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Eating well during the pandemic - a growing appetite for premium food
YOU COULD SAY the writing - or make that icing - was on the wall. The last-minute run for bubble tea. That inexplicable urge to bake. The many ways you can make Dalgona coffee. The incessant stream of cooking videos on Instagram. When only four walls mark the entire landscape of your existence now, is it any wonder that the only safe means of entertainment or comfort you can turn to these days is - food?
We don’t mean instant noodles, luncheon meat or baked beans that were the trophies of every panic buyer at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Since the Circuit Breaker measures went into full force from April 7, a sudden voracious appetite for premium produce has seen the foodobsessed snapping up everything from wagyu to caviar, artisanal French butter to exotic fruit from as far away as Ecuador.
With travel and dining in restaurants out of the question for the past couple of months and possibly longer, local consumers are balancing out their takeaway and delivery options with home cooking, and many freely admit to “spoiling” themselves with more upmarket produce since the city went into semi-lockdown, even despite looming economic uncertainties.
“I used to buy a tray of uni once every two to three months,” says a stay-at-home mum. “But I’ve already had four trays since the circuit breaker started.”
A LIFELINE FOR FOOD SUPPLIERS
Thanks to more competitive pricing compared to eating the same ingredients in a restaurant, a rise in retail customers is sweet news to high-end food suppliers. Supplying mainly to hotels and restaurants which have been gutted by the viral outbreak, they have seen their B2B business plummet in tandem. But by quickly putting e-commerce solutions in place and reaching out to individual consumers, they’ve been able to stem the bleeding, even if it doesn’t bring their business back to pre-Covid levels.
Angliss Singapore - one of the oldest food service importers which has been around since 1948 - had been slowly rolling out an e-commerce platform over the past two years until Covid-19 spurred them to launch in double quick time. “We foresee the escalation of online shopping so we’ve expedited our progress to meet market demand,” says its managing director Angel Ding.
Angliss specialises in premium meat and Japanese produce “which has gained huge traction among foodies as well,” says Ms Ding. Since it introduced online shopping, retail business has shot up by more than 80 per cent.
“We’ve seen a spike in demand not just for caviar and truffles but seasonal produce from Japan. Consumers cook more at home now. They’re also health conscious and have a palate for the finer things in life.”
But premium produce isn’t the purview of just the affluent, says Motomu Yoshida, Director of S Foods Singapore, the biggest supplier of wagyu to the local F&B industry.
With its repertoire of wagyu from over 15 prefectures in Japan including Hyogo (Kobe), Saga and Hokkaido, it recently launched its online store yakinikuplaza.com.sg and “we are seeing demand from different types of consumers as we offer a wide range of meat and cuts at different price points”.
The company has since “seen a 200 per cent increase in retail sales”, says Mr Yoshida, who believes that Covid-19 has “flicked a switch” in the mind of consumers as they see online food shopping as part and parcel of a new lifestyle revolving around social distancing.
“We’re seeing both affluent consumers and a growing middle/upper middle class who are increasingly curious and buying premium products to augment regular grocery shopping” says Karen Tay, general manager of Classic Fine Foods Singapore. “For example, they may buy basic groceries but add on a good bottle of olive oil or buy premium cuts of meat for special occasions.”
Classic also recently launched its retail website classicdeli.market/sg. “Like everyone else in the industry, the B2B business is significantly affected,” says Ms Tay. “The retail business provides an additional revenue stream for now and allows us to serve the growing demands of home cooks during this time.”
Classic has also become a source of items that have been running out fast in regular supermarkets. “We’ve seen a demand for dairy products (yoghurt, milk and mozzarella cheese), jam, pulses and baking ingredients like yeast and frozen fruit,” says Classic’s marketing manager Mickael Penvern. “And we’re getting more requests than normal for wagyu, premium frozen seafood and olive oils.”
LUXURY OPTIONS FOR HOME COOKS
Getting access to ingredients usually reserved only for hotels and restaurants has also fuelled the interest in premium products. At Caviar Colony - which has been mostly supplying restaurants with luxury caviar from its sturgeon farm in Yunnan - “we have seen an increase in purchases, both in quantity and frequency, during this Circuit Breaker period,” says its co-founder and COO, Celine Tan.
“We’re also seeing new customers who try our entry-level caviars, the Amur or the Kaluga Hybrid, and return for more options at a later stage.” Overall, she’s seen a 35 per cent increase in retail sales, but this comes on the back of a steep drop in trade business.
“There will always be a demand for high end ingredients,” believes Sebastien Lepinoy, director of culinary operations at the three Michelin-starred Les Amis, which has just launched a takeaway/delivery menu after taking a break during the first month of the circuit breaker.
Instead of just dishes like roast chicken and slow cooked lamb, Chef Lepinoy also decided to retail products like champagne, caviar and smoked salmon at high prices but with a smaller markup. With Kristal caviar priced at S$642 for 250gm and Balik smoked salmon at S$347 for 480gm, he’s already sold over 38 tins and 30 portions respectively even before the official launch.
But there are also those who prefer to do their own food sourcing such as private investor Chan Kwai Sum, who neither shops online nor orders home delivery. “I’ve not bothered to procure groceries online due to the perceived dearth of delivery slots. I prefer venturing to the various supermarkets, almost on a daily basis.
But my spending has gone up several fold. Through a friend who knows a Japanese supplier, I’ve been getting regular supplies of uni, toro and other premium food.”
Shi Tan, the communications director of a luxury goods company, is a prime example of professionals/hobby chefs who are spending more on high-end produce this period than before.
“With both my husband and myself working, and our two teenage kids busy with school and social life, we would only have three or four meals together a week and they would mostly be at restaurants,” she says.
“Now that everyone’s at home, I make an effort to create a great dining experience for them at every meal, thus the need to shop for better ingredients.” While that doesn’t mean truffles or caviar, her menus do include prime meats and seafood that she gets from various sources including specialty butchers and online seafood suppliers for her choice of crabs, live prawns and fish like red grouper.
She is also a recent convert to ‘online marketing’ - literally shopping from wet market-type businesses that have found a new upmarket audience since moving online due to the pandemic.
One of them is Seafood Lobang, run by Wilson Tan, the second-generation owner of Wah Seng Fishery, which has operated out of Jurong Fishery Port for 35 years, purely as a wholesaler.
“We were exploring B2C as the next stage for the business and it was just about to be launched when Covid-19 struck,” says Mr Tan. Business literally “self-propelled”, with 70 per cent of his customers living in condos and landed properties. “Most of them found us through word of mouth and social media,” he believes.
One platform that has helped him and fellow businesses is Pasar United, a spinoff of Hawkers United - a Facebook group started by hawker Melvin Chew to help beleaguered food stalls reach out to more customers.
After Hawkers United became a local sensation with over 200,000 users, Pasar United was formed to help wet market stalls which were badly affected by the pandemic. “It really helped to publicise our company through Facebook,” says Mr Tan. “It would have been a lot harder without it.”
“After we set up Hawkers United, the number of members increased exponentially, and so did the variety of things sold,” says Mr Chew of the multiple spin offs that also include one for desserts and food delivery services. “Pasar United is for wet market grocers to sell fresh and frozen produce, fruits and vegetables, food manufacturers and suppliers. It was formed just before the enhanced Circuit Breaker measures, so we saw a spike in the number of members. From what we can see, business has been very good for many of the sellers. We don’t monitor their sales, but we were told of one seller who had to buy another delivery van to cope with all the orders.”
Going online has literally opened the door to a whole new audience for wet market grocers including fruit supplier Kendrick Teo, who started Heavenly Guo just as Covid-19 first hit Singapore. The online-only business, he felt, “was an opportunity to bring premium quality fruits to people right to their own homes”.
With an impressive range from Japanese pink strawberries to yellow dragon fruit from Ecuador, the business got off to a roaring start and jumped by another 40 per cent to 50 per cent when Circuit Breaker measures were implemented. It was way beyond his expectations, says the former regional sales manager for a premium fabric distributor who had been planning to go into the fruit business for a long time. “Customers who bought from us started gifting ‘care’ hampers to their employees, friends and family, which helped to grow our business through word of mouth.”
Adds the member of Pasar United, “It’s not just the affluent who are looking for premium quality - we get customers from all walks of life and types of residences. They’re buying mainly for the convenience of home delivery and quality. Most, if not all, of our customers are repeat ones.”
ONLINE - THE NEW FRONTIER
For wholesale seafood business Allswell Marketing, demand for its live Alaskan king crabs, live turbot and other upscale fish dropped by some 80 per cent when orders from Michelin-starred restaurants and five star hotels came to a standstill. Because of the level of quality and price, restaurants were less inclined to feature them in their takeaway/delivery menus,” says Jen Loy, whose parents own Allswell.
What has softened the blow is the move to e-commerce in 2018, when Ms Loy and her brother Jay started the digital offshoot, Ocean Mart. Selling the same live seafood that are kept in special tanks before purchase, it has boosted sales by about 30 per cent. “While it isn’t enough to offset the drop in the wholesale business, it’s imperative to keep the business afloat and save jobs,” says Ms Loy. “We’re really thankful that we already had this platform so our focus was to ramp up marketing efforts in the fastest time.” She too is active on Pasar United which has helped draw some new customers.
Live oysters and Canadian lobsters are the bestsellers as they’re seen as “affordable luxury”, she says, while live Alaskan king crabs that cost upwards of S$250 are reserved for special occasions.
For banker Lee Wei Cai, it’s been a pleasant surprise that she’s been able to find high quality ingredients from wet market sources. “I would never have thought I could get uni, lobsters and escargot so easily.”
She’s also a fan of Singapore Home Cooks, a Facebook community page. “You can get almost everything there, and I highly recommend their group buys.”
For Ms Lee, Ms Tan and other home cooks like them, home meals will still be their main form of dining in until restaurants open for business again. The demand for high end groceries may dip post-Covid but for now, so long as we’re in crisis mode, there are some edible joys we won’t do without.