It is no secret the past 18 months have been more than challenging for the foodservice sector in the United Kingdom, but the situation is slowly returning to normal, according to Direct Seafoods, one of the largest suppliers to the restaurant and catering segment.

“The 18 months of lockdown, with its few months of respite last summer, have been very challenging for the whole of the hospitality sector,” Laky Zervudachi, director of sustainability at the company, told IntraFish.

"We have had to make some tough decisions in order to continue to operate.”

During the lockdown, Direct Seafoods was forced to furlough or lay off a large percentage of its staff.

However, business continued at all the group’s depots, albeit with skeleton crews “who managed to do a fantastic job" in spite of the challenges, said Zervudachi.

“The lockdowns made us take a very close look at the whole business and helped us to make some good decisions to help rationalize certain elements within the business,” he said.

“We hope that these decisions, in the long run, will make us more efficient and productive in the future.”

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On the way to recovery

During the summer, as the hospitality sector reopened in the UK, Direct Seafoods saw demand surge, in particular in coastal areas and outside city centers, with London and other cities picking up toward mid-September.

“I wouldn’t say it is completely back to normal, but definitely well on the way there,” Zervudachi said.

The first sectors to return were the restaurant and pub sectors. Hotels have been following at a slower pace, with event catering and contract catering bringing up the rear.

“Certainly in London it is clear that many staff canteens are well behind the volumes they used to turn over due to many people still working from home,” Zervudachi added.

New day, new challenges

Although lockdowns have ended, the UK seafood sector faces a raft of additional challenges, namely with global supply chains and inflationary pressures.

Like all suppliers, Direct Seafoods has also been “seriously affected” by global supply chain issues, and the reasons behind each issue seem to stem from a wide variety of problems: some related to COVID-19, some to Brexit and some even to climate change.

“Every day we seem to be affected by a new challenge, which our teams have been brilliant at trying to overcome,” said Zervudachi.

“The most important thing we can do is remain flexible and encourage our customers to be willing to tweak their menus where necessary.”

Inflation is affecting all aspects of supply, from raw materials, to packaging, logistics and fuel.

“Despite us absorbing as much of these increases as possible, it has been impossible to absorb it all, and this means we have had to pass some of these price rises on to customers," he said.

Like most, Zervudachi expects these issues to last well into next year, with “hopefully” some measure of stabilization in the second half of 2022.

Direct Seafoods is forced to plan further ahead than normal due to delays in logistics, and the issues are “definitely focusing the mind on long-term stock replacement,” especially when looking at products coming from further afield.

Another lockdown would be 'catastrophic'

In recent weeks, COVID-19 cases have been rising in the UK, prompting fears lockdowns could be reintroduced, though many see that as unlikely.

Zervudachi believes the UK government will go to any length to avoid another closure given the damage already done to the economy.

“Another lockdown, especially during the busy festive period where the hospitality industry is so reliant on consumers dining out, would have a catastrophic impact and would see many businesses having to cease trading,” he said. “To be honest, I feel it would be a disaster.”

As things stand, the hospitality and foodservice sectors are fully open for business and the busy Christmas period appears like it will continue as normal, although it is off to a slow start.

“I understand, from speaking to chefs, that many places are well behind in bookings,” said Zervudachi.

“I think this may well be due to the continued uncertainty, and I believe we still have the potential for an extremely busy Christmas period.”

Despite all the challenges, there are some positives, namely the “enormous amount of pent-up demand for eating out,” said Zervudachi.

There is also a growing demand from younger customers to question where their seafood is coming from and wanting to ensure that what they buy is sustainably sourced, he said.

“This, in turn, is encouraging chefs to be more discerning about what items to put on the menu," Zerudachi said.

"[They now] realize that they need to be more flexible when choosing seafood items and not necessarily be fixed in their attitude.”