In 2010 Richard Jones turned his love of cooking into a business, encouraged by friends and family who had tasted food he prepared for garden parties and the like. We’ve since become used to seeing ‘The Fenland Roaster’ serving food at events across our region.
Initially Richard’s speciality of hog roasts and barbecues dominated, but he soon started to provide a wider range, including hot and cold buffets. Investment in premises and equipment, including a £15,000 Rational combination oven, soon followed. This enabled Richard to take on everything from corporate hospitality to weddings, and village fêtes to sporting events.
Things were continuing in the same vein until quite recently. However, as so many other businesses in the catering and hospitality sector found, measures to combat COVID-19 meant that everything changed. Thousands of events were cancelled, devastating the sector overnight.
I asked Richard where the sector, and his business, will go from here. ‘In short, I don’t know. I don’t think anybody in the sector knows at the moment. The whole industry could be completely different for the next year or two. It’s certainly throwing a challenge for me in terms of how I take the business forward.’
When Richard’s busy schedule of event catering suddenly came to an end in late March, he quickly rebooted the business as a local food delivery service. He has been bringing a range of bread, sausage rolls, pasties, homemade ready meals, pies and cakes to Whittlesey and surrounding villages.
As well as parking up and setting his stall out at set locations on a regular schedule, he is also individually delivering food orders to people who are isolating. On the face of it, as the COVID-19 situation eases off, the need for such a service could tail off. But Richard isn’t so sure.
‘It’s proved to be an invaluable service for many people, and that could continue in some form,’ he says. ‘It feels a bit like a return to the days when the grocer, butcher, baker and so on all had a delivery service. I have a feeling that people will still want a service like that, especially as many are steering clear of busy supermarkets for the foreseeable future.’
CHANGING THE WAY WE SOCIALISE
Virus restrictions, and perhaps a longer-term cultural change, are of course also affecting how people get together. This is another area where caterers like Richard are responding. As an example, he is receiving enquiries about small garden parties for just a few people, within current social distancing rules.
‘People tell me they are tired of always cooking for themselves,’ Richard explains. ‘They welcome the option of having someone provide food for a small event with a handful of family or friends. I can bring the food and lay it out so people can come to the table and take what they want one at a time, or prepare it in individual portions.’
A similar approach is being taken for business customers. ‘A local firm recently asked me to provide breakfasts as a thank-you for its 20 key workers. I’ve done this sort of thing many times, but the difference now is that each breakfast was delivered individually wrapped. The same thing can be done for buffets, ploughman’s lunches and so on. I also expect to be doing barbecues this summer for companies who have the available space.’
The hog roast will hopefully remain Richard’s speciality, as that can also adapt to the new situation. ‘Rather than be on site roasting the pig and carving, I can do that at my premises and deliver everything in individual portions. I’ve done it in the past in fact, and it can work very well.’
As a member of the Nationwide Caterers Association, Richard has access to their extensive COVID-19 resources, such as best practice guides and risk assessments. These have enabled him to assess his facilities and systems, making the necessary changes to remain compliant with latest guidelines.
TAKING THE LONG VIEW
With his anniversary in mind, I asked Richard whether, when he started, he thought he would still be in business ten years later. ‘I think I did. Any job I’ve ever taken I’ve asked myself that question. When I started as The Fenland Roaster, I did feel that it would be a business for the long term, although I couldn’t have imagined the direction it took and how it’s grown.
The challenge now facing Richard and other businesses providing a food service shouldn’t be underestimated. There’s extra time and cost involved in the more individual service now required. Catering to smaller numbers of people also has a big impact on income. But I feel that whatever happens, in one way or another, Richard’s smiling face will be bringing good food to people across Fenland.
You can find out more about Richard’s local delivery service and event catering at thefenlandroaster.co.uk/food-delivery-and-collections and ‘The Fenland Roaster’ Facebook page.