It's an open road, for Victoria's small food producers

It's an open road, for Victoria's small food producers

Coronavirus
OPEN ROAD: Open Food Network co-founder Serenity Hill says the digital platform, which enables small producers to promote their businesses online, has recently rolled out its Open Road delivery network.

OPEN ROAD: Open Food Network co-founder Serenity Hill says the digital platform, which enables small producers to promote their businesses online, has recently rolled out its Open Road delivery network.

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Open Food Network rolls out delivery van coronavirus solution.

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Victoria's small producers say the post-COVID world will see them "on the road again", as paddock-to-plate operators seek to hold new markets, which emerged during the pandemic.

Digital marketing platform Open Food Network has rolled out its own collaborative cold-chain system, to deliver perishable food to customers.

OFN co-founder Serenity Hill said the digital platform, which enables small producers to promote their businesses online, has recently set up the Open Road network.

"It's a logistics service we have just launched for small producers selling into short supply chains," Ms Hill said.

Open Road van drivers picked products up from hubs in Wangaratta, Euroa, Milawa and Gippsland delivering them to other regional hubs and into Melbourne.

Drivers didn't deliver door to door, with customers picking up the products from a centralised hub.

Ms Hill said interest in sales through the OFN had risen during COVID.

"Then we had the problem of getting the food to the customers in an efficient way, without producers spending all their time driving their own food around" she said.

Coronavirus had resulted in different buying patterns, depending on lockdowns.

"We have noticed the ups and downs, as soon as there is a lockdown everyone is buying online again, and everyone gears up for that to continue," Ms Hill said.

"Then it softens a bit when everyone comes out of lockdown, but I think the overarching trajectory is up.

Two camps

Adrian Gamze, Gamze Smokehouse, Milawa, said the company had both a smallgoods manufacturing facility and restaurant.

"I see both sides and it's really troubled waters, going forward," Mr Gamze said.

"The industry is trying to be optimistic, but I think the optimism is going to wear off pretty soon, when they realise it won't snap back to normal and there'll be another trying 18 months to two years on the cards for them."

He said Gamze had experienced the " whole box and dice", with growth in retail but a sharp drop in food service lines.

"We lost 30 per cent of our business, into food service, overnight," he said.

"We hope people continue with the change in shopping habits

"From what we have experienced people are shopping at the gourmet grocer or butcher and local fruit shop a bit more, rather than the supermarkets, because they don't want to be around a large number of people."

The partial easing of restrictions in the regions meant it wasn't initially viable for many smaller breweries, cafes and restaurants to open.

"As a foodservice supplier, it's very, very unknown - there is no certainty coming out of the government with a plan,going forward.

"There needs to be a plan but I think the government is scared of making commitments because things change so quickly."

Mr Gamze said he had struggled with enforcing restrictions.

"My staff are restaurant workers, not police or security guards - they were getting hostile feedback from clients," he said

"Is it a 16-year old casual worker's job at a restaurant to enforce vaccine mandates?"

Snap lockdowns

FRESH THINKING: Coronavirus is likely to be with the community for some time, so that requires fresh thinking, says Milawa Cheese Company chief executive Ceridwen Brown.

FRESH THINKING: Coronavirus is likely to be with the community for some time, so that requires fresh thinking, says Milawa Cheese Company chief executive Ceridwen Brown.

And Milawa Cheese Company chief executive Ceridwen Brown said she still believed there would be snap lockdowns.

"We are still going to get variants that haven't been heard of," she said.

"This is not something that we are going to be over in a year or two, it's something we are going to have to live with, for quite a long time."

She said prior to coronavirus, about 50 per cent of the company's products were sold through the company's retail store, Milawa.

"So, when we have lockdowns anywhere, it really affects us, because we are such a tourism-based business," Ms Brown said.

Tourists came from Melbourne and Sydney, Canberra and the border regions.

She said she could not see COVID-safe protocols changing "any time soon".

"We already have QR coding for all our staff, we do temperature checks every day and that's just the basics of doing business, under COVID," she said.

"It's hard to imagine how you get back to a pre-COVID normal, even if everyone gets vaccinated, the world opens up, travel is fine and we start getting tourism numbers back like we used to

"I still don't think anyone is going to be really comfortable jostled into small spaces any more."

Milawa's previous model, of a cheese tasting board, was likely to be a thing of the past.

"We used to have hundreds of hundreds of people trying to get in and get their free tastings," she said.

"So how do we change our experience to give our people a great tourism experience, that is safe?"

One area being explored was corporate cheese tasting packs, or providing them directly to consumers.

"People can book in, get the talk from the cheesemaker and have your cheese at home," she said

"That's been very popular, because everyone is just sitting at home and is just so bored - there is nothing to do and you can't go anywhere

'So having a little event is something people have clutched onto as something to look forward amidst the doom and gloom of not knowing when it's going to lift."

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