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Jamie Hutcheon: Lockdown lessons offer a larder full of food opportunities

US street food in Belmont Street, Aberdeen.
US street food in Belmont Street, Aberdeen.

The Covid-19 pandemic forced our food producers, as with many other industries, to operate under significant pressure.

Business owners had to adapt to disrupted supply chains, ongoing restrictions and relentless uncertainty for more than two years.

Many rose to the challenge and we saw this first hand at Business Gateway, where businesses invested in digital offerings including website upgrades, e-commerce platforms and social media.

Deliveries and takeaway options became a lifeline for many food and drink ventures.

Entrepreneurs developed innovative ways to provide customers with a service that was desperately missed during repeated closures.

Jamie Hutcheon, Business Gateway manager, Aberdeen.

While all legal restrictions have now been lifted, company owners must turn their attention toward challenges such as rising energy costs, and hiring and retaining good staff.

Lessons learned from the past two years will increase the resilience of firms and help business owners navigate this period, but there are still challenges for the sector.

Despite these difficulties, we are fortunate to have a strong food sector here in the north-east, and there are many positive stories we are seeing across the network of advisers in Business Gateway Aberdeen City and the Shire which should be celebrated.

Inspired Nights street food market in Aberdeen.

Business Gateway’s engagement with the food and drink industry has steadily increased since the pandemic, with 261 inquiries received from April 2021 to March 2022 – compared to around 160 the year before.

In addition, numbers of start-up enterprises across the sector have also improved over the past four years.

These previously averaged between 80-100 businesses per year and this has now increased to 148 a year.

The north-east is home to many seafood processors.

New firms are also bringing exciting innovations – for example, street food is on the rise in response to changing consumer trends.

This can be found around Aberdeen, with pop-ups held at the beach and Shiprow Village, and also on Belmont Street.

With lower operating costs and less staff requires, street food venues not only provide newer businesses with a solution to rising costs, but also give teams a critical opportunity to try out new products, reach customers and, most importantly, turn a profit.

Aberdam smash burgers at Shiprow Village.

Other exciting trends likely to materialise over the coming months include an increase in the number of “dark kitchens”.

These virtual kitchens produce food for delivery only, with no dining area for customers.

Former Business Gateway client FreshMex employed this strategy for its expansion into England.

Thanks to the success many chefs experienced under lockdown when it came to providing takeaways, it wouldn’t be a great surprise to see more kitchens of this type appear.

Selling food to the public required new ideas during the Covid lockdowns.

These types of developments are welcomed, not least because the food and drink industry is well established as a significant contributor to the Scottish economy.

The north-east plays a critical role in this, accounting for more than 20% of Scotland’s food and drink output, according to Opportunity North East (One).

However, the ambition is for this to grow further.

This will be secured in part by market development, innovations and investment, as well as the combined support offered by a range of Scotland’s business-support networks, including Scottish Enterprise, Scotland Food & Drink and One.

Award caps successful year for Entier after initial Covid impact

At Business Gateway, our advisers are focused on working with firms at all stages of their growth journey.

Over the past financial year our team has worked with 65 businesses in Aberdeen city and shire, all on a long-term basis through a one-to-one service with an adviser.

This involves developing an action plan for growth and identifying key targets to help entrepreneurs meet their objectives, using our advisers’ wealth of business experience to help ensure success.

Particularly for those just setting out to launch their enterprise, we find this is a valuable part of the Business Gateway service, as many people have a great idea, but aren’t sure how to turn this into reality.

Following the welcome return of in-person events, the region’s food and drink sector is in a prime position to help bring people together and grow.

This was clear at the Taste of Grampian festival at the start of June, where local producers were able to showcase their products and highlight the tremendous offering that Aberdeen and the surrounding area have to offer.

Meanwhile, at Business Gateway, our team has been putting on “foodie fun”‘ networking events, as the best way to get together is over some exceptional food and drink, which we know our firms have to offer.

This format has been incredibly successful so far, letting businesses and producers throughout the region get to know each other informally and enjoyably.

Lessons learned from the past two years will increase the resilience of firms and help business owners navigate this period, but there are still challenges for the sector.”

Business Gateway can also facilitate introductions to the wider support ecosystem in the area.

Producers have a variety of help available through organisations including Scotland Food & Drink, One and Scottish Enterprise, as well as the councils and universities.

Collaboration and cross-working will help ensure our food and drink sector is in the best place for growth, and that firms have all the tools to make this happen.

The region has some of the very best businesses ready to be discovered and this is a testament to the support on offer.

Jamie Hutcheon is a Business Gateway manager in Aberdeen.

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