The Covid-19 pandemic has given rise to the sharpest and most peculiar recession in Northern Ireland’s history, according to Richard Johnston, deputy director of the Economic Policy Centre at Ulster University Business School.
He said: “Typically recessions are caused by a stock market crash, financial system failure, oil crisis, or a post-war readjustment in government spending, but this one has been caused by policy requiring the restriction of movement and contact in order to save lives.”
When it comes to plotting a route out of that recession, the Department for the Economy’s recent paper on ‘Rebuilding the Economy’ highlighted our agri-food industry as an ‘existing strength’ that should be protected.
While the goal for many companies is simply survival through this recessionary period, for those working in agri-food we must remain positive and keep in mind that consumers basic need for food and drink will not change but their tastes, how they access these products and their willingness to spend money will.
Failing to innovate and respond to competitors during uncertain times may lead to businesses struggling. In a stagnant market it is the fresh ideas, the new product concepts and added value benefits that can capture consumers attention and their willingness to spend money.
As a result of the pandemic we are witnessing various types of innovation across the local food and drinks sector and further afield.
Incremental innovations are those which are simply further developments of existing products, services and processes with the purpose of capturing new markets or simply adapting your offering to new circumstances.
For example, Krispy Kreme has recently moved into the grocery retail market by releasing its first range of packaged snack products available in US outlets; Special K and Actimel have launched new “Immunity” promoting products in response to consumer concern in fighting against illness; and Tesco recently partnered with potato supplier Branston on its ‘Perfectly imperfect potatoes’ – helping to divert excess stock typically sold to foodservice into the retail market (Mintel, 2020).
More locally, artisan producers such as Kay Armstrong, owner of Deli Muru, who makes a range of homemade preserves, chutneys and biscuits, is trying to capture a new market of stay at home foodies.
“During lockdown I was making up little treats of freshly baked scones with our jams and Abernethy butter, cakes, etc, for friends and neighbours who either couldn’t get out or were separated from key workers, then leaving them on the doorstep,” said Kay.
“They began to ask if I did this as part of our offering in the business. So, after careful consideration, and a lot of taste testing, we hatched a plan for Afternoon Tea for Two.
“What nicer way to spend a socially distanced afternoon – great food supporting other artisan producers like Suki Tea with their new Sparkling Tea Infusions to complement it.
Supporting local producers will help get us through this unfamiliar time!”
Other local examples of producer diversification include seasoning kits from Burren Balsamics, dinner kits from Streetza Pizza, home grown produce like bagged salads from the Edible Flower catering company and milk from cheesemakers Ballylisk of Armagh.
More radical innovations are those developments which are totally brand new to the world or new to a company, requiring significant change in how they traditionally do business.
In the midst of Covid we have witnessed a number of companies radically innovating through the use of new technologies.
With the foodservice industry being hit hard, new concepts around the automation of food, online ordering and cashier-less concepts are occurring.
Piestro, a US start-up, recently launched a crowd funded call to raise $2 million in seed capital for its artisanal automated pizzeria vending machine (Food Bev News, 2020); while Squeaky Bean, a UK vegan brand, has developed plant-based food boxes which customers order via the Food Chain App (which pre-Covid was only available to the restaurant industry); and reports of Amazon Go coming to the UK with checkout free stores are all examples of how technological innovations are navigating us through the journey of the ‘new normal’.
The full economic impact of the pandemic remains unknown, however Richard Johnston believes that “vulnerable groups, including those with limited digital skills or online access, lower qualified groups, the young and those areas reliant on manufacturing or tourism will need the greatest support”.
At the Food and Drink Business Development Centre in Ulster University Business School we have recently launched a new Masters programme in Food Design and Innovation.
If you are a local entrepreneur or food and drink business wanting to learn more about how to innovate to remain competitive why not consider advancing your learning in a class with like-minded individuals by enrolling on our new course.
n For more information see www.ulster.ac.uk/courses/202021/food-design-and-innovation-21314