Making our food economy strong, resilient, varied and viable for all

Bristol Going for Gold’s food sector lead Lucy Gatward reports back on research undertaken during lockdown, looking at people’s shopping habits during this time. What does this tell us about sourcing and supplying local food in the future?

The research we carried out for Bristol Going for Gold via Bristol Food Network comprised of three main areas: an online survey asking about people’s shopping habits, focus groups with new or lapsed veg box customers and conversations with independent food businesses, which included both stores and online delivery services. We were keen to explore peoples’ reasons for using independent shops and services in ways they perhaps hadn’t before; how these independent shops and services were responding to dramatic changes in trade; and what this indicated for the future.

What we learned from Bristol’s citizens

Our focus groups (made up of new and lapsed veg box customers of The Community Farm in Chew Magna) told us that one of the main reasons for ordering a veg box was simply that it was delivered. This was born out in our survey: 60% of responders had ordered online, half of whom said they did so to avoid the crowds.

Similarly, 83% of responders used independent stores. Over 40% did so because they couldn’t get a supermarket delivery slot and felt smaller shops would be quieter.

More than 40% of responders also told us they loved the range of goods available from local stores and delivery services. This is partly because these businesses use different, often local, supply chains, so they didn’t experience the same shortages as the bigger supermarket in those early days.

20% of online customers and over 40% of independent store visitors enjoyed the customer experience and the feeling of being part of the community. This came through in countless comments, such as “Lockdown felt quite lonely, so it felt [like a] nice friendly community atmosphere … I also realised we have everything we need on our doorstep.”

The overriding good news is that most people (about 80%) expressed an intention to continue to use local services in the future. The strongest driver was a desire to support local businesses: “I thought ‘what businesses do I want to survive this pandemic?’ and realised that’s where I needed to spend more of my money.”

The future

For many people, the ideal future scenario seems to be that they’d like their local shops to team up with delivery services to get the range and personal touch of the independents, with the convenience of supermarket deliveries.

What we learned from local food businesses (online and stores)

In the early days of lockdown, local businesses were thrown into the unknown. Some had previously served the catering and hospitality industry and found their market in tatters. Others were suddenly inundated with requests for deliveries.

Chris Loughlin, Manager at Leigh Court Farm told us that “Numbers of [veg box] enquiries doubled within 12 hours of lockdown“, while The Community Farm started nine new rounds to cope with demand “with the help of a new van, donated by a kindly neighbour”.

Meanwhile, Hugo Sapsed (from Hugo’s Greengrocer’s in Bedminster) told us that “Before COVID, we had a good wholesale business delivering to restaurants, often direct from farms“. Once things calmed down, his shop saw a healthy uptake of new customers, who he felt were “Discovering their high street’s food shops for the first time“, while also taking their daily walk.

Hugo started delivering veg to the Bristol Loaf, a bakery in St George, who got a delivery service off the ground with impressive speed. As their café closed and many of their catering customers disappeared, they found themselves with staff and a van to spare. They found like-minded small-scale suppliers like Hugo offered them a route into the home-delivery market, and gave customers an interesting selection of great local products. Gary Derham, Bristol Loaf’s owner, summarises: “We want to lead people to understand what a good food network looks like“.

All our businesses felt they had an opportunity to impress people who under normal circumstances might not have come their way. They were able to offer an experience based around good customer service, a more personal touch, and the chance to introduce products that people might not have tried before (and were prepared to try, having time to experiment).

The future

Key learnings indicate that an ability to be flexible, use a variety of suppliers, see opportunities, cooperate with other businesses and communicate well with customers will help future-proof our independent food businesses.

With many thanks to The Community Farm, Leigh Court Farm, Sims Hill, The Bristol Loaf, Hugo’s Greengrocers and Fresh-Range. Also to Heloise Balme and all those who completed our survey.

People working in our city’s food sector face unprecedented challenges. Though the bid to make Bristol a Gold Sustainable Food City has been paused, the need for a resilient food community has never been greater. Visit Bristol Food Network for more information and resources on Bristol’s Good Food response to the pandemic. Read Bristol Going for Gold Coordinator Joy Carey’s blog proposing five core principles on which to start building a better and more resilient food system.

#BristolFoodKind is a collaboration between Bristol Green Capital PartnershipBristol Food NetworkBristol City Council and Resource Futures.