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Business / Folk encouraged to buy local as food and drink sector continues to face uncertainty

A Shetland mussel farm. Photo: Taste of Shetland

PEOPLE have been encouraged to support the Shetland food and drink sector by buying local as many businesses continue to face huge uncertainty during the coronavirus crisis.

A host of businesses have had to rein in production, put staff on furlough or close their doors altogether.

Shetland Food and Drink manager Claire White said the Covid-19 crisis had forced virtually all producers and outlets to change how they operate in some way.

Shetland Food and Drink manager Claire White.

Some producers and outlets, though, are seeing higher demand as a result of consumers’ behavioural changes.

White said the food and drink group would be doing everything it could to support members.

In the meantime she is encouraging islanders to tap into the “vast array” of local produce available when doing their grocery shopping.

A number of local shops are also offering a delivery service during the lockdown period.

“It’s a mixed picture for our members at this very challenging time,” White said.

“Some of the producers are thankfully enjoying strong demand, while others have seen a big dip, and obviously some types of business had no option but to close.”

Sound Service Station’s delivery service, for example, has seen a huge spike in demand, with a fourfold increase in home deliveries since late March.

White said it was one of many small businesses across Shetland going the “extra mile” to serve communities, especially more vulnerable members of society, by offering personalised orders and sourcing items folk usually cannot find locally.

Sound Service Station co-owner Jordan Thomason said that while demand for fuel has fallen “quite drastically” with fewer people driving, home delivery has “grown faster than we ever thought it would”.

“All of our local suppliers have been fantastic as well, the quality of their produce speaks for itself and is a massive part of why we have remained so busy,” he said.

Among the 15 local suppliers whose goods it stocks, Sound Service Station is the main customer for Da Kitchen Bakery, based in Yell, keeping the bakery busy despite losing some of its usual turnover.

Bakeries in Sandwick, Voe and Walls are also continuing to supply most of their usual outlets, and have noticed dips and rises in demand for different produce.

Shetland Farm Dairies, meanwhile, is now offering catering-sized 3kg tubs of its surfeit of local butter to cater for a demand in baking products.

Fiona Nicholson from the dairy cooperative said they initially saw a spike in the volume of milk being sold in rural shops, which has now levelled off.

Anderson Butchers has enjoyed a higher than expected turnover for this time of year, while Scalloway Meat Company has also been busy with its local delivery service.

Shetland Livestock Marketing Group has furloughed two staff and others are continuing to work on reduced hours.

L.S. Gifford in Bressay sold as many tatties in the first two weeks of the shutdown as it normally would in two months, while at Uradale Farm it has been “business as usual”.

Lerwick Brewery, meanwhile, has stopped making its beers for the moment due to limited sales through local shops and online.

Debbie Strang of Shetland Distillery Company has furloughed all but one staff member, who has been kept on to make hand sanitiser to help deal with the pandemic.

Lerwick fish market. Photo: Shetland News

The seafood sector is expected to emerge better from Covid-19 than some, according to Shetland Food and Drink, with boats still catching and landing fish regularly.

Fish shop Blydoit has seen an increase in local sales that has partially compensated for the loss of higher volume contracts, such as ones it has with schools.

Lerwick-based Island Fish has also been very busy with home deliveries, while cod producer Thule Ventus has seen an increase in online sales, although most other avenues have dried up in recent weeks.

Michael Laurenson of Blueshell Mussels, a member of SSMG, said its farms continued to harvest to supply supermarkets, with the company working at around 60 per cent of its normal capacity.

He is said to be “very concerned” about the future as restaurants and bars look likely to be among the last businesses able to reopen.

That is also playing on the mind of The Dowry’s manager Stuart Fox.

The Lerwick café closed just prior to the mandatory 23 March shutdown, its turnover having been down 80 per cent in its last week of trading.

All staff have been furloughed and he hopes the government will not pull the plug on its wage support scheme too soon.

Fox also suggested there could be some trepidation about reopening if there is not widespread public confidence in the safety of starting to visit restaurants, pubs and cafes again.

Peerie Shop owner Emma Gibson, which also closed in line with government guidance, said the timing of lockdown was unfortunate as the summer months make up for quieter times of year in staff-heavy businesses.

Some hotels and restaurants, meanwhile, are offering a hot food delivery service.

Government support schemes are available to help some businesses and Shetland Food and Drink is keen to support any members that have so far not been eligible for assistance, as well as signing up new members.

It can be contacted via shetlandfoodanddrink@gmail.com.