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On the Table: Use or lose your local indies, says Tine Roche

As our area emerges from lockdown, it’s a case of use your local independents or lose them, writes Cambridge Cookery MD Tine Roche

Cambridge Cookery: Tine Roche, Managing Director Pic - Richard Marsham. (36168585)
Cambridge Cookery: Tine Roche, Managing Director Pic - Richard Marsham. (36168585)

Paraphrasing John F Kennedy when writing about local independent food would be wildly bombastic if it weren’t for the absolutely dire state of affairs. So: “Ask not what independent cafés and restaurants can do for you, ask what you can do for them.”

Without active and sustained support from customers, most small food businesses will have disappeared by the time social distancing is fully lifted. The High Street will consist mainly of boarded up shop fronts and the only businesses still trading will be global giants and chain restaurants peddling pre-made, mass produced food, masquerading as “fresh” and “local”.

The long term impact of lockdown will most likely affect the generation about to enter the workplace for decades. Every aspect of life has been affected, but few areas have been as brutally hit as the hospitality industry. And within that, it is the small independents who struggle the most.

Take-away dishes on the Cambridge Cookery deli counter, summer 2020 (36168447)
Take-away dishes on the Cambridge Cookery deli counter, summer 2020 (36168447)

Notorious for its gruelling work hours, the industry trades with profit margins so low that few industries would find them acceptable. The average profit margin for restaurants is 3-5%. The higher the quality of the food, the more ambitious its sustainability and the better the conditions for employees, the lower the margins. Few business owners would find it tolerable to work 14-15-hour days for such poor rewards. So why do it, most sane people would ask? The answer, of course, is for the love of food, for the wish to give customers the best possible time and for the sheer adrenaline thrill of it all when it is going well.

Just how dire the situation is will become evident by the end of July, when the gradual cutting back of the Government’s furloughing scheme will reveal just how many jobs were artificially upheld. The next two months, as social distancing regulations are eased and more and more businesses reopen in some shape or form, will be crucial for how we limp back.

Those businesses who were able to will have reinvented themselves as take-outs and delivery services. But unlike the myriad of businesses who were from the outset trading as take-aways, they are sitting on large premises with rent demands many times higher than those paid by traditional take-aways.

Take-away dishes on the Cambridge Cookery deli counter, summer 2020 (36168457)
Take-away dishes on the Cambridge Cookery deli counter, summer 2020 (36168457)

With its near monopoly, Deliveroo took the opportunity to increase their cut from 10% to 35% during the lockdown, crippling all but the very largest food chains. Their main competitor, Uber Eats, restricts itself to 30%. This rapacious behaviour deserves to be widely despised. As the owner of a (currently closed) cookery school and private and corporate events venue and a (still open) high quality, zero-food-waste café and deli, I have found the near sanctification of Deliveroo during lockdown sticking like a fish bone in my throat.

If we are to see a re-emergence of local cafés, back-street bistros and independent restaurants, and a return to work for at least some of the furloughed employees, customers will need to venture out and support their local businesses. Rather than ordering fast food from chains, order from one of the independents. Many of us now offer a take-out or a local delivery service. We are fighting for our survival, cooking the best food that we possibly can and buying ingredients from other small, local suppliers, thus sustaining the fabric of a sustainable local economy.

When I reopened as a take-out deli and supplier of gourmet dining at home, the joy and sheer gratitude expressed by my local and very loyal clientele was not just for the food itself but for the love of having a local meeting place offering personal service and playing a vital role in creating a positive sense of community. We are a social hub on the south side of Cambridge, a glue for the fabric that makes a neighbourhood. We know our customers by name, we know their children, their dogs, their holiday plans, their family weddings and birthdays.

If we lose our local cafés, food stores and restaurants, we lose so much more than just the produce sold. We lose something vitally important for what makes us feel settled, happy, safe, connected and engaged with our local area.

* See cambridgecookery.com for more

Read more: Thanks to these local indies, ordering in is as delicious as eating out

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