'I got this overwhelming feeling of what an idiot I’d been for the past 25 years not diversifying my business'

The  Staff Canteen

The hospitality industry has long been a monolith in the UK, but that changed when Covid hit.

With restaurants closed and many businesses feeling the squeeze, everyone had to rethink their position. The Staff Canteen spoke with Andrew Jones of Farmyard restaurant in Norwich, Mitch Tonks of Rockfish Seafood restaurant, Andreas Antona of Simpsons restaurant, Sam Ward of the Umbel Restaurant Group and Richard Bainbridge of Benedicts in Norwich, about how they have diversified since lockdown.

All five parties started new businesses during lockdown but each took a different path to get there, with some already prepared for something and some being taken by surprise.

Mitch said that come mid-March 2020, he “felt the closure coming” and was thus quite prepared when it happened.

For him, Rockfish Tinned Seafood – a brand he created to sell all-British seafood sourced from his own restaurant suppliers -  “wasn’t really Covid related”. Covid acted as a break from the restaurant which gave them time to think.

It was a natural evolution to the business as they already had the supply chain and the contacts - they just needed the time away from working in the restaurant to allow them to do it.

Mitch said: “I think if Covid hadn’t happened I probably wouldn’t be doing tinned fish because we’re busy building restaurants [and] dealing with the day-to-day challenges of doing that normal world.”

Many of the other chefs agreed with Mitch that Covid was a much-needed break. In Andrew’s words, it was an "abrupt halt to restaurant operations." Richard concurred, as, he explained, in normal times chefs "don’t spend time at home."

Andrew, Richard and Sam discussed how their new businesses were birthed by the affordances and necessities of lockdown. For Andrew, the frozen meal brand began as a way to save himself time as he worked around home-schooling his children and other priorities that the pandemic caused, which then developed into Farmyard Frozen.

Home by Simon Rogan, Sam explained, "was created in the first lockdown to prevent food wastage caused by the closure of restaurants and to give back to the community," and caterer first for vulnerable people locally, then to the NHS.

In a similar vein, Richard said the freedom given to him by lockdown allowed him to start barbequing again and, thus, he started spending time working on BBQ sauces just for himself. It was out of this that Provisions started.

He stated: “I started playing around with it and my wife ate it and was like this is good, this is really good we need to get this out to people as well.”   

From every chef we interviewed, it was clear that there was this need to keep the business going and keep the name around so that after lockdown people would still remember them and go to their restaurants.

But also, without trying to be pessimistic, that you can’t rely on just the restaurant going forward. Specifically, Andreas said: “the people that diversify are the ones that are going to have a better chance of coming out of this […] in better shape.

He believes: “If [you] stand still with the restaurant, and you don’t have another source of income, you’re going to go backwards rather than forwards,” especially with the changes coming in the new year.

In Andreas’s words, a restaurant is "stagnant and immobile," whereas other offerings offer more flexibility.

He said that lockdown was a lightbulb moment for him, and that he got 'this overwhelming feeling of what an idiot I’ve been for the past 25 years not diversifying my business'.

He has no plans to slow down with his @ Home range, or other plans he has in the pipeline, and this was a sentiment the other chefs shared.

For Sam, "it became clear that we could address a number of specific needs in the marketplace and that coupled with several business opportunities that presented themselves we took the decision last summer to make the service a permanent part of the core business offer," so much so that it is now supported by a dedicated team who look after meal preparation, logistics, marketing, etc.

"It may have been philanthropic when it was first conceived," he said, "but now it is its own entity, with dedicated kitchens, supply chain, chefs, administration and so on," providing another dimension to what they do.

"It has allowed us to explore some interesting opportunities along the way, which ordinarily we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to look at," which, he added, "it will no doubt present more as we develop and grow further."

Mitch said: “We scaled up to launch something really amazing in the new year.”

It is clear that Covid has been a trying time for the restaurant industry, but it has also been a wake-up call. For a lot of people, it has been a time of reflection and development, where they could look at their restaurants and see what they had been missing before in the hustle and bustle of running it.

But that’s not all: there is a sense of excitement for future now that maybe wasn’t there before.

As Richard said: “It’s inspirational [seeing what everyone is doing now], and I think it’s been a long time since our industry has really become inspirational.”

In these challenging times…

The Staff Canteen team are taking a different approach to keeping our website independent and delivering content free from commercial influence. Our Editorial team have a critical role to play in informing and supporting our audience in a balanced way. We would never put up a paywall and restrict access – The Staff Canteen is open to all and we want to keep bringing you the content you want; more from younger chefs, more on mental health, more tips and industry knowledge, more recipes and more videos. We need your support right now, more than ever, to keep The Staff Canteen active. Without your financial contributions this would not be possible.

Over the last 12 years, The Staff Canteen has built what has become the go-to platform for chefs and hospitality professionals. As members and visitors, your daily support has made The Staff Canteen what it is today. Our features and videos from the world’s biggest name chefs are something we are proud of. We have over 500,000 followers across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and other social channels, each connecting with chefs across the world. Our editorial and social media team are creating and delivering engaging content every day, to support you and the whole sector - we want to do more for you.

A single coffee is more than £2, a beer is £4.50 and a large glass of wine can be £6 or more.

Support The Staff Canteen from as little as £1 today. Thank you.

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 9th November 2021

'I got this overwhelming feeling of what an idiot I’d been for the past 25 years not diversifying my business'