You’ll miss it if it’s gone…

Taking the requisite daily exercise last Sunday involved passing my local coffee bar, Islands in Hornsey, where the owner was crouched over a crate outside his shuttered premises handing out free food to random locals out for an exercise-like stroll.

With no customers and perishable food on the premises it was clearly better to give it away than throw it all in the bin. I gratefully accepted a box of six of the iconic Portuguese custard tarts, pastéis de nata, and immediately enjoyed one when back home.

It was as pleasurably sweet and tasty as the examples I’d enjoyed on my previous visits to Lisbon. But it did sadly leave a slightly bitter taste in my mouth when I considered the circumstances of my receiving this enjoyable freebie. Each individual tart would have been sold at about £1.50 in the café and I’d taken £9 of revenue that the business has had to write-off.

This offloading of perishable stock has been played out across the UK as thousands of specialist food shops, delis, cafes, restaurants and bars have found themselves with mountains of unwanted foodstuffs sitting around.

Indicative of the level of produce in the system could be seen at City Harvest, which was set up in 2014 to redistribute food to charities across London. These organisations then turn it into nutritious dishes for some of the capital’s more vulnerable people.

Normally City Harvest would receive 35 tonnes of food per week from the likes of Innocent, Booker and Fruitful Office but since March 17 this has risen to an average of 20 tonnes per day and they have received food and produce from myriad restaurants and food service companies including Nandos, Wasabi, Bone Daddies, Gail’s and Hawksmoor as well as many smaller retailers.

With this massive uplift in donations City Harvest calculates that over the past week alone it has saved 110 tonnes of food and helped create 255,000 meals. Although it has returned to some form of normality since it hit a peak, and has frozen some of the foods it has recently received, its ongoing ability to operate requires financial input and it has recently launched a GoFundMe campaign to support its activities.  

After consuming my pastéis de nata my initial thoughts were that I should really frequent Islands in Hornsey more often when it reopens. Simply popping in for a coffee while reading the paper ahead of starting work a couple of times a week makes a meaningful difference to such businesses. Supporting local independent operators should be a priority for everybody when the lockdown ends.

But with the recent news that as many as 20% of all small and medium-sized businesses in the UK are unlikely to get the cash they need to survive the next month – despite the support of government – it casts doubt on the survival of thousands of independent businesses just like Islands in Hornsey.

It is to be hoped that all those businesses we kept telling ourselves we should visit more often will return and we can then not simply pay lip service to them but actually put money in their tills. Let’s hope it is not too late.

Glynn Davis, editor, Retail Insider