Journalist Martin Hesp considers how we can help future-proof our local food and drink industry
Here’s a mixed message if ever there was one: a great many of us have been complaining that we’ve put on a few pounds during the lockdown – perhaps because we’ve been eating and drinking a little bit more than usual. And yet, a great many food and drink companies across Devon have been struggling.
So why is that? You can only assume that this is happening because all those supermarket home deliveries or click-and-collect trips have not exactly been laden with locally produced food and drink.
There’s also the fact that a great many of our better restaurants, pubs, cafés and other eateries have been closed – and they tend to be the places which lead the way in purchasing large amounts of local produce.
Any good Devon pub worth its salt is not going to serve bangers and mash using sausages made in Scotland. The best sausages are going to come from just down the road and the menu will proudly tell diners all about their provenance. But if the pub in question has been closed for months, then it represents an awful lot of Devon’s finest produce that has never seen the light of day.
And this is really important, not only for the pub and its landlord or landlady and the local breweries that supply them with beer, but also for the staff, from the cleaners to the bar manager. Then there’s the farmer down the road who keeps the pigs that make the sausages, the local vets who look after the porkers, the livestock feed company and its lorry drivers. There’s also the local abattoir and its staff.
A single artisan-made sausage might not sound like a product that requires half a dozen employers and scores of employees – but think about the whole story of that sausage and you begin to see an entire local economy in the making.
A recent survey carried out by local authorities in the UK showed that for every £1 spent with a small or medium-sized business, 63 pence stayed in the local economy. That’s two-thirds of every pound spent – and the research did not differentiate between the type of products bought (local or items from elsewhere). It was just about the kind of premises where people actually spent their money.
Our beloved banger – made from local pork by a local butcher who uses a local abattoir and sells to the chef up the road who insists on buying local – would knock the 63 pence out of the frying pan into the fire. In the case of our local sausage, you’d have to think that more than 95 pence in the pound would remain in the local economy.
Compare that to what happens when you spend a quid in the big chains. In that scenario, just 40 pence in the pound remains in the area where it’s spent.
But for lovers of good food and drink, the buy-local dictum goes a lot further than that. Especially now, as businesses struggle to recover from the unique stresses caused by a lockdown.
It’s obvious that if we don’t get out and about supporting local producers, as well as pubs, restaurants and cafés – many businesses will go bust. I remember a time when there was hardly a hamlet or a street in Devon that didn’t have a public house. Now, they are few and far between. Imagine a future when you’d have to drive 20 or 30 minutes to have someone pull you a local pint. And then imagine what tourists would think. “Why go on holiday to the West Country?” you’d hear them moan. “There’s nothing to do. Not a morsel to eat or a drop to drink!”
But now imagine the exact opposite. A region that’s so famous for its food and drink, it’s groaning with first-class places in which to dine. In that dream scenario, the only way is up. Any producer, supplier, farmer, fisherman, grower, breeder, brewer, bartender, chef, cider-maker or maître d’ who lets standards slip won't be around for long to tell the tale.
Success breeds success. The area becomes a zone of excellence. The standards bar goes up and up. There’s absolutely no point in producing or serving rubbish if everyone else around you is working to a Rolls Royce standard.
In Devon, we have a tried and tested food and drink industry capable of filling a table with the best you’ll find anywhere in the UK, but that’s not worth half a pound of spuds if there aren’t customers buying the delights served on that table.
And that, first and foremost, means us: the consumers. Never have we been so important when it comes to saving the whole future of our local food and drink industry.
As part of its ongoing media partnership with Taste Buds, this is a series of articles written by Food Drink Devon.