Unlike our continental cousins, the British have a history of taking little interest or pride in locally produced food specialities, but new pressures are at work. Growing environmental awareness means that the environmental impact of food production, and especially its transport, is increasingly important to the consumer. Coincidentally, food transport costs are also rising in the wake of general fuel price increases.
At the same time, UK consumers are becoming more aware of the need to support their local food heritage and its infrastructure. One small sign of this is the steady growth of farmers’ markets and the box system of receiving a weekly “blind” box of fruit and veg sourced with seasonality and local availability in mind.
These pressures are causing a re-evaluation of the need to support local food and that, of course, includes food served in the eating out market. There is a debate about what constitutes “local” – is it the town, county, region or even the whole of the UK? While the answers often depend on the actual food being considered, the overall direction of change is clear.
The emergence of restaurants and other types of outlet that have a policy of supporting local producers is growing, and range from contract caterers to London-based restaurant, Konstam which sources most of its food from the London area.
So what does regionality mean to the eating out market and its suppliers?
The London region – basically within the M25 – is the largest market for suppliers, according to Horizons, accounting for over pound;2bn of food purchase in 2006, equivalent to 21% of the total UK market. When combined with the South East region, this super region buys 42% of total foodservice sector purchases.
Operators in Scotland purchase more than pound;670m of food and those in Wales pound;306m.
Suppliers of regional food need to be aware of differences in the make-up of the market in different parts of the UK. For instance, staff catering outlets are likely to be a better bet as a proportion of total business in the region in the Midlands than in the south or the north, although Scotland is also a good market for wholesalers in staff catering.
Pubs are a sector to focus on in counties such as Yorkshire and the north generally, because pubs in these areas form a larger share of the foodservice sector than they do in other parts of the country.
Outlet size is also an important regional differentiator, with the hotel sector, including B Bs and guest houses, being the most obvious example. The average hotel in Northern Ireland purchases pound;11,550 of food per year with Welsh hotels only marginally ahead. In London, the average is in excess of pound;105,000 year and many hotels exceed this by a wide margin.
A wholesaler is faced with wide choices in each locality. The key sector strategy that will suit a supplier in one region is not necessarily the right one for another area. London stands out for a number of reasons: it is the largest area and among the fastest growing, it has a heavy preponderance of restaurants, pubs and other destination outlets. It is therefore, an obvious area to target with regional produce. Except that London is heavily built up and the number of regional producers is comparatively thin on the ground. That does not stop high quality, small-scale manufacturers thriving in London, but fresh local produce is more of a problem.
The West Midlands, by contrast, includes many suppliers of locally produced vegetables, meat and dairy. And the additional benefit of this region is that, together with the East Midlands region, it accounts for over 12% of all UK foodservice demand for food where average annual purchases per outlet are among the highest in the country.
The future for locally sourced food is bright, but the aspiring local or national supplier needs to tailor the offer to the local make-up of the foodservice sector.