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Food and Drink

Sarah Dunning

Sarah Dunning is Chair of the Westmorland Family, her second-generation family business best known for its motorway service areas, Tebay Services on the M6 in Cumbria, Gloucester Services on the M5 in Gloucestershire and Cairn Lodge Services on the M74 in Scotland. The business started in 1972 when the M6 was built through the family farm in Cumbria; today it remains closely connected with the farm, with the lamb and beef it rears being sold throughout the business. The motorway service areas have a unique approach with no franchises, but instead a Farmshop which celebrates small local producers and a Kitchen selling food which has been cooked in the business. This year the business will celebrate its 50th birthday and its dedication over that time to all things local and to the craft of making proper food. 

One business success

  • In 2021 a national Which? survey ranked Tebay Services, Gloucester Services and Cairn Lodge Services the top 3 in the UK. We were delighted with this, mostly because it is such great recognition of the work our colleagues put in every day. Lovely though it was, in our industry it is hard to say we are the ‘best’, because what we do is so very different to everyone else.  It reminded us, above all, that the most important thing in business, especially when like us you are a small player in your sector, is to differentiate. Differentiation is a powerful tool; it stops you from seeing those in your industry as competitors, from being distracted by what they are doing, and helps you focus on developing initiatives which highlight your uniqueness.

Two challenges for the sector

  • A shortage of staff in hospitality: recruitment has always been challenging in our sector, but it is now the single biggest challenge for most businesses in hospitality. This is due to a combination of factors; the pandemic which has given people the opportunity to rethink their work-life balance, Brexit which has seen reduced numbers of European workers in the UK and staycation, which has seen increased demand for staff in our industry. This shortage of chefs, in particular, is currently the biggest limiting factor to growth in our industry.  Hospitality businesses will have to come up with innovative solutions to combat this challenge; it is likely that we will look to technology to find ways of being more productive. And we will have to get better at growing our own talent, through initiatives like our Cookery Apprenticeship School which we launched this summer. 
  • Predicting which of the many Covid-induced trends will endure: as with many industries, Covid has upended the way our customers use our motorway service areas. Fewer people are travelling for work, a trend which is here to stay, offset by more people travelling for leisure; the summer of 2021 was the busiest in our history. Whilst the summer of 2022 is unlikely to reach the same levels, it is likely that with the cost of the living crisis we are now seeing, domestic tourism will see growth in the medium term. The pandemic has accelerated the trends for takeaway eating and for cooking meals from scratch, it has also seen our customers wanting to spend more time outdoors. Dogs are becoming increasingly important customers too! All this has disrupted the traditional shape of our business, but it has given us the courage to be bold and try new things.  What isn’t clear yet is which of these trends will stay in the longer term.  

Three forecasts for the sector

  • Growth in electric vehicles: this is the biggest transformation our industry has seen in the course of its history. It is predicted that between 20% and 37% of cars will be electric by 2030; however, much of this is dependent on whether there will be sufficient charging infrastructure in place. There are 2 national priorities for charging; first for chargers in urban areas where people do not have a dedicated parking space and secondly for the strategic road network, where those on longer journeys need to charge.  A major challenge is whether sites have sufficient electricity capacity and this is an area where the government has committed to providing financial support, although the exact timing of this is still not clear. Roadside service businesses will have to ensure they create an income from electric vehicles sufficient to counterbalance the decline in fossil fuels while ensuring that they invest enough in electric chargers but don’t invest ahead of the market; a difficult call in a dynamic and uncertain transformation.  This is the single biggest area of our business focus and the greatest thing we can do to support climate change. 
  • More flexibility in people’s eating habits: eating used to be a more simple matter, but those in the hospitality industry now know that we must cater for every permutation possible – vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, nut-free, dairy free and so on. Despite the growing interest in plant-based diets and the media hype, the statistics tell us that people are still buying as much meat in the UK as they ever were. Chicken sales have seen the highest growth in recent years, although predictions now say that the price of chicken may soon equal that of beef due to the increase in grain prices. Sales on our butchery counter continue to rise; the difference we have seen is that customers are increasingly interested in and educated about the provenance of the meat. What is certain though, is that customers want flexibility and expect choice; gone are the days of one vegetarian choice on the menu!
  • Greater awareness of ultra-processed food: this may be as much aspiration as forecast! Over 50% of the food we consume in the UK is ultra-processed, where either the ingredients or the cooking process could not be replicated at home. Ultra-processed food is often low in nutritional value, supported by large advertising budgets and high in salts and sugars which leave the consumer wanting more. Its consumption is higher in lower socio-economic groups and is correlated with obesity. The government, instead of introducing initiatives like mandatory calorie information in restaurants, should consider initiatives which will make people more aware of the dangers of ultra-processed food and which make the ultra-processed food industry more accountable for what they produce. 

May 2022