Navigating uncertainty — part 1

Dark Matter
Rapid Transition Lab
9 min readFeb 8, 2022

How three Swedish food actors coped during Covid-19

This is a series of two blog posts by Rapid Transition Lab, a collaboration between Stockholm Resilience Center, Dark Matter Labs and Vinnova. In this first one presents the findings from interviews with three Swedish food system actors. The second post presents key learnings and further research.

1. Introduction

The Covid-19 pandemic, as every crisis, happens unevenly in time. It both rapidly and gradually shapes the entangled relationships across the food system, forms new alignments, collaborations, and opportunities as well as challenging circumstances for its actors.

For some, the current crisis has meant a fight for survival. For others, as a result of ‘forced experimentation’, it turned out to be a learning and evaluation process, leading to new ideas, new strategies.

This first blog post presents the results from interviews with three Swedish food system actors on their Covid-19 responses. These results, combined with selected official regulations introduced during the crisis, are visualized in time as an attempt to analyze their connections.

Juxtaposing the influences of the crisis on the individual system actors with the regulations, restrictions and support measures over time, allows for a better understanding of the dynamic relationship between policy and action. In the second blog post, we will analyze this further and present the key findings and takeaways.

These insights can provide important recommendations for all food systems actors, including policy makers, not only for responding to the current pandemic, but also to other crises such as climate, biodiversity, health, social justice — now and in the future. The insights can also inform the process of navigating transformations towards more resilient, just and sustainable food systems’ futures.

2. Cases

The cases presented below are based on interviews with three Swedish food system actors that have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic in somewhat different ways. Interviews were conducted in December 2021 and are not taking into consideration events that occurred after that. We are continuing to interview food systems actors, and look through multiple different lenses on the systems around us.

The timelines, illustrating each case, present Covid-19 related regulations, the emerging impact the crisis had on each actor, how the actor responded and the effects it had on the organization. Actors’ responses are highlighted according to their nature; if they were results of actors adapting to the new situation or if actors used the opportunity to develop long-term strategic thinking and actions towards sustainable development and thereby show transformational potential.

Legend of timeline © Rapid Transition Lab

Case 01 — KARMA

Interviewee: App service that helps restaurants to sell their leftover food to consumers at discounted price.

At the beginning of 2020, Karma was operating in Sweden, London and Paris and had about 90 employees. The business model was based on relationships with foremost urban/city-center restaurants and customers residing in that area.

When Covid hit Europe, in March 2020, the app service experienced its most profitable month since launching in 2016. However, due to the pandemic, the following months were the hardest since the start of its operation.

Across Europe restaurants closed down, and Karma’s operations in London and Paris stopped abruptly. In Sweden, however, most restaurants were still open. Pre-pandemic, app users were mainly people on their way home from work buying leftover meals from city restaurants to have for dinner. So, as people began to work from home, they started using the app in their local areas instead with a more dispersed supply of food. At the same time, as the pandemic hit, using the app to save leftovers was no longer a priority for the restaurants as they went into a survival mode. Due to these dynamics, the app service operations went down by about 50%.

In order to cope with the new reality, Karma started providing home delivery through the app to ensure people could still rescue food albeit being forced to stay home. The home delivery service was launched within two weeks after the pandemic outbreak in Sweden and was made possible through the collaboration with delivery and transportations companies who were also affected negatively by the pandemic. Karma also introduced home delivery of boxes of leftover fruit and vegetables, as well as the possibility for restaurants to sell boxes of leftover meals as well as non-leftover meals through the app. After three months, they realized that delivering leftover meals was too costly. In consequence, the company decided to focus only on subscriptions of weekly delivered boxes of leftover fruits and vegetables from producers and wholesalers to customers’ doorsteps.

Initially, when Covid hit, the company put their staff on temporary furlough with support from the government. However, as the pandemic continued, they realized that in order to survive, the organization had to be slimmed down to a bare minimum. As such, nine months after covid hit only 18 of originally 90 staff members remained employed in the company.

The service of delivering weekly boxes of fruits and vegetables continued until the end of 2020, when the company realized they had moved too far away from their original business operations. This left the company in a situation where continuing to grow both businesses would mean building two different companies from an operations standpoint. A strategic choice that would be too costly. Hence, they phased out the service and took time to contemplate around their vision and future and then re-launched again in March 2021.

Meanwhile, as restrictions eased and customers started going out again, restaurants were struggling to find staff. To meet this demand, Karma developed a service whereby customers can order and pay online while seated at the restaurant, to help reduce the workload on staff. This has led the company to re-formulate and expand their vision. Originally, their main focus was reducing food waste, yet now they want to be a bigger part of establishing the sustainable restaurant of the future. Saving leftover food remains highly important, but is now part of a wider, more systemic approach.

As a result of the experiences of Covid-19, the company has changed its strategy. From being a company focusing on aggressive growth rather than profitability, they are now looking to be more resilient, ensuring savings and more carefully managed growth, as well as innovation.

Karma’s Covid-19 response in the timeline © Rapid Transition Lab

Case 02 — Debaser

Interviewee: A business that entails a concert arena, a nightclub and a restaurant.

When Covid-19 hit, the concert arena and the nightclub closed completely but the associated restaurant, Calexico’s, stayed open until December 2020. The concert arena was hit both by the fact that performing actors could not travel and also by limitations for public gatherings. When the government forced the concert arena and nightclub to close, they based the decision on the wrong law according to the interviewee. This hindered Debaser and other actors from using their epidemic insurance. The CEO tried to influence the government to change this decision but without any luck.

From 11th of March 2020 to mid/end of April the restaurant Calexico’s had practically no customers. In connection to the restaurant, Debaser has a large outdoor seating area that became particularly valuable during the pandemic. When opening this area at the end of March, unusually early in the season, customers started to return throughout spring and summer. Yet they still had only 30% of the pre-pandemic capacity.

The interviewee explains that like many others in the restaurant business, they thought the crisis would be over after that first summer. So they kept the restaurant running and kept the staff. However, as restrictions came in during autumn and finally the requirement to stop serving alcoholic drinks after 8pm and close at 8.30pm, they decided to shut down the restaurant in December 2020. They had to let go of almost all their staff. They kept the restaurant closed between the end of December 2020 until the end of April 2021.

During this period, starting already during the autumn, they took the opportunity to self-reflect. They learned more about the climate crisis and the impact of food production during this time. This resulted in a decision to re-design their whole menu, which they did in collaboration with Klimato, a service that calculates the carbon footprints of specific dishes by using the RISE food climate database. The restaurant now wants to act as an educator for their customers and inform them about the impact that food has on climate. Their experience is that a lot of people lack this knowledge.

When opening again in April 2021, they retained half of their staff, but they regretted firing everyone in December 2020. If the company had known from the beginning for how long the restrictions would last for, and the support packages that they could apply for, they would have only temporarily furloughed their staff with salary for the whole period instead.

Debaser’s Covid-19 response in the timeline © Rapid Transition Lab

Case 03 — Martin & Servera

Interviewee: Wholesaler distributing food and beverages to private restaurants (incl. fast food), public restaurants, cafes, hotel chains, conference facilities, nightclubs and other businesses offering food and beverages.

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the wholesaler had a lot of stored food, and food on the way to be delivered to their customers. But since the restaurants and hotels had no guests at that point, they canceled their orders and the wholesaler had to find other sales channels. For a while, they sold bulk packages of cornflakes and beef to supermarkets, for example, until they had managed to correct their orders towards the suppliers to match the lowered demand.

In this initial phase, the wholesaler was hit hard. At the lowest point, they lost 50% of their total orders. But during summer 2020 business went up again. Tourists never came to visit Sweden in any great numbers, but equally Swedes were not overseas tourists either. They stayed in Sweden and spent money on amusement parks, in hotels, and in restaurants. Restrictions were not yet limiting opening or serving hours; they were mainly focused on distancing. But in Autumn and Winter 2020, new restrictions were introduced and the situation got tougher again. Usually, a lot of the sales at this time of the year comes from the restaurants’ Christmas offer, and from New Years Eve and seasonal tourism. But little of this happened in 2020’s version of the holiday season.

During Spring 2021 sales recovered somewhat, and as restrictions were eased during the summer, sales improved as people again went out to eat, travel, socialize, stay in hotels and visit places and attractions. During Autumn 2021, the wholesaler was back to about 90% of their pre-Covid sales. The ‘missing’ revenue was mostly due to conferences, tourism, and traveling not returning to pre-Covid levels.

During the pandemic, Martin & Servera had to fire some of their staff, but they also used the financial support provided by the government to retain the staff part-time, using flexible working patterns when needed. They also received support to cover for lost sales.

Despite the outbreak of the pandemic, the company still managed to pursue planned investments in electric trucks and a large solar cell park, and they also built a new, more energy-efficient, warehouse. The company owners had taken a longer-term perspective, which enabled them to conduct strategic investments even during these difficult conditions.

Martin & Servera’s Covid-19 response in the timeline © Rapid Transition Lab

Thoughts and questions — Transitioning to part 2

We can look through multiple lenses to analyze the resilience of the food system. Looking at the cases presented in this post, we can assess the conditions created by a pandemic: the direct and indirect impacts, coping and adapting strategies, the transformational potential as well as the opportunities or barriers for change that the system actors engaged with and encountered during the crisis.

Through this perspective, some of the critical questions emerge: How might actors navigate times of crisis towards ultimately-necessary sustainable practices? How might actors survive whilst adapting to ever-changing conditions? What are the responses that have the potential to contribute to transformations? What forms of resilience are being exhibited? And what are the multiple time-frames and paces in which change occurs? We address these, and other, questions in the next post.

This blog is co-written by Aleksander Nowak and Juhee Hahm from Dark Matter Labs, and Jenny Norrby from Stockholm Resilience Centre, with contributions by My Sellberg, Per Olsson and Garry Peterson from Stockholm Resilience Centre, Alexander Alvsilver and Dan Hill from Vinnova, and Linnea Rönnquist from Dark Matter Labs. Rapid Transition Lab is funded by Vinnova, and the project will continue throughout 2022. If you want to find out more, please contact us.



Dark Matter
Rapid Transition Lab

Designing 21st Century Dark Matter for a Decentralised, Distributed & Democratic tomorrow; part of @infostructure00