Knives chopping, pans clattering, and chefs slurping are the kind of sounds you might expect in any busy kitchen. But in one kitchen in Yorkshire, England, another noise has entered the fray: food delivery boxes being kicked around.
“We turn them upside down, and then we boot them around the kitchen, chucking them at each other and drop them on the floor,” says Tommy Banks, 31-year-old chef-owner of the Michelin-starred Black Swan in Oldstead, Great British Menu TV show winner and all-round local boy done good. But these kitchen kickabouts aren’t out of boredom or frustration. It’s the only way to product-test Banks’s newest and most popular product, thanks to a coronavirus pivot that saved his business: nationwide food box delivery.
“If it can withstand that then that's sort of what might happen to it during transit,” says Banks. This is no ordinary food delivery. The 'Made in Oldstead' boxes can be shipped anywhere in the UK, bar the Scottish Highlands, Islands and Borders, though that can be arranged. The premium packaging has been lined with an eco-friendly wool to ensure the food is transported at optimum temperature. The boxes can also be collected in person at either of Banks’ restaurants – The Black Swan, recently ranked best fine-dining restaurant in the UK, and 4th best in the world, by Tripadvisor’s Traveler’s Choice Best of the Best 2020 Awards, or Roots in nearby York – but Banks' rigorous testing system ensures perfectly intact food deliveries every time.
“The biggest challenge is to put our faith and trust into a third-party to ensure our food boxes get to our customers exactly how they left us,” says Banks. “Thankfully we did a number of nationwide delivery trials to tweak packaging, and containers and our final product is one we're really proud of.”
Photo by Andrew Hayes Watkins
Banks and his team started with around 100 boxes a week, selling locally with the help of friends and family. Now they’re doing almost 10 times that each week: 500 standard food boxes, containing two three-course meals for two priced at £75; and in the week of their launch, 450 signature special-occasion boxes, which contain a six-course meal with wine for two priced at £120. That’s nearly 3000 covers. “I want a better terminology for it, but they’re ready-meals. It’s minimal participation, everything’s sort of done for you, just whack it in the oven,” he says. “It’s premium, but it’s really convenient as well.”
Not only have the food boxes given a lifeline to Banks’ business, but they’re almost too successful. “I think a nicer capacity would be about 200 of the signature boxes and 500 of the normal ones. Then we tick over nicely, and we’ve got time to make it really good,” says Banks. Interestingly, unlike with other finish-at-home food boxes, neither contains dishes from the restaurants, apart from the odd dessert. “I see it as something else, something new,” says Banks. “I didn't want to do Black Swan dishes at home because that would sort of water down what the Black Swan's about. You can get a different thing, which is a ‘Made in Oldstead’ food box, which is delicious and a real treat.”
Ready meals or not, they’ve been doing more than just satiating hungry punters. In a glimmer of good news in what has been a wretched few months for the hospitality industry, Banks has been able to retain all his staff at a time when many UK pubs and restaurants have folded due to the Covid-19 crisis. Now he’s thinking about taking on more staff when Roots and the Black Swan reopen in mid-July and August respectively. A quarter of his team are now working in the food box business, and many are loving the flexibility.
Photo by Andrew Hayes Watkins
Just ask executive sous chef Ethan Flack, who works across the whole group. His typical week might now go from picking produce in the Black Swan’s two-acre garden, to helping the development team create a new dish for the restaurant menu, to boxing up beef Wellingtons for the signature boxes. “It’s given me the opportunity to learn a whole new side of working in hospitality and the food industry,” he says. “It’s been a real adrenaline kick.”
What’s more, it means some chefs can claim that most elusive of restaurant bonuses: a weekend off. “Everyone wants their food box by the weekend. So, the chefs working in the food box business are working Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, half a day on Thursday, and then they're done for the week. Thursday night off, all day Friday, Saturday and Sunday, which is unheard of in the industry,” says Banks.
So, with a highly motivated crew returning to full strength, Banks is cautiously optimistic about the future. Bookings for the re-openings are healthy, and he welcomes the recent decision by the UK government to allow hospitality businesses to temporarily cut applied VAT to 5% (from 20%). And the food boxes may become a permanent fixture as “another string to the bow,” says Banks, as we keep a nervous eye on the future.
“If a second [Covid-19] wave came and we really did get shut down, I'd have to pull everybody from both restaurants and try and expand capacity of the food boxes to try and protect jobs,” he says. “At least we've not got all our eggs in one basket. We've got an opportunity to still survive.”