Local food suppliers and their consumer-driven industry

Harvey Lockwood, head chef at Murrays, is joined by Craig Rose, estate executive chef at Whittlebury Park in discussing local produce, supply chains, and the future of the UK’s food industry

Recent months have seen the UK’s supply chains across all sectors hit from two sides at once. The UK’s food industry is one of those sectors where the combined challenge of Brexit and Covid-19 is most prevalent. However, by turning to local produce, both businesses and individuals could reap the benefits while supporting the UK’s local suppliers. “Have a look in the countryside and you would see that there are bountiful amounts of product on our doorstep,” insists Harvey Lockwood, head chef at the three AA Rossette-rated fine dining restaurant, Murrays.

An award-winning chef who first joined Whittlebury Park, the restaurant’s wider estate, in 2011, Lockwood has since pressed his desires to utilise the best that Britain has to offer into his cheffing DNA. In times of difficulty such as these, the importance of using high-quality local produce is paramount to Lockwood for two reasons. “You are supporting local businesses, for one, and you’re reducing fuel costs by not travelling around and getting things from overseas,” he says.

When highlighting the type of business affected by breaks in the food supply chain, Lockwood points out a particular cress grower. He recounts that Murrays paid the supplier, who now faces difficulties in shifting the produce, in advance to “get the startup going,” a running feature of the restaurant’s supply chain relations. A second group was Hamm Tun, the provider of an “absolutely phenomenal cheese” that is now “subsequently struggling” from a lack of demand.

It is this lack in demand that is straining the supply chain that provided the UK with over half (55%) of its food consumed in 2019. When asked whether it is Brexit or the ongoing pandemic that is hurting local suppliers most, Lockwood points out the difficulty in understanding the full extent of Brexit due to the current situation.

He says: “It’s very difficult to say on Brexit because obviously it happened in December this year and we’ve already been in lockdown, so the market is still coming back. So, when we are back to capacity we will see how Brexit has affected it.” Lockwood, however, is adamant of the detrimental impact Covid-19 has played on the sector. “Companies are not able to deliver the products anymore,” he says. “Like I said with our cress grower, there’s nothing he can do”.

Yet, Lockwood believes that out of darkness will come light. “I think [the utilisation of local suppliers] will be a trend that we will see with new businesses opening up all the time because of Brexit and people wanting to source locally,” he says. “New businesses will come up and as long as the quality is right, people are more than happy to use it”.

Moreover, Craig Rose, estate executive chef at Whittlebury Park, predicts a spike in indulgence dining upon the gradual reopening of the sector. He says: “I think you’re also going to get quite a percentage of indulgence dining. People going out for a bit of a luxury to enjoy themselves and forget it all, thinking ‘let’s eat all the things we’re not supposed to eat because we just want to have some fun and a bit of a release’.” 

As a “consumer-driven industry”, the impact of consumption trends on supply chains cannot be understated. So, at this moment in time how important is it for Lockwood to market a product as locally sourced to its client-base? “I think it depends because Whittlebury is such a big business when it is all up and running,” Lockwood says. “For my restaurant, it’s very crucial as people come because of the local products and being able to source locally from the counties is part of the ethos of the restaurant.”

However, to simply market a product as locally sourced is not enough, the way it is conveyed to the consumer is also vital. Rose adds that with menu writing the tip is to keep it simple. He says: “If you put too much information on the menu it becomes too big of a story and people just don’t read it, they’re not interested.

“You’ve got to be really careful how you pinpoint it. If you’re going to put Scottish langoustines you don’t want to say the name, the farmer, the producer, or batch codes, it just gets too much information for the guest.” Verbal communication through the waiters and waitresses is, in the eyes of Lockwood, more important. 

While portraying the product in an enticing way to the consumer is a challenge in itself, the biggest issue centring around locally sourced food for Rose is increasing its scale. “Murrays is just 30 covers in our over 1,000 cover operation. So, supply from Murrays to get a niche and small amount of local products is great but we quite often find that we are unable to scale it up.

“In terms of Murrays, especially, we try and use the restaurant as a sounding board of an experimental area, really working on flavours and products, seeing if we can scale that up to do 400 covers in a banquet or 280-300 covers at our main restaurant. It doesn’t always work, but when it does it’s quite fulfilling to be able to deliver those products at that standard. But it takes a lot of a lot of convincing, especially among the team that we can do this.” 

When it comes to scaling up the operation, Lockwood and Rose have conflicting opinions. “I’ve missed doing the bigger picture,” says Rose. “When you can have two or three weddings going on and a function for up to 400, and then you can have a camping event going on, pulling all that together with various suppliers and subcontractors to deliver, I found quite exciting.” Lockwood interjects, stating instead that he simply “enjoyed the day to day running” of Murrays.  

Either way, there is no denying that the pair are eager to get the operation running at full capacity once again, working with local suppliers to produce high-quality meals for those guests looking to shake off the constraints of the pandemic.

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