Running a food business, whether it’s a small independent operation, a commercial kitchen or a restaurant chain, is never a piece of cake.

High rents, slim margins, long hours and staff turnover are just some of the issues that see 60% of restaurants close within their first year. It’s a tough gig – and a global pandemic has just made it a whole lot tougher.

Having spent part of his career catering big events such as Royal Ascot and the Hampton Court Flower Show, Alex Hall, Executive Chef of Unilever Food Solutions, UK and Ireland, says his first thoughts on hearing about the UK lockdown were for friends working in the events industry. “That’s their summer gone and the revenue with it,” he says.

“The needs of chefs, foodservice operators and their guests all over the world are changing almost on a daily basis,” acknowledges Harry Brouwer, CEO of Unilever Food Solutions (UFS). “It’s important we stay connected during this period and support each other in order to get through this.”

Listening to those emerging needs has seen UFS mobilise its scale and expertise to help foodservice businesses across the industry and around the globe access the resources, advice and support they need.

Never has the company’s purpose to support, inspire and progress been more relevant, as the chefs and foodservice operators it serves face their toughest challenge yet.

Here are just six of the ways UFS teams are helping foodservice operators right now:

1. Creating forums to connect and access much-needed advice

Restaurants have been some of the hardest-hit businesses during Covid-19. Recently released figures from America’s National Restaurant Association show four in ten restaurants have closed their doors for good while two-thirds of the workforce there have been laid off either temporarily or permanently.

Creating hubs to help owners and restaurant managers deal with issues such as employment law, landlords and where and how to access government assistance was the first action point for UFS.

“When we set up the #GastronomiaRazem advice platform on Facebook in Poland, more than 2,500 chefs signed up in just 12 hours; now that number is more than 6,500,” says Harry.

This initiative was quickly followed by one in France Gestion De Crise Pour Les Restaurateurs, and the UK, where UFS is partnering on “#UnitedWeStand” to allow operators to put questions to experts using the hashtag on social.

Alongside these forums, online advice is available to foodservice operators 24/7 via the UFS.com website in each country it operates in. A dedicated section on how to fight Covid-19 together gives advice on topics such as food delivery menus to attract customers and how to reassure diners with food safety practices.

We’re providing tips on frozen food, creating ready-to-eat and ready-to-cook dishes and food delivery because these are huge tailwind opportunities operators must take into account as food trends are going this way.

UFS Indonesia’s Head Chef Gun Gun Chandra Handayana

2. Helping restaurants pivot to pick-up and home deliveries

Chef with folded arms. UFS Indonesia’s Chef Gun Gun has been hosting Facebook Live talks

The current pandemic has seen sit-in restaurants look to adapt their menus to non-contact pick-ups and home delivery. Alongside online resources on marketing, kitchen organisation and Covid-19 hygiene considerations, UFS is providing businesses with access to the latest industry research and trend information to help serve these emerging market spaces.

UFS’s own chefs, including Indonesia’s Head Chef Gun Gun Chandra Handayana, are also playing their part and using social media to host talks offering practical advice and menu inspiration to the food operator community.

“Food and beverage businesses in Indonesia are the third-biggest contributor to state revenue after the oil and gas sectors,” says Chef Gun Gun. “Our foodservice operators are really important for our country.”

Talks on food safety and ideas for immunity-boosting recipes have been well received on social media. “We’re also providing tips on frozen food, creating ready-to-eat and ready-to-cook dishes and food delivery because these are huge tailwind opportunities operators must take into account, as food trends are going this way,” he adds.

3. Making home delivery apps affordable to small suppliers

Working with online marketplaces across the globe to support local food operators has also been key for UFS. In Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, the company has partnered with Carousell, to help 180,000 small food operators get listed on the platform free of charge.

This #SupportLocal initiative allows smaller operators to offer on-demand takeaway services without incurring any commissioning fees.

UFS is also offering these operators professional resources such as free recipes, tips and video training on food delivery and social media photography to help them make the most of the listing.

“Local food businesses are at the heart of every community in South-East Asia," says Star Chen, EVP, Customer Development & Operations, UFS. “We hope that this joint initiative will support local businesses and act as a catalyst for many to embrace digitisation,” he says.

In France and Portugal, UFS has launched the ‘J’aime Mon Resto/My Local Eatz’ platform to encourage consumers to support local restaurants still open in their area. The joining process for restaurants is fast and completely free, with 100% of each consumer’s order benefiting the restaurant. The initiative will be rolled out in more markets soon.

The ‘J’aime Mon Resto’ platform was created by UFS to support local restaurants in France and Spain and let consumers know which are still open for orders in their neigbourhood.

4. Products to cut prep and help with staff shortage

Food operators in China were the first to feel the full force of the pandemic. Rebuilding their customers’ confidence in food safety and meeting emerging consumer needs, often with a reduced number of staff in the kitchen, were key causes of concern.

As well as supplying operators with practical advice on food safety, masks and disinfectant, the UFS China team offered help on take-away and group- and single-serving meal solutions and visited all of their customers ‘virtually’ via videoconference. “We wanted them to have confidence in us, to let them know we were going to survive this crisis together,” says Shi Quan of UFS China.

Helping operators adjust to new customer meal needs with a smaller head count in the kitchen saw the team launch a new set of ready-to-use packet sauces to help reduce kitchen prep and get meals to customers sooner. And feedback from operators has been very positive.

5. Helping operators manage stress and their mental health

At the best of times food operators have to work hard to balance the needs of the business and the health and wellbeing of staff; Covid-19 has amplified this.

UFS was a founding partner of the #FairKitchens movement to support the wellbeing of chefs and foodservice professionals across the globe, all year round. “But we knew more support was needed to get them through this,” says UFS Canada Operating Marketing Manager Natasha Fraser. “Our aim is not just to help businesses to survive, we want the people who run them to come out of this in one piece too.”

Access to wellbeing apps such as headspace are listed on the UFS site. And in partnership with the National Restaurant Association, UFS North America created a weekly series of online seminars on mental health and wellbeing. The first included input from food writer Andrew Zimmern and Pamela Paresky from Psychology Today.

In South Africa, UFS and #Fairkitchens partnered with the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) to offer a dedicated 24/7 counselling support line service.

6. Reducing food waste and finding use for surplus stock

A sharp decline in business has left many restaurants with surplus food stocks. In Europe, UFS is partnering on Too Good To Go’s 'WeCare'/ 'Steun Lokaal' initiative which has seen the food surplus company open up its platform to allow food operators to sell their dishes at standard prices via the app for no extra cost.

In Australia, UFS is working with new online marketplace, Yume Food Australia to enable food distributors to buy and sell quality stock from each other.

Life after lockdown

“We know people are missing eating out,” says UFS Executive Chef for UK and Ireland Alex Hall. “Research in the UK shows that after meeting up with family, it’s eating out at restaurants that people are missing most during this pandemic.

“Covid-19 is going to change the food industry, but if there’s any industry that’s going tackle that, it’s this one,” he says. “We’re used to being on our toes, it’s part of the job, you have to be ready to serve people throughout the day. It’s our job at UFS to stand alongside our operators, to do what we can to help them keep on doing what they do best.”

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