Romaine Calm's coronavirus food delivery scheme

The Scottish food and drink scene has been battered by the coronavirus, but two of its stalwarts are aiming to get the best of Scottish produce direct to your door

Feature by Peter Simpson | 24 Mar 2020
  • Romaine Calm

It’s been… an interesting few weeks. The wholescale shutdown of the food and drink scene – all bars and restaurants, and basically everything that isn’t a supermarket or pharmacy – have made things unimaginably difficult for people involved in every aspect of the food world. But even when they’re locked inside for their own protection and unable to visit the places they love, people still need to eat. 

Romaine Calm is here to help with both sides of that problem. It’s the brainchild of Jeremy Downton – the man behind the Chick + Pea and Kebabbar food trucks – and farmer and wine merchant James Henderson. The goal, Downton tells us over email, is to “connect local producers with a local customer base” at a time when everything seems to be shutting down.

Downton says: “Hendo phoned me with his own ‘how to survive the apocalypse idea’ and said, ‘I have a van, let’s sell veg’. The idea went from there. I rang my veg guy who I usually use to supply the trucks and he said things were miserable, he had a ton of veg that was going to spoil and told me that orders were dropping from all of the usual hospitality businesses. I asked him to put a box together, take a pic and we will shift his produce.

“We really do want people to stay inside,” Downton says, “we’ve been to the shops and we’ve all seen the pics online. The UK supermarket supply chain is based on just-in-time, we saw this when we had a couple of snow days last year. Supermarkets order based on historic sales figures and try to hold as little stock as possible on site as retail space is precious.

“The supermarkets cannot cope with huge peaks in demand – and even if they could, we do not want people to go to shops. This thing [COVID-19] is bigger than all of us and we all have our part to play in solving it. The longer this goes on the worse things will become and the harder it will become to return to ‘normality’.” 

The speed of change throughout this pandemic has been blistering. Cafes and bars that were left to the wolves on a Monday were being offered the bulk of their staff’s salaries as government grants by Friday. And that pace has been reflected at Romaine Calm, where the duo’s idea – launched in under 48 hours from that initial phone call – has been growing “exponentially”.

“The response has been insane,” says Downton. “We’ve had messages from people in self-isolation who have returned from abroad who haven’t been able to go to the shops to get supplies, we’ve had children concerned about older parents that are self-isolating and for obvious reasons cannot be seen by younger family members, and we’ve had younger people who are self-isolating to just play their part. We’ve had quite a few emails of gratitude so far as well, which we love to see as it reaffirms that the service is solid and actually helping.”

That service has already expanded beyond fruit and veg into coffee from Edinburgh micro roastery Machina Espresso, and sourdough bread from Company Bakery, with plans to broaden their offering to include vegan recipe ideas and locally-sourced meat. “When we spoke with Machina and Company they both said the same thing [about] demand. Sales had dropped off a cliff in the wake of people being encouraged to stay inside. We want to keep these businesses operating and for them to prosper as a result of this. We’ve also partnered with Jarvis Pickle pies as they are amazing."

Scotland’s food and drink scene is great – lots of fantastic bars, brilliant cafes, great restaurants, brilliant produce – but it relies on people being able to get its wares in their mouths and choosing to do so.

“I think this is a good time for us to all have a long hard look at ourselves,” says Downton. “The supermarkets are great and convenient, but they offer a product that you will probably find along the road, for a similar price and to be generally of a lower quality than what you will find in an independent shop. A similar story is happening with flour. We have contacts who use heritage flours across Scotland and they have all said a similar thing. Demand for flour has gone through the roof. Who knew we all loved baking so much?

“When all of this blows over,” Downton says, “we hope that people will change their buying habits and give an extra thought when choosing where to spend their hard-earned money.”