Devon shops share struggles of Covid pandemic

Food and drink firms in and around Plymouth have voiced their concerns, experiences and victories as part of a campaign to find out the effect of Covid-19 on the local industry.

The #DevonSpeaksUp campaign is an initiative from Food and Drink Devon, who are a not-for-profit membership organisation that supports the county’s food and drink sector.

Ahead of the anniversary of the first lockdown, Food and Drink Devon members were asked to share any positives that they can take away from this experience as well as highlighting any further help that they will need to get the region’s food and drink industry back on track.

Among the results were some frank and honest responses on the difficulties – but with many businesses also saying they have learned and achieved more in one year than at any other time.

Natalie Emery, owner of Cakewhole, a cake and coffee shop in Stoke, said: “The past year has challenged us but we’ve come through it.

“Covid meant that with each lockdown our wholesale business disappeared almost completely and so we have had to refocus the business and boost the retail side of things both in terms of turnover and our range of products.

“This has required a lot of thinking on our feet to increase our flexibility and allow Cakewhole to react to sudden change in the business environment.”

Cakewhole owner Natalie Emery, right, with baker Megan James
Cakewhole owner Natalie Emery, right, with baker Megan James
(Image: Penny Cross / Plymouth Live)

“We have always felt it important to be integrated with our community, but the past year has strengthened those ties enormously and we have had fantastic support from local customers,” she added.

“In return we’ve supplied them with all the cake they can eat and the odd bit of counselling!

“We’ve also strengthened our links with local small businesses, both suppliers and customers and there has developed a real feeling of us all looking out for each other.

“It hasn’t always been easy but with a lot of hard work, plenty of head scratching and laughter and the odd tear, we’ve stayed open and kept everybody in a job. And we’ve enjoyed it!”

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One of the largest firms included in the survey, Langage Farm, was represented by managing director Paul Winterton.

Mr Winterton said it has been more of a case of looking after their staff, whether that was through bonuses, food hampers or simply being honest on the firm’s situation.

Paul Winterton, managing director at Langage Farm

He said: “I think the biggest hurdle was the managing of peoples uncertainty deriving from the confusing government messages from time to time during this crisis.

“We have seen people’s worries regarding childcare, financial concerns if they can’t work, and mental stability suffer.

“We have given bonuses to support financial needs.

“Distributed foods hamper to furloughed staff and offered support financially for furloughed staff. We have also kept people fully up to date with business growth and had an honest colloquy with them during this time ensuring they have a voice.”

Mr Winterton also said that empathising with staff had been among his own personal lessons.

He said: “I think the biggest issue to come out of this is understanding the needs of staff and empathising with their situation.

“I have seen staff genuinely worried and close to tears when partners’ income have dried up and they worry how bills are to be paid.

“We often don’t consider that, which in all honesty gives me a severe guilt problem.

“We really need to consider the welfare of people who are the foundation stones of any business, as well as small businesses who are the catalyst for our success.

“These businesses have been devastated with little support offered. If they do not bounce back then the effects on the local economy will be vast for the next five years at least.”

Howard Davies, founder and director of Salcombe Distilling Company, in the South Hams, said his firm polished their offering of online demonstrations, tastings and gin schools – and even developed and launched a new non-alcoholic spirit during lockdown.

“The pandemic has definitely made us more efficient and better at working from home,” he said.

“This will remain useful even when things return to normal.”

Howard Davies and Angus Lugsdin, founders of the Salcombe Distilling Company
Howard Davies and Angus Lugsdin, founders of the Salcombe Distilling Company

He continued: “Developing and launching our new non-alcoholic spirit ‘New London Light’ despite the significant impact that Covid-19 placed on our supply chain, partners and clients was by far our biggest hurdle during 2020.

“This was achieved by hard work from our brilliant team and great support from external parties.”

Mr Davies also said that businesses had come together as a result of the pandemic.

He said: “I’ve been very impressed by the support and collaboration across businesses to help everyone get through this, particularly those in the hospitality sector for whom it has been especially difficult.

“I knew there was good cross business support in Devon, but this has far exceeded expectations.”

Plymouth Live