How has the food & drink sector had to adapt during COVID-19?

Business Leader recently interviewed Shane Ryan, Founder of plant-based food business fiid, who credits e-commerce and D2C as having been a huge part of their revenue in the last few months during the coronavirus pandemic.

Can you give an overview of the company?

fiid is a plant-based food company. We bring together nature’s best vegetables, legumes and spices, craft them into craveworthy plant based meals and serve them in the single most convenient way possible. With a focus on traditional comfort foods, our all-natural meals include dishes like a Hearty Moroccan Chickpea Tagine, Italian Sundried Tomato & Lentil Ragu and a Smoky Mexican Black Bean Chilli.

Launched in December 2018 we’re really happy with how we’ve grown and you can now find fiid across all major supermarkets in Ireland but also in the UK with Ocado and Sainsburys.

What separates your products from the competition?

fiid was born out of a personal pain point. Living a fast-paced life with an interest in health and fitness, I found that there was always a glaring conflict between how I wanted to eat and how I had time to eat. I wanted to create something that was the ultimate in convenience without compromise – so no nasties, nothing that I wouldn’t cook with myself, if I had the time.

To make sure we offered something truly convenient, we chose to cook our meals using the sous vide method. This locks in all the flavour and freshness while also giving our dishes a 12-month shelf life without the need for additives or preservatives. Keep fiid in your cupboard, desk drawer or gym bag and you always have a delicious, wholesome meal when you need it.

How has the company had to adapt its offerings since the lockdown?

The long shelf life has always been an important factor for our customers but the impending lockdown meant that consumers not only found this useful but were prioritising food products that would last. We saw an unprecedented uplift in sales in the first few weeks of COVID-19 in retail as consumers began to stockpile but it was the website which really took us by surprise.

In March, our sales increased by 412%. We found that many of our regular customers who were used to picking up fiid in their local convenience store were instead choosing to buy in bulk online to avoid another stressful and crowded shopping excursion.

When we launched the business 18 months ago, the website was intended to be a small supplementary part of the business, while we focused most of our time and resources on bricks and mortar retail. The last few months have proven the appetite for fiid online and has presented a very real opportunity even post COVID.

Thankfully, in the beginning, we had invested in a solid website optimised for sales and a good user experience which has made this recent period during COVID much easier for us to weather. We were ready to handle the increase in demand online rather than scrambling to meet it. Ecommerce generally has been catapulted forward 10 years over the last three months so I see a well thought out direct to consumer channel becoming essential for business across all verticals going forward.

Do you feel that there has been a massive change within the wider food and drink retail sector due to COVD-19?

Undoubtedly the impact of COVID-19 has been felt by the food and drink sector while the long term effects remain to be seen. Many businesses have been affected by the sudden closures and loss of revenue that they just won’t ever recover.

Food as an industry runs on notoriously slim margins, often single digits and so there is rarely a significant buffer for things like this. Also, how could we plan for something none of us ever thought could happen? While it is upsetting to see the effect of the lockdown and COVID-19 on the food and drink community I think it also presents some opportunities for businesses willing to think creatively about what the world will look like post COVID and how to meet the new needs of our consumers.

D2C is a huge opportunity and there’s so much white space there to be owned by the right businesses. I’m loving watching how different companies are adapting and changing how they operate and hope to see more of it as lockdown restrictions ease.

Do you believe that having vegan-friendly and healthy alternatives is the future of the industry?

I definitely think COVID-19 has brought a renewed focus on our health and what we are putting into our bodies and for many people adding plant-based foods and swapping in healthy alternatives is a part of that. The appetite for healthy food is insatiable and it’s a wider trend that’s been gaining steam for a while – while people may not want to follow a strict vegan diet for example, they do want optionality when it comes to eating and are actively looking to make choices that they deem healthier and more sustainable at different meal occasions.

What future trends do you see within your market?

The plant-based category has grown hugely in the last few years, and I feel that we have only just scratched the surface in terms of the possibilities. The key thing about plant-based foods is that they have huge appeal across multiple demographics and ways of eating – it is definitely not just those following vegan diets.

We see this with our own customer base; it is diverse, but the common link is people who want to eat well and live well. I think we’ll see this flexible approach become more commonplace across the board with meat and dairy occasional meal components as opposed to core elements of every meal.

What does the future hold for the business?

Up to now our focus has been on maintaining supply and supporting our customers and retailers to navigate the current situation as best as possible. I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve built over the last 18 months and, looking forward, I’m excited for the future of fiid.

Our NPD pipeline is something we can’t wait to share more about as, for the last year, we’ve been working on a number of innovations within the ambient meal space that will definitely change the game.