by Jesmond Saliba – CiConsulta
A man walks into a bar and finds it open.
Even fans of bar jokes will struggle to see the funny in this one at time when the catering industry is facing an existential threat. The closure of businesses to contain the spread of the coronavirus meant that restaurants, cafeterias and bars had to effectively take a loss on a quantity of perishable stock that was purchased with important business dates in mind such as Carnival, Easter, St Patrick’s Day, the Eurovision or Mother’s Day.
Already after the Christmas season, many catering establishments will have started gearing up for a busy summer of events, not least the European Football Championship and Olympic Games. It takes preparation and investment beyond foods and beverages to make the most of the foodservice market and business owners have to think of everything from staff schedules to big screens to marketing collateral.
Official statistics show that restaurants and hotels enjoyed the biggest growth in Maltese household consumption over the last decade, however, the domestic market alone cannot sustain the increase and the sector is significantly dependant on tourism.
In the first quarter, though, inbound tourism registered a dramatic drop or twenty percent, compared with the same period last year – reversing an upward trend literally from one day to the next. Industry experts predict that it may take up to five years for tourism to reach the levels before the pandemic, forcing the catering industry into a tight squeeze.
Foodservice itself is an important contributor to the economy and, together with accommodation, it accounts for almost 20,000 registered jobs, the fifth-largest share by sector. Additionally, other sectors such as agriculture and fisheries or wholesale and imports rely heavily on catering establishments for their trade.
Supporting the sector throughout a slow, if not null, tourism market when the consumer confidence of the internal market is already at a low, presents an incredibly tall order. Businesses are experimenting with new models such as off-premises catering including home deliveries, or industrial catering such as school and welfare meals. At the same time, however, restaurants, cafes or pubs are as much about the experience as they are about the food; innovation in the sector needs to pursue that state of delight which cannot simply be found in a take-away box.
The foodservice sector certainly requires help, particularly in the stimulation of the market. But, like in every other industry, businesses cannot sit on their hands and wait for the glorious days to return. Opportunities throughout this new period may not come served on a silver platter, but they are still there for the taking.