Delivering on the “Last Mile”

Many “norms” in how we purchase and eat our food have been well and truly turned on their head in the past few weeks as our habits have changed abruptly, and of necessity, as a result of the pandemic.

Eat-in restaurants have become takeaways. Delis are offering drive by and delivery shopping services. Artisan producers have been scrambling to get a direct to consumer offer up and running. Everyone in the business is ramping up their online presence and looking at new and different ways to reach their customers.

It hasn’t been all plain sailing for the food retailers either. Tesco has already flagged that extra costs to the business this year will be close to £1bn across its operations in Ireland and the UK. This is due to the reduced numbers allowed in stores, extra staff costs in overtime and bonuses and the cost of servicing online sales.

With people now queuing for up to an hour or more to get into supermarkets at busy times, shopping trips are no longer trivial affairs and are being kept to a minimum in most households. Top-up shopping trips in convenience stores are anything but convenient when they involve queuing for a prolonged period.

Add into the mix the fact that smaller retail shops don’t always lend themselves to social distancing. Narrow aisles and locations in urban locations adjacent to busy pavements can make for an uncomfortable customer experience.

While the number of actual shopping trips has greatly reduced, the amount of goods being purchased has increased substantially. In Ireland March 2020 was the biggest month of grocery sales ever recorded with shoppers spending over a quarter more than usual.

The early days of the pandemic saw, rather improbably, a run on toilet paper (no pun intended) as well as long-life cupboard staples such as pasta, rice and sauces. The prospect of an extended period indoors with young children prompted lots of would-be bakers to dust down their cook books and stock up on flour, eggs and sugar. Hungry teens needed extra snacks and sandwich supplies. And with adults being human, and also needing treats and small things to look forward to, chocolate and alcohol featured fairly prominently as well.

A few weeks into restrictions, and as shoppers realised that the food supply chain was intact and there were generally no issues with availability, spending has settled into a kind of normal or at least regular pattern.

An interesting framework developed by research company Neilsen defines different cascading behaviours throughout the trajectory of the pandemic. It’s fairly safe to predict that there will be a longish transition from the current Restricted Living stage to the Living a New Normal stage in the coming weeks and months.

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Source: Neilsen

By far the biggest challenge for all players in the food supply chain however has been the so-called “last mile”. This is the final logistical stretch involving the transportation of goods from the point of sale to the end destination (people’s homes). And this has proven to be costly and problematic.

Demand for home deliveries has been unprecedented as people have sought to minimize exposure to crowded environments and the rather ardous chore that shopping has become. With demand far outstripping supply, securing a delivery slot has become equivalent to having the hottest ticket in town. Online shopping orders have increased fivefold. For those who can’t quite believe that they are queuing to get into their local Lidl on a Saturday night, the irony is not lost.

Some of the changes are – I would cautiously say – welcome. Shopping in bricks and mortar stores has, in some respects, become more enjoyable. The shops are less busy. Customers are less likely to push and barge about the place. Distancing at the check out makes for a much more pleasant experience. Perhaps because this is one of the few outside activities that people can do (currently) and everyone seems to be taking their time when they finally get in store.

What other changes might there be, in the short to medium term (and very possibly longer term), to people’s stay-at-home food habits?

  • More conscious and consistent efforts to make meals interesting with experimentation in new ingredients and recipes?
  • Increased frugality and care in food purchase and meal planning leading to a reduction of food waste?
  • Attempts to recreate the restaurant and “eatertainment” experience at home with aperitifs, cheeses and themed meals?
  • More thoughtful food choices which comfort, nourish and protect mind and body?
  • Greater emphasis on meal preparation skills, and handing over the reins to different (and younger) members of the family?
  • Takeaways – standard and new gourmet versions – may well become the ultimate weekly treat, providing a welcome break from monotony

All eyes are now on China to learn from their experiences of the pandemic. What is becoming apparent is that as Chinese people were compelled to stay at home for a lengthy period at the peak of the epidemic, the “homebody economy” has become the new normal. This reflects the ease with which people were able to shop, study, work and find entertainment online at home. Consumption trends may well have been re-shaped for the long term.

In spite of China having one of the most advanced e-commerce markets in the world, online retailers still found themselves tested and stretched in new ways during the height of the pandemic. During the quarantine, fresh food channels grew significantly, and 89% of Chinese mainland consumers have said they would be more willing to buy daily necessities and fresh products online after the pandemic. Huge efforts have been made to reduce human-to-human contact and ramp up “contactless delivery” by the deployment of autonomous vehicles or drones to deliver orders.

Here in the western world, habits which have evolved over the past few years have suddenly been quashed. People had grown accustomed to convenience, ease of access and immediate availability. For years convenience has been king and online shopping occupied a tiny (if rapidly growing) percentage of the market.

Now though, there is no doubt that on-demand delivery will continue to scale up; we’ll also see increased numbers of “smart” pick-up options; and a fairly relentless drive towards contactless. Buymie here in Ireland has reported a 300% increase in app downloads in recent weeks.

All the while, there is very much a feeling that the “rulebook” has been well and truly torn up and thrown away. Particularly when our sole comparator for the current situation goes all the way back to 1918.

As societies worldwide continue to navigate carefully and cautiously through this crisis, it is entirely possible that we’ll find ourselves in the not too distant future talking about the “old normal”.

“Stay Apart to Pull Together”

This is a very different piece to my normal posts.

But nothing is normal at the moment and like everyone else I’ve been watching the developments of the Covid 19 pandemic with increasing levels of alarm, dismay and, at times, horror. The speed at which world and societal order, norms and expectations have been turned on their head, has been shocking to say the least.

The tagline Stay Apart to Pull Together has become synonymous with Ireland’s fight against the current pandemic. An evolving series of business and leisure restrictions have been introduced to ease pressures on the health service and ultimately save lives. People have become very familiar with a whole new vocabulary which includes the terms “community transmission” and “social distancing”.

But while we must now of necessity cede control of so many aspects of our lives and personal liberties that we take for granted it’s just as important to feel in control of as much as is possible. Our thoughts for starters. Accept that this situation is what it is, reframe your perspective and things will get a lot easier. Anxiety will go down and you will find yourself making the best of the situation.

I’ve also found myself thinking about how this period of enforced downtime may reap some benefits or give rise to new (and better) ways of doing things or have longer-term implications as yet not clear. Some of my thoughts and observations below:

  • Life can be distilled to some pretty elemental basics – eating and drinking, taking care of immediate family, simple forms of exercise, work/study and at-home socialising and entertainment.
  • No more FOMO; everyone is staying in.
  • The mundane will become magnificent. Earlier this week, we spent 20 minutes admiring the teamwork of some bluetits eating bird seed from the dispenser in our garden.
  • A single tier health system in Ireland is possible.
  • Embrace your inner grey because, in just a few short weeks, your real hair colour will be revealed to the world.
  • The expressions “my personal space” and “giving someone a wide berth” will take on a whole new meaning.
  • It’s a great time to learn a new skill/hobby or revisit a lapsed one. We are gardening, baking, practicing our musical instruments, reading and exploring new ways to self-entertain. I’ve dusted down a pair of knitting needles and am midway through scarf number one, with wool ordered for a second. It’s very possible I’ll have scarves knitted for everyone in the family by the time this is over.
  • Many many things can be done remotely or online, with a bit of creativity. We are not just “moving” online, we are “living” online and virtualising our entire lives. I’ve spent much of the past week arranging digital playdates for my children via platforms such as Google Hangouts, Zoom and WhatsApp.
  • Life’s very small pleasures will fill you with delight. Seeing my preferred brand of toilet paper on the shelves of Tesco during my most recent visit (previously unavailable for reasons everyone will be aware of) practically put a skip in my step.
  • With all meetings and business engagement moving out of offices and into people’s homes, it feels weirdly intrusive and distracting to be seeing inside people’s domestic spaces while on calls.
  • Can the world function without cash? Very likely, given the wholescale acceptance of contactless during this crisis.
  • Our children will build resilience, knowing that world crises happen, that humankind adapts to cope and survive and – eventually – moves on.
  • Some of the new ways of doing things may actually be better than the old ones. Compare a 30 minute music lesson by Skype in the comfort of one’s own home with spending 45 minutes travelling to and from a music school in the city’s worst rush hour traffic, arriving late, frazzled and harried.
  • All the things you have bought in the middle aisle of Lidl will finally come in useful (eg the hair cutting kit).
  • Your children will become (ahem) aware of your academic and sporting limitations.
  • Subscriptions will become a lifeline. Without realising it at the time, taking out a Beano subscription for the older child a month or two ago was probably one of the best decisions I made this year. We will now have no fear of going without (whew).
  • With work the only distraction from domestic life for many employees working from home, employers could well see enormous productivity gains in the coming months.
  • If your job/income has been unaffected by the pandemic, you will probably save money in the short term (nothing to spend it on bar essentials).
  • When this is over, many businesses may have a wholescale rethink about their need for bricks and mortar premises.
  • There’s been some clever marketing. The other day a well known fashion brand emailed me a style edit for “self-quarantining track days”. Without question, fitted clothing may feel slightly uncomfortable following a prolonged period of leisure wear.
  • The vast majority of people will be wonderful. So far, we have seen a statesmanlike Taoiseach, temporarily out of work chefs preparing food for the elderly and well known – and not so well known – people and businesses sharing their knowledge, skills and services for free (Audible, Joe Wickes, NowTV, the entire GAA community to name a few). This will be remembered.
  • For the small minority who haven’t been so wonderful, a new term has been coined. No comment.IMG-20200322-WA0004 (002)
  • Above all, amidst all this awfulness, humour – some of it dark – will prevail. As people attempt to make sense of the insensible and come to terms with a few months of life a little less lived, sharing a joke to lighten the mood can feel therapeutic and helps to maintain connectivity with friends and family. (Just don’t forget to send me the best ones.)

Coming to the end of our second week of housebound-ness, we have now settled into  our new pared back daily routine. Making the most of the new normal has taken some adjustment but we are aiming to enjoy it as much as possible within the confines of our environment. When we emerge from this, we at least hope to feel rested, a little more educated and very much appreciative of all that regular life has to offer.

Stay positive; stay healthy.

Food For Thought on Ireland’s Edge

The vibrant city of Galway in the west of Ireland recently hosted the 5th Food on the Edge (FOTE) event. It’s been on my radar for a while, but this was my first time to actively participate.

Food on the Edge is a coming-together of top international chefs for a two-day Food Symposium in Galway city on the Wild Atlantic Way; a not-for-profit conference seeking to make good food accessible for everyone.

The brainchild of JP McMahon, a Galway chef, gastronome and collaborator par excellence, the aim of the symposium is to challenge perspectives on food. The speakers – generally well known in the culinary world but not necessarily household names – are selected for their innovation and influence on food culture. The focus is on a collective vision for the future of food and how things can be improved.

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JP McMahon, Chef and Culinary Director, Eat Galway Restaurant Group

Opening the conference, JP spoke eloquently and poetically about how the themes at the symposium have evolved over its five year history, from food waste, to kitchen culture, to how we all of us need to assume responsibility for the food we consume. This years theme was about migration, the movement of food and people and what it means to be local.

Thoughts and stories were shared around food origin, communities, connections and identity. One of the most fascinating talks was delivered by Shinobu Namae who provided a unique perspective into the history of Japanese cuisine and how it has travelled the world.

What is different about Food on the Edge is that it is not overtly commercial. Chatting with a curious American tourist who enquired as to what “we were selling”, I explained that it was more about promoting: networks, relationships, conversations, the exchange of ideas. While the 50 odd chefs speaking over the two days mainly cater for fine diners in their restaurants, the issues they experience – sustainability, quality, education – are common to all who prepare and serve food in whatever the environment.

Fine dining is certainly having a moment in Ireland. A total of six restaurants across the island of Ireland received their debut Michelin stars this year, bringing the number of restaurants with the coveted food award to 18. This is double the number of new entrants last year and many in the industry say the Irish restaurant scene is finally getting the recognition it deserves. It all points to a confidence in cooking, a desire to experiment with ingredients and techniques and a willing audience who are eager, knowledgeable and engaged. Fine dining does not have to be formal dining.

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Salthill, Galway

Bohemian Galway

Co-incidentally this week Galway was named the fourth-best city in the world to visit by Lonely Planet in its new Best in Travel 2020 publication, ahead of heavyweights such as Dubai and Vancouver (the list was topped by Austrian city Salzburg.)

Describing Galway as “arguably Ireland’s most engaging city,” Lonely Planet mentions pubs and cafes as among the city’s key attractions. The bohemian and strongly independent character of Galway is at the heart of the appeal of this most westerly Irish city.

In 2020 Galway will become the European Capital of Culture, with a programme promising a year of extraordinary creativity and disruption and the themes of language, landscape and migration being brought to life. Structured around the old Celtic calendar of Imbolc, Bealtaine, Lughnasa and Samhain, Galway 2020 begins in February 2020 and runs until the end of January 2021.

While Galway steams ahead as a boutique culinary powerhouse it is a pity to see the demise of some of the city’s more traditional food retailers in the past few weeks. Griffins Bakery, a bakery that I was very familiar with from both my student days and in more recent years on a professional basis, finally closed the doors on its Shop Street premises at the end of September, following a “challenging few years in business”. The bakery had a history dating back several family generations and the building itself is possibly one of Galway’s oldest, dating from the mid 1600’s. And across the road Deacy’s Fish Shop – another Galway institution – also recently called it a day, with the owner retiring. One hopes that whoever occupies these sites in the future will be sympathetic to their history and heritage.

A Campus Revisited

As FOTE took place in the Bailey Allen Hall – an impressive purpose built conference facility in the grounds of University College Galway – I also had a chance to explore the campus, which I found to be virtually unrecognisable since I attended as an undergraduate a few years ago. With many new buildings, it took a while to find my bearings, but thankfully the campus has retained its villagey, welcoming feel.

Passing the careers guidance office, I recalled visiting in my final year and leaving clutching a bunch of leaflets entitled “What to do with a degree in English and Philosophy”. While the array of options might have seemed bewildering at the time, I needn’t have been too concerned, as a grounding in logic, creativity and analysis has proven perhaps more useful than I anticipated!

Finally, a key message from Food on the Edge 2019 – “Gastronomy is Democracy”.

You really are what you eat.

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http://www.foodontheedge.ie

“The Ploughing” Comes Home

The dust has settled this weekend on a tumultuous week in Irish farming.

It was a week of extraordinary weather conditions (by Irish standards for this time of year) with clear blue skies and warm temperatures. The beef price crisis escalated with farmers growing increasingly militant in their protests about the prices received at factory gates. And record numbers of almost 300,000 descended on Carlow in the south east of Ireland for the annual agricultural love-in that is the National Ploughing Championships.

This year I too made the pilgrimage, keen to experience this unique event in a location just a couple of miles from where I grew up.

I must confess that the appeal of “the Ploughing” has been slow to unfold itself to me. I grew up on a farm and, while there was no shortage of agricultural events to attend, the most memorable of these was the Spring Show, which took place in the RDS venue in Ballsbridge, one of Dublin’s leafiest suburbs.

Our entire family travelled to the city for this annual day out, gawking at the latest tractors and machinery, eating sliced white bread sandwiches in the canteen (it might seem bizarre but it was a major treat for us to get a break from home made bread back then) and enjoying a catch up with whatever neighbours we happened to bump into.

And then suddenly, in the early 90’s, it was gone. There was some consideration given to reviving the show a few years ago, but a feasibility study carried out by the RDS showed that there was little demand for an urban based agricultural show.

In truth, at this stage, the Ploughing Championships had gone from strength to strength, adding more features and attractions and positioning the festival as a means for a diverse range of brands, businesses and media channels to connect with and sell to rural Ireland.

Visiting on the first day of the show, I allowed some extra time for my journey from the capital – normally an easy 70 minute drive – however I wasn’t quite prepared for the extensive traffic management plan in place. Two and a half hours later, I found myself still traversing the hilly back roads of Carlow before eventually arriving at the very scenic site – its slight elevation affording tremendous views of the countryside.

It’s a festival with something for everyone. From fashion (one for the ladies, as we were breathlessly told over the tannoy) to food and everything in between. It is honest and open and uncomplicated. There is simply nothing to not like here. And I can’t quite get out of my head the sight of grown men gazing longingly at brand new tractors which they can only dream of affording.

More seriously, farm incomes in Ireland are a significant issue with recent figures from agri-finance specialists IFAC showing that 38% of beef farmers are unsure if they will still be farming in five years – with the average beef farm loss excluding EU subsidies amounting to €116 a hectare. Many farm families require off-farm income to support their households; a trend that is steadily growing year on year. It’s a complex situation which has evolved over many years and has no quick solutions.

I have to admit to being a little biased here, but Carlow looked simply sumptuous this week, with a glorious view to Mount Leinster and beyond from the ploughing fields. I felt an inordinate sense of pride that my small county (the second smallest in Ireland – a fact which was drummed into us from age 5 in school) was hosting this enormous event with great style and substance.

While the location for 2020 hasn’t been confirmed yet, this will be a tough act to follow.

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More information on http://www.npa.ie.

 

 

 

 

Stoney-Vegan-Batter

The small enclave of Stoneybatter north of Dublin’s city centre just might be a candidate for vegan capital of Ireland, with a slew of new vegan eating spots adding to the area’s existing foodie credentials.

Stoneybatter has carefully cultivated its hipster haven status in the last few years. It’s a great place to socialise and eat out in, with an ever changing food scene. Several of the more traditional pubs in the neighbourhood have even embraced food trucks including the eclectic Glimmerman Pub on Manor Street where a Vietnamese food truck serves vegetarian meals from Thursday to Sunday.

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On the vegan front, estimates vary, however vegans are believed to represent between 1-3% of the population of the developed world. Vegans could be forgiven for feeling a certain vindication of late. Interest in plant based diets has never been higher. Their time has come. This is a movement that is proceeding at a high octane pace and no one wants to be left behind. Veganism has become mainstream, and very quickly.

It’s not so long ago though that veganism was very much in the margins, an activism-driven hardline community.

I myself had a short sharp introduction to veganism. After I moved to the UK some years ago I arranged to meet a friend from college who was then living in Oxford. We decamped to a nearby restaurant and revelled in our grown-up status. A proper restaurant that wasn’t the college canteen! Then my friend rather ominously announced that she had become a vegan and hoped there would be something on the menu she could eat.

I soon found myself hiding behind the large plastic menu as my friend grilled the waitress about the provenance of every ingredient on the menu, resulting in several trips back and forth to the kitchen. 30 minutes later, very little had passed the vegan test, and she ended up settling for a salad. On balance, I decided it would be better not to talk too much about my new job selling meat and dairy products.

The situation couldn’t be more different now, with many establishments almost falling over themselves to promote their “vegan friendly” credentials. The traditional food industry is also making great efforts to meet this growing demand. A full 14% of all new product launches in the UK in 2017 were vegan.

People cite one or more of three key motivations for going vegan – animal welfare, environmental concerns and personal health – and it is being accompanied by an endless array of new business startups, cookbooks, YouTube channels, online shopping options and polemical documentaries.

The hugely successful Veganuary was launched in the UK in 2014, with 3,300 people signing up; by 2016, there were 23,000 participants, then 59,500 in 2017, and a staggering 168,000 in 2018. Notably 84% of the registered participants in 2018 were female, while 60% were aged under 35. It’s also estimated that far more people “do” Veganuary than actually register – up to 10 times the number.

Attitudes have shifted as well, with veganism now viewed less as a restricted diet and more as a positive lifestyle choice which empowers people. Importantly, this is a culture rather than a movement, with many believing that worldwide conversion to veganism is the only way to save the planet.

Stoneybatter’s Vegan Options

Beo has set up shop in a unit formerly occupied by a clothing shop. The slightly unusual space (narrow at the front, wider at the rear) has been expertly designed into a comfortable and modern homage to vegan food.

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Beo, 50A Manor Street, Stoneybatter, Dublin 7

Famous for their vegan smoothie bowls, Kale and Coco’s first permanent outlet is now open in a ground floor unit within Swuite, one of the many student accommodation buildings now open in Dublin 7.

V-Face is a pop-up vegan burger stall which will reportedly shortly open in a site on North Brunswick Street. There is much speculation locally as to where this will be exactly. The former hairdressers? The former tattoo parlour? Or a hybrid offering all three?

Other vegan friendly outlets include Woke Up Café and Token on Queen Street. Vegetarian café Woke Up has been open since September while Token offers up a restaurant, bar, retro arcade, pinball parlour and event space with over 32 machines, 22 taps, and a range of vegan items on the menu.

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Woke Up Café, Queen Street, Stoneybatter, Dublin 7