Call it a win-win proposition. Home cooks get to order restaurant-quality meat, seafood, produce and other groceries delivered to their doorsteps, and food purveyors, more used to supplying hotels, restaurants, caterers and other parts of the food and beverage industry, open their doors to a new group of customers.
Add to this equation restaurants. Some started selling meat and other ingredients direct to customers when the Covid-19 circuit breaker kicked in and dining-in was not allowed in restaurants.
The coronavirus pandemic has upended the food and beverage industry in Singapore and there is no predicting what the food scene is going to be like once the dust settles, if it ever does.
Before the pandemic, there were established places where savvy shoppers could buy smoked salmon, seafood and good-quality meat without having to pay retail prices.
Now, there are fresh hunting grounds. More companies and restaurants are creating new opportunities for themselves by selling direct to customers, and all those interviewed plan to continue.
After all, once hooked on fresh oysters from Brittany, wagyu from Japan, Charentais melons, blue lobsters and butter from France, artisanal pasta from Italy, olive oil from Spain and bread flour from the United States, these customers are likely to be hungry for more and be unwilling to pay retail prices.
What helped these new retailers was a perfect storm of sorts: snaking supermarket queues, shelves that were empty of staples and the need for safe distancing.
Classic Fine Foods, which has been supplying hotels, restaurants, retailers and other parts of the food and beverage industry for 20 years, launched Classic Deli at the start of the circuit breaker period. It did so in record time - two weeks.
Customers have access to more than 400 products, including seasonal fruit and vegetables, caviar, wagyu, seafood and Impossible, a meat substitute.
Ms Karen Tay, general manager of Classic Fine Foods, says: "We received a surge in requests from end-consumers for fresh produce and other food products to be delivered to their homes."
When home baking became hot, and some ingredients were hard to find in stores, the company added to its range of products, in response to customer feedback.
"We introduced some pastry-specific items which can be used for home baking, such as a different range of AOP butter, vanilla pods, natural extracts, almond powder, chocolate and flour," she says, referring to high-end European butter.
FoodXervices has had an e-commerce platform since 2009, but it was under the radar.
That changed with the pandemic. The company realised there was a gap it could fill, with its 80-plus years in the business. Customers have access to a vast array of products on its website, including Asian condiments, high-end gourmet food and products not usually sold in stores. These include the King Arthur brand of bread flour and Callebaut's Ruby chocolate buttons.
And it is not just food. The website also lists cleaning products and equipment.
Ms Nichol Ng, managing director of X-Inc Group, the parent company of FoodXervices, says: "We wanted to step up our game just as Covid-19 hit because we felt a need to introduce an alternative shopping experience and purchasing avenue for our close family and friends.
"After seeing the panic buying in stores, our F&B clients asked if they could buy our products for their own consumption at home. Waiting time for deliveries from other online supermarkets was too long. Our immediate reaction was to open home deliveries for those closest to us."
She adds that the company has been developing an e-commerce strategy over the past three years.
"We believe that the lines between B2B (business-to-business) and B2C (business-to-consumer) are significantly blurring with international e-shopping opening up rapidly," she says.
"For example, you can easily buy a table directly from a factory in China and have it sent straight to your home. We sense that Singapore and Asia are ready for an e-commerce site such as Costco, a huge US company that operates a chain of membership-only warehouse clubs.
"We want to provide home consumers with an opportunity to buy gourmet and industrialised products in commercial and retail sizes and, most importantly, at wholesale prices.
"Imagine buying a full carton of bath tissues used by top hotels or a packet of King Arthur Bread Flour not available in retail."
Chef Patrick Heuberger of Atout, a French restaurant in Harding Road, turned part of his space into a retail shop.
"I was completely switched on and ready. In fact, the day after circuit breaker started, my retail shop was open," he says, adding that business went down by more than half during the circuit breaker.
It was worse for Wooloomooloo, a chain of steak restaurants. Business dropped 85 to 90 per cent when dining-in was not allowed.
Mr Noel Emmanuel, managing director of Wooloomooloo Group, says it launched takeaway options on April 5. But customers are not limited to cooked food. They can order raw and marinated meats for barbecues, too, and cocktails in pouches.
He says: "Revenue was not the guiding factor for this. It was more about providing a service and staying connected with our guests."
The group also sent food-care packages to front-line workers at three hospitals thrice a week during the circuit breaker period.
The Loco Group of Mexican restaurants set up an online supermarket called Market by Super Loco when the circuit breaker began.
A spokesman says: "We were looking for other ideas to generate revenue, in addition to providing delivery of our food, since our revenue took a substantial hit. We saw that there was an opportunity to fill the gap when online grocery retailers were unable to keep up with the demand for online orders, and produce at brick-and-mortar supermarkets was often out of stock."
Prices vary from company to company. Not all of them charge retail customers the same prices they charge business customers.
However, FoodXervices charges wholesale prices to both retail and business customers.
Ms Ng says: "Our biggest selling point is professional products at wholesale prices direct to retail consumers. One key point is that we are also trying to encourage and support home businesses - many of whom start as home consumers. It's only fair they are accorded industrial prices."
Retail customers get free delivery when their orders hit at least $60, compared with $80 for business customers. But business customers get special prices and discounts when they buy in large quantities.
While some products are available only in commercial-size quantities, many others that the companies offer can be had in smaller, retail sizes, simply because their business customers, such as some restaurants and shops, want retail-friendly packaging.
Some of these merchants have tied up with other food businesses to offer products jointly.
For example, shoppers who go to Market by Super Loco can also buy breads from Starter Lab, a bakery in Havelock Road which specialises in sourdough bread.
The Loco Group's spokesman says: "Customers wanted to be able to do their 'one shop for the week' with us, and so we added more dairy products like eggs, milk and yogurt and also expanded our offerings to include bakery products through our collaboration with Starter Lab."
FoodXervices customers can buy Garrett Popcorn; pies from Butcher Boy, a restaurant in Keong Saik Road; and soup from The Soup Spoon chain.
Ms Ng says: "We see more and more F&B brands coming forward with their ready-to-eat range. We are more like a business partner than just a platform, as we do not charge the traditional listing and advertising fees. We focus on using our solutions and capabilities to support our business partners."
All of these merchants interviewed plan to continue selling retail.
Ms Sarah Kok, marketing manager for Gourmet Partner, a subsidiary of food supplier Angliss, says: "With the entering of phase two, the demand from online retail customers is not declining and we believe that dining at home with friends and family will be the new society norm in the future."
For one restaurant at least, pivoting to selling raw ingredients has paid off handsomely.
Wooloomooloo Group's Mr Emmanuel says: "We have received wonderful compliments from our guests. People send us thank-you notes, guests give us chocolates when we make deliveries to say thank you, and they send us pictures telling us how the whole family loved their meals.
"It's been really gratifying."
Where to get restaurant-quality ingredients
About: Atout in Harding Road serves some of the best charcuterie in Singapore. Because the pandemic has devastated restaurants, chef Patrick Heuberger has turned part of his into a retail shop, offering produce his team cooks with and the excellent charcuterie he is known for. Click on the Atout's Deal and Special Highlights tabs for seasonal ingredients and special prices on items such as Bordier butter.
Delivery: Free for orders above $100, otherwise $8 or $15.
What I would buy:
• Pate En Croute ($15 a slice) to have with wine and cheese.
• German White Asparagus Soup ($16 for 400ml) as a starter for a meal.
• Chicken With 40 Cloves Of Garlic ($45, above) for a comforting main course.
• Charentais Melon ($21 each) because at the peak of its season, these babies are sweet.
GOURMET PARTNER SINGAPORE
About: Started in 2015, this company is affiliated with Angliss Singapore, which is a gourmet food distributor specialising in products from Europe and supplying hotels and restaurants. It started taking orders from retail customers at the start of the circuit breaker period.
Delivery: Minimum order of $50 for delivery; delivery fee of $20 to one location if the order is under $150, free delivery for orders more than $150.
What I would buy:
• Garofalo Bucatini Pasta ($4 for 500g), because this shape is hard to find and the price is excellent.
• Whole Piquillo Peppers ($5 for 390g), because I have never seen them fresh anywhere here and they can be roasted and used for paella or be served alongside charcuterie.
• Fresh oysters from Les Huitres Cadoret (prices change weekly, above), a family-owned company in Brittany, because you would usually have to go to a restaurant to have these oysters.
• Wagyu Beef Shortribs from Futari Full Blood Premium Wagyu in Western Australia ($181 for 3kg), because this rainy weather is perfect for braising short ribs in red wine or with daikon.
About: This steakhouse chain launched its e-commerce platform on April 5 to stay connected to its diners while dining-in was not allowed in restaurants. Customers can order their meats raw or cooked, and the packages offer value for money. Cocktails, wine and spirits are also available.
Website: Click on the Shop Now tab in facebook.com/wooloosingapore
Delivery: Free delivery with orders of $100 or up.
What I would buy:
• Gourmet Meat Box - five meals for two people ($250), because it is sized perfectly for there not to be wasted food. The box comes with two USDA 250-day grain-fed prime rib-eye steaks weighing 340g each, two Australian grass-fed sirloin steaks weighing 340g each, four 180g wagyu burger patties, two portions of fusilli Bolognese, two onion focaccia and one onion jam.
• Chill & Grill Set A ($228, above), because this set is designed for a weekend barbecue, with one 340g Great Southern Pinnacle Sirloin, one 340g Signature Black Angus Ribeye, 900g of pork ribs, four sausages, and truffle potato salad and Caesar salad for sharing.
• Four-Course Menu for two ($128), with a choice of soup, pasta, steak and dessert, because sometimes there is just no time to cook.
• 1-for-1 Whisky Sour ($18), because shopping makes me thirsty.
About: This fine-food supplier started in 2000 and its core business has been supplying the F&B industry. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, it pivoted to selling direct to retail customers, launching Classic Deli in just two weeks.
Delivery: Minimum order for delivery is $41.73. Delivery is free for orders of more than $100 until Wednesday, otherwise it costs $20.
What I would buy:
• Wild Asparagus ($9 for 200g) when it is back in stock, to steam and dip in butter for brunch.
• Impossible meat substitute ($88.90 for 2.27kg), because it tastes better than frozen supermarket ground beef.
• Burrata Artigiana ($15.20 for 200g, above) to have with tomatoes and olive oil.
• Smoked Arbequina Extra Virgin Olive Oil from Spain ($28.90 for 250ml) to drizzle over the burrata.
About: The business started in 1939 and launched its e-commerce site and started delivering to homes in 2009. But this part of its business stayed under the radar until the coronavirus pandemic broke out. Its retail customer business has grown a hundred-fold, and it makes 1,500 home deliveries a month now.
Delivery: Minimum order for free delivery is $60. For orders below $60, delivery costs $10 a location.
What I would buy:
• King Arthur Special Unbleached Bread Flour ($88 for a 22.7kg sack), because this is primo flour and I can share it with other bread-making friends.
• Callebaut Ruby Chocolate Callets ($50.88 for a 2.5kg bag, above, in pink bag), because I have eaten Ruby Chocolate, the newest form of chocolate after dark, milk and white, and like its lightly tart, berry flavours. These buttons can be used to make frosting and glazes and be added to muffins, cakes and cookies.
• Garrett Cheesecorn Jumbo Bag ($22.62 for a 380g bag), because I could eat this all day.
• J's Garden Fresh Cultivated Black Termite Mushrooms ($93.71 for a 2kg bag), because I am very, very curious.
MARKET BY SUPER LOCO
About: This chain of four Mexican restaurants, run by The Loco Group, started selling groceries, meats and prepared food during the circuit breaker period. It also sells bread by Starter Lab, a bakery specialising in sourdough bread.
Delivery: Minimum order of $20, with islandwide flat rate delivery fee of $15.
What I would buy:
• Miso Baguette from Starter Lab ($6), because I don't have to fight queues at the bakery.
• BBQ Chipotle Sauce ($5 for 200ml), because I love the flavour of these smoked, dried jalapeno chillies and can slather the sauce on grilled meats and barbecued ribs.
• Corn Tortillas ($5.50 for 10) to wrap the grilled meats in.
• Ancho Marinated Angus Flap Meat ($10 for a 300g steak), because the dry rub would work wonders on the meat in the vacuum seal and I can grill, slice and fold strips of steak into a corn tortilla with avocados and vegetables for an easy dinner.
About: This website is backed by S Foods Singapore, which supplies Japanese beef and pork from Hokkaido to more than 200 restaurants here, importing the meat from its farms in Japan. It launched an e-commerce site early this year.
Delivery: Free for orders of more than $100; otherwise, there is a $20 delivery fee.
What I would buy:
• Wa! Gyu Bundle ($106.80 for 250g of A5 wagyu sirloin steak and 100g of A4 wagyu sliced for yakiniku) for a barbecue.
• Porky Pork Bundle 1 ($27.80 for 200g of Hokkaido pork loin steak and 300g of Hokkaido pork belly sliced for shabu shabu), because the loin will make a good katsu sandwich and the sliced pork belly can be used in hot pots or stir-fries.
• Spanish pork collar for shabu shabu ($8.70 for 300g), because this is good weather for hot pot.
• Smoked duck breast ($4.80 for 200g) for salads.