On The Front Line...Gracia Whyte

Food

On The Front Line...Gracia Whyte

Table Talk Food Awards (T&T) project consultant

Thursday, May 07, 2020

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The COVID-19 impact on the TT food industry certainly has an element of cruel irony to it. The twin-island republic has arguably the most culturally diverse food industry in the region. Trinidadians would go further and label theirs as the best!

The food scene in Trinidad and Tobago was a burgeoning one with several large, small and in-between restaurants, bars, specialty groceries and food markets. International franchises (such as KFC, TGIF and most recently Hard Rock Café) existed alongside their local counterparts — allowing appetites to choose from an abundance of options, including local creole or Indo-Trinidadian, Italian, Korean, Chinese, sushi, American, and everything in between.

And not to be outdone by restaurants, the “Trini” street food scene had evolved from the ubiquitous doubles man or gyro vendor; to the Savannah food court in Port of Spain or a proliferation of food trucks offering everything from corn soup to bake and shark to burgers and chicken wings.

Ready-made meals were also no longer confined to the restaurant table space. Local restaurant franchises and bakeries offered pre-packaged meals as well as buffet and menu items in takeaway format. Supermarkets and pharmacies also got in on the act, offering similar pre-packaged meals but at relatively affordable prices.

Meals could also be delivered to the comfort of your home of office thanks to Food Drop, a local app. Ready-made healthy meals could also be pre-ordered online from local company Chef Made Me.

With the arrival of COVID-19 and the government-enforced restrictions that followed, the food industry for the most part was brought to a screeching halt. Initial restrictions forced the closure of bars and street food establishments due to the inherent “social” nature of their businesses. Restaurants could only operate via takeaway or delivery services as in-house dining was strictly prohibited. However, later restrictions saw the closure of all restaurants (including the beloved KFC) — leaving only bakeries, supermarkets and pharmacies as sources of food produce and ready-to-eat meal options.

 

On the recovery of the food industry recovering...We have to eat! Where we eat and what we eat will probably change for good.

It is reasonable to assume that some restaurants or food-related businesses may never reopen.

The challenge for restaurants and food businesses who want to stay the course will be:

 

• How to stay an indispensable part of that equation (ie, people have to eat — why should they come to my restaurant and spend their money?

 

Suggestions for recovery:

#1: Perception and trust are key — Setting standards to protect workers and diners. Safety protocols.

What about consideration for a local or regional safety and health certification? Similar to OSHA certification (Occupational Safety and Health Authority), this certification gives customers assurances of restaurant safety, hygiene and cleanliness.

#2: Government policies — Not just loans or grants, but to initiate policies and encourage a business environment that eliminates unnecessary bureaucracy and encourages technology, entrepreneurship and creativity.

#3: Digital investment — Businesses must invest in their digital footprint (websites, social media); invest in digital marketing strategies to target the online customer base (your customers are online!); invest in contactless and cashless processes (eg Wipay terminals).


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