmers Union has called on the UK Government to support British farming and make the secure supply of home-grown food a priority. NFU President Minette Batters pointed out that “food security is not the same as self-sufficiency – we will always rely on imports to some degree, and it is sensible to ensure diversity of supply. But food security also means ensuring our food is safe to eat, that it can be distributed efficiently, and that it remains affordable, all of which points to prioritising domestic production.”
Whatever the challenges facing British food producers, there is a real opportunity for the catering sector to part of the solution. Regular fresh produce orders from a busy outlet, can make a big difference to keeping a local farmer or grower in the black.
Putting a focus on fresh fruit and veg also puts the menu firmly on-trend in terms of the growing number of customers looking for meat free options. Fresh produce such as cauliflower, broccoli and jackfruit, spiced and seasoned in the kitchen, is not just an alternative to meat or fish in a main course. Customers looking for healthier choices may also see these as a better option than bought-in plant-based products, that can use high levels of additives to achieve their flavour.
Making the most of fresh produce
- Update your menus seasonally to feature fresh fruit and veg when they are at their highest quality and best value.
- Make the most of produce that works right across the menu. For example, fresh tomatoes can be served grilled alongside a steak, roasted, grilled in a breakfast, and used in soup, salads and sandwiches.
- Spotlight the fresh flavours of vegetable, fruits and herbs in home-made salsas, pickles, pesto and sauces.
- Use a flexible menu description, such as ‘served with fresh, seasonal vegetables’ to make the most of the best prices and availability from suppliers.
- Train staff on seasonality, and don’t take it for granted that everyone in the kitchen knows which produce is in season. Use seasonal produce calendars to help with planning menu changes and specials.
- If you see a lot of veg waste coming back into the kitchen, offer customers the option to leave out or swap garnishes and side salads with the main courses involved.
- Make use of your fruit and veg suppliers’ skills. The extra cost of asking a skilled greengrocer to chop, peel and slice produce to your menu specification may be worth it when balanced against the kitchen time and labour costs saved, as well as the reduction in food waste.
- Talk to your suppliers They have expert knowledge and the latest insight into market supply and pricing issues, so can keep you updated. The more you support them, the more they can support you.
- Fresh produce needs to be used as quickly as possible. As deliveries arrive, rotate stock properly in cupboards and fridges so the shortest date products are always used first.
While the immediate availability issues have started to ease, hospitality operators should plan for both potential shortages, as well for further cost increases. It’s important to remember that a fall in the rate of inflation doesn’t bring prices down, it simply means they aren’t going up as quickly, so fresh produce prices won’t go back to where they were.
We need to get used to paying more for our food if we want a sustainable future, and in the longer term, the trade-off for a more secure supply chain may have to include operators paying UK farmers and food producers a sustainable price that not only covers the true cost of production, but also enables them to continue to invest in their business. As the NFU has said, we need to become less reliant on food imports, and focus more on home-grown, seasonal produce. That should include a sensible debate on how famers and food producers can be paid at a sustainable price.
- Fresh produce prices can change quickly. To calculate GP on plant based dishes, the Lynx Purchasing GP App, available to download for Apple and Android, enables operators to quickly calculate menu prices based on purchase price, target GP, or the GP achieved based on menu price.