30th July 2020

Featured / Food / Tom Whitley

Optimism Wins: For Food Supply Businesses

7 5 mins 1

Tom Whitley, the co-founder of 9 Meals From Anarchy, discusses how the food industry has been affected by the coronavirus and the steps that small food producers must take in order to evolve.

What does it mean to be an optimist during these uncharted times? Even as a self-professed optimist, it is hard not to see the destructive impact of Covid19 on both my own and fellow food producing businesses.

The severity, impact and challenges of Covid19 are enormous. They’re uneven, unfair, and chaotic. But the reactions to the pandemic have largely distilled people into two categories; seeing the world as a glass half empty or glass half full.

Taking a leap of faith to invest in your business or to batten down the hatches is a personal decision that most businesses have had to make.

Optimists are more likely to take risks, more likely to push progress and to see opportunities. 

Tom Whitley

Throughout human history, the optimists have edged it. Professor Tim Cummins, President, IACCM states “I am optimistic because of the past. Looking back over history, humanity has faced many challenges and taken many wrong turns, yet its progress in raising the quality of life has been nothing short of remarkable.”  We are a resourceful species. One of the main things that set us apart from others, is our ability to imagine future scenarios and what we might need to get through them. Optimists are more likely to take risks, more likely to push progress and to see opportunities.

I am the co-founder of 9 Meals From Anarchy, a company created to make better food products available. I have seen how Coronavirus has affected the food industry in extreme ways. Restaurants, pubs, cafes (and the companies that supply them) have been devastated and now face serious challenges as to how it will be possible for them to operate viably alongside the risks of Covid19. It’s interesting to see who is trying what though. Here in Chester, Elite Bistros are now doing nation-wide home delivery of restaurant-quality food you quickly finish at home. The Chef’s Table restaurant, also in Chester, has started an Asian inspired takeaway and a high-quality pasta delivery service. It’s probably safe to assume that they aren’t replacing revenues from their restaurants, but they are testing and trying new ideas to see what works.  And those that get it right will be ahead of the competition.

But on the other hand, retail in the food industry has seen sales increase, some dramatically, particularly in regards to local food. We sold our veg box delivery business last year and at our best did a couple of hundred deliveries a week in and around Chester. At the peak of lockdown, the charity that took over from us (Bridge Community Farms) had to cap deliveries at just under six hundred a week.

That is hundreds of new people looking for and finding alternatives to supermarkets and other large food retailers.  Hundreds of people eating more locally grown veg. Hundreds more switched on to the food grown around them and the same has recurred across the country. While not everyone will continue to buy from their local food producer, many will do and where they do it will bring more resilience, viability, and jobs to their local food supply chain. Those who are engaged with a local veg box delivery, greengrocer, or even growing their own will very likely eat better too, and more families will be eating together.

As an effect of lockdown, Mintel reports that 55% of people plan to cook more from scratch in the future as they become more ambitious and confident in the kitchen.

More informed people make better choices. That’s good news for quality ingredients over ready meals.

Local food suppliers need to find ways to make these new customers stay. It’s going to be a big challenge but there has never been a better opportunity to do so. Problems will always appear, that will forever be the case, change is the one constant of life and its the ability to adapt with change that will see us through. Those that adapt, test, and try will prosper – then others will emulate. Doing nothing will also have its outcomes, giving up isn’t an option, you may as well be the ones trying to solve the problems.

Raya Bidshahri, Founder & CEO of Awecademy believes, “There is nothing to be gained from blind optimism. But an optimistic mindset can be grounded in rationality and evidence.” It is worth remembering that we can only control our own little piece of the world and that is the place to focus.

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In 2013 Thomas Whitley and Matthew Smee started to grow high quality organic produce in Cheshire and deliver incredible veg to local customers as well as great local restaurants. Along the way, someone asked why the veg stocks available weren't made mostly with veg. No one knew; so they resolved to do better. The result is 9 Meals From Anarchy. Their convictions about how food should be produced have always been connected to the belief that our meals should be as good for us and as good for the environment as possible. And it should taste fantastic.

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