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Luxury seafood supply hit by axed flights as virus bites
LOVERS of premium Japanese sashimi, fine French lobsters, turbot or Italian seabass may need to curtail their appetite for luxury imported seafood as international lockdowns and other travel curbs caused by the Covid-19 outbreak play havoc with the delivery of perishable ingredients into Singapore.
Suppliers and fine-dining restaurants report that cancelled flights, heightened safety measures and logistical nightmares have led to delays or non-arrival of shipments, forcing chefs to hunt for alternative sources or switch to different ingredients altogether.
According to a supplier who deals in both Japanese and European produce, orders for air-freighted live and freshly caught seafood from affected countries have been the most badly affected.
"I have a partnership with a Japanese supplier and many internal flights in the country have been cancelled because of the coronavirus. So all our cargo to Singapore has been delayed. But at least it is still coming. My cargo from Europe has been delayed until further notice. Even my shipment from Sri Lanka is supposed to have arrived by now, but there's a partial lockdown there for two weeks, so I don't know when it will come."
It is a double whammy for a supplier already suffering an overall drop in business due to smaller orders from restaurants, which are seeing fewer local customers and a dried-up pool of tourists.
A spokesman for Classic Fine Foods says that shipments from Italy, France and Spain are the worst hit, but he expects the UK and Ireland to follow suit.
The main reason has been flight cancellations. "Major airlines like Singapore Airlines are cancelling flights to and from countries affected by travel restrictions. This means perishable items that are flown directly to Singapore can't be transported and distributors need to find alternative carriers.
"On top of this, we are seeing increased disruptions to the production capacity in Europe as more businesses shut down operations - this will in turn have an impact."
While less-perishable imports are generally unaffected, it is mainly the regular weekly deliveries of fresh produce such as seafood, dairy, fruits and vegetables that have been most disrupted.
And because these tend to be more expensive items, "it's mostly the fine-dining restaurants that are affected," adds the spokesman, "They use specific fresh ingredients from Europe, while the rest of the industry uses local and/or frozen ingredients that move by road or sea."
Such unpredictability means that restaurants like Zafferano Italian Restaurant & Lounge has seen its produce from Italy arriving only once a week, compared to twice or three times previously, says operations manager Vadim Korob.
For Tan Ken Loon, owner of seafood restaurant Naked Finn, 30 per cent of his ingredients have been delayed and he fears things will get worse. Currently, he is getting his ingredients from Hokkaido and Fukuoka rather than Tokyo, where more flights have been cancelled.
Karen Cheng, co-owner of Japanese restaurants including Sushi Kimura and Ichigo Ichie, agrees that the situation now is highly unpredictable. "About 60 to 70 per cent of our fish goes through Tokyo. Normally, we use both cargo as well as passenger planes, but now that most passenger flights have been cancelled, we have to rely on just the few cargo ones that are left. We have no choice but to monitor the situation and perhaps adapt the menu accordingly."
Chefs like Sebastien Lepinoy of the three Michelin-starred Les Amis restaurant says he has stopped importing fish or crustaceans from France because of the cancellation of direct flights from Paris to Singapore. "Our lobsters arrive alive but they will die if they have to go into transit. But for other ingredients like cheese, lamb or duck, they are able to withstand the transit through Dubai or Bangkok."
As a result, he has taken seafood off his menu, and replaced them with meat and seasonal vegetables such as asparagus.
While he says that business has stabilised somewhat and he is expecting a better month than before, other restaurants are still suffering badly. The latest curbs on travellers from Asean countries and Japan, for example, saw one Michelin star restaurant suffer an overnight wave of cancellations.
Martin Bem, founding managing director of LeVeL33 says: "The last announcement definitely worsened the trend as this week is - so far - the weakest ever. We have to plan for a further 10 to 20 per cent drop in business if the current trend persists."
As for Beppe de Vito of the ilLido Group, the coronavirus has seen him "lose S$10,000 a day at Art and Aura (his flagship restaurants at the National Gallery), with an 80 per cent drop in business at Aura and 60 per cent at Art".
His supply of fresh seafood from Europe is also being delayed, although that is perhaps the lesser evil at the moment. As with other restaurants, he is trying to come up with promotions and discounts, and waiting to hear from his landlords (for his other restaurants as well) about rental rebates.
In the meantime, there is little to do but wait and see. "We are trying to avoid (laying off staff), but we haven't renewed a couple of S-pass holders and not replacing two staff who have resigned."