Rothbury chefs turn to fruit & veg in successful Covid diversification

The success of a Rothbury business which diversified as a result of the Covid pandemic has been highlighted.

Mary Wilkins of Wilkins Fine Dining, which diversified during Covid-19 to open a fruit and veg shop in Rothbury.
Mary Wilkins of Wilkins Fine Dining, which diversified during Covid-19 to open a fruit and veg shop in Rothbury.

Wilkins Fine Dining, which provides high-end outside catering for weddings and corporate events, had to find a new income stream with celebrations postponed and venues closed.

Chefs Neil and Mary Wilkins created the ‘Rothbury Food Truck’ and sold takeaway meals direct to the community.

They also branched out to deliver fruit and veg boxes which proved so successful they opened a shop in the village.

“For us, it was about survival,” said Neil, who trained and worked in five-star restaurants in London, the south of France and America before returning to his native North East.

“From doing two to three weddings a week, our business literally dried up within the first couple of weeks of lockdown and we had to diversify, or we would have had to shut it down.

“The food truck saved our bacon, and I cannot thank the people of Rothbury enough for the fantastic support we have had from them.

"Similarly, what started with delivering a few fruit and veg boxes to elderly neighbours snowballed to us opening a shop, thanks to community support.

“It’s certainly been a learning curve – from setting up card payments and a booking system for our takeaways to running a shop – and we’ve needed to be resilient. But we’ve been lucky, a lot of rural businesses haven’t made it.”

The firm has been showcased by the National Innovation Centre for Rural Enterprise (NICRE) as an example of how rural businesses have adapted to severe economic challenges.

An NICRE survey found that more than a third of rural firms in the North East, South West and West Midlands diversified their business in the wake of Covid with half of these developing new sales channels and two-thirds expanding their customer base.

NICRE director Jeremy Phillipson, Professor of Rural Development at one of its founding academic partners the Centre for Rural Economy at Newcastle University, said: “For the first time we have a clear picture of how rural businesses have been affected so far by Covid-19 as we begin another year confronting the pandemic and looking to recovery.

“The resilience and adaptation that rural firms have shown is phenomenal. Many thousands have responded to Covid-19 by diversifying their business, creating new sales platforms and finding innovative ways to reach existing and, crucially, new customers. Their efforts have been helped by tremendous support from local communities and often backed by a strong family network.

“This not only demonstrates the deep-rooted determination we’ve seen in rural areas during previous crises, such as the foot and mouth disease outbreak, but evidence of a desire to innovate and pivot their business model in response to market challenges and opportunities.

“But we must not allow these results to mask the need for ongoing support for rural enterprise as the Government seeks to Level Up Britain.

"Rural areas must not be neglected nor marginalised as 'hard to reach’ when restoring disruption to supplies – a key issue during the pandemic – and, given the wider infrastructure challenges that rural businesses and communities face, all agencies must work together to bolster business resilience.”

Has your business diversified as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic? Let us know and we’ll publicise it. Email [email protected]

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