What lies ahead for independent restaurants?

Life as an independent restaurant operator has never seemed tougher, particularly for those living within the shackles of tier 3 and 4 restrictions.

It’s hard not to look back with rose tinted glasses at a time when the biggest threat to independents was the onslaught of new chain concepts.

Corporations taking the reins of an independent operator’s original concept and then proceeding to milk it for all it’s worth, rolling out watered-down versions and mirror image venues across the length and breadth of the country was once the main cause of sleepless nights for indie operators.

This chain tsunami often saw once fine thoroughbreds transformed into tired old nags hard to distinguish from one another, often reaching an undignified end, or a shot of lead, delivered by the latest ‘restructuring vehicle’.

Is the tide about to turn?

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the world as we know it, and while it’s hard to feel particularly optimistic right now, there may be good reason to anticipate a rosier future for some independent venues.

While no one should underestimate the havoc and devastation caused by the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, the post-covid era could be the time for the independent and individual operator.

Why? well firstly, many independents are owner operated and have been able to pivot their businesses much more fluidly in light of ridiculously short government lead times for lockdowns and changing restrictions. Larger chains do not have such immediate flexibility and must take into account varying (and changing) levels of restrictions across the areas in which they operate. They also often have larger workforces impacted by self isolation and sickness, and considerable logistical headaches when it comes to creating covid-safe environments or adapting to takeaway.

Tactical changes

As a result, some smaller independents have even prospered in recent months by making tactical changes and using smart thinking in their marketing and business plans. These typically (but not always) operate in a smaller number of locations so may find themselves with lesser variance in restrictions, and typically have a smaller workforce which is easier to manage. They can make changes to take-away often ‘on the fly’ and have been able to access more grants and government financial support schemes than many other industries.

This is not a silver bullet of course and it should be noted that new independent venues have fallen through the cracks of government support entirely. Small limited companies have also been excluded, an issue highlighted by Martin Lewis in recent months. More needs to be done here to support these fledgling businesses who are at the most expensive stage in their business journey with no or minimal returns.

Time for local businesses to shine

I believe, for the first time in a while, that businesses in secondary towns and semi-rural areas have benefited hugely from less stringent lockdown measures and the ‘escape from the city’  movement.

While this is not the case everywhere, larger city areas have found themselves under the strictest lockdown measures for longer, combined with a lack of commuters and office workers. I believe the ‘buy local’ ethos has never been stronger too, with more people working from home and accessing their local community.

Independent restaurants and cafes can have an extremely positive impact on their local community and now is their time to shine. This community involvement will surely pay dividends in a post-lockdown world, with locals keen to repay their support.

Ride the wave

It goes without saying that this local trend isn’t good news for everyone, and government support must be focused at helping those city centre independents who face some of the toughest challenges in the short term.

It’ll require dynamic thinking from city center chains too. It’s no longer enough for these huge ‘oil tanker’ operations to rely on ‘discounting’ their way out of poor trading periods. These are hard times. But for independents who manage to ride out the current storm, I believe brighter skies really do lie ahead.

By Matthew Mooney owner of Larkspur Lodge

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