By Scott Wright

THE boss of a Glasgow-based wholesale firm feels the plight of specialist on-trade suppliers has been overlooked amid the continuing focus on the effects of coronavirus on pubs, hotels, and restaurants.

Jim Rowan, managing director of Dunns Food & Drink, said suppliers to the Scottish licensed trade have seen business shattered by the Covid-19 pandemic, and fears it will be well into next year before a recovery of substance will be under way.

Dunns, which has 3,000 customers, had been forecasting an increase in turnover to £38 million from £29.6m and been on the brink of a significant breakthrough before the virus struck.

The company completed an acquisition in Aberdeen in 2019 and was eyeing a further deal in the Highlands this year, putting into a position where it could service national restaurant groups across Scotland.

Mr Rowan said the firm was profitable and laying the groundwork for further growth by hiring a sales director, key account manager and adding more trucks to its fleet.

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But as the threat posed coronavirus began to crystallise, sales plunged by 50 per cent in the week before lockdown, with the business since having shrunk to 25 per cent of its previous size.

Mr Rowan said the damage wrought by the pandemic has been felt by the wholesale sector as much as pubs, restaurants, and hotels. He said: “We are all in it together. Food and drink wholesalers… are essential to pubs, restaurants, and hotels because we are the wheels that keep things moving.

“[But] we have all been absolutely slaughtered. Some people have just closed their doors, some only open when their customers need something.”

While Dunns, which was originally established by Joseph Dunn as a soft drinks business in 1875, was in growth mode before the pandemic, 99 of its 140 staff were put on furlough after the UK Government launched the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme in March.

Last week, it brought two of its sales reps back in response to growing calls to its telesales operation, largely from operators who have moved into the takeaway food or home delivery business.

Dunns has also launched its own home delivery business, which has provided some revenue during the lockdown.

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The firm is currently forecasting that its business will recover to 80 per cent of its pre-Covid turnover by Apri1, 2021. That assessment is based on the continuation of social distancing measures, licensed trade operators running their venues at reduced capacity and some venues not re-opening at all, as well as a potential boost from “staycations”.

Although it has been feared that at least 25% of restaurants in Glasgow may not re-open, Dunns’ operations director Julie Dunn backed the determination of the industry to bounce back.

Ms Dunn, who is president of the Scottish Wholesale Association, said: “I think we are very resilient. We are very dynamic. We think on our feet all the time.

“It may well be that we are running at 80%, but technology comes into play. We [may not] deliver as often and all the orders are online. Social media could become a big part of our business.”

But Ms Dunn said questions persist about how the firm can operate while social distancing measures continue. She said: “We don’t know how our sales reps are going operate if they have to socially distance and they are not allowed into restaurants. So, technology comes into play. The other thing is, will all of our competitors survive?”

Mr Rowan said while the roadmap out of lockdown published by the Scottish Government last week “gives us something to aim for”, he urged local councils to “cut red tape” to ensure pubs and restaurants are able to trade from pavements and streets outside premises.

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The roadmap envisages venues being able to re-open beer gardens and outdoor areas from the end of June, before indoor spaces are re-opened from the middle of July, with physical distancing measures and increased hygiene routines observed.

Mr Rowan said he is aware that work is under way within local authorities to explore possible solutions for outdoor trading.

But, with so few pub and restaurant businesses having external areas, he warned that “if they don’t go fast enough there is not going to be any hospitality industry left.”

He added: “They are all going to start falling like dominoes if we are not careful.”

While he welcomed the thinking behind proposals for a £1m glass house on Glasgow’s Argyle Street, which would allow bars and restaurants in Finnieston to trade while observing social distancing, Mr Rowan said: “We don’t need to be as elaborate, but we can do lots and lots of things.”

Dunns said it was unsure if it will ultimately have to make redundancies as the furlough scheme is tapered off, noting that its response will be led by the extent to which the business of their customers recovers.

Mr Rowan said: “Of course, we will try and avoid it [redundancies], but I think everyone is in the same boat.”

The company has been switching the pool of people it has on furlough, partly to look after the mental well-being of staff. Many roles at the business have changed because of the circumstances created by the lockdown, and the firm noted it was important that all staff were familiar with those changes.