Brexit stockpiling bears little fruit for wholesaler

UK companies from supermarkets to carmakers are preparing to stockpile in preparation for Brexit. — Reuters pic
UK companies from supermarkets to carmakers are preparing to stockpile in preparation for Brexit. — Reuters pic

LONDON, Dec 8 — Fresh fruit and vegetable entrepreneur Franco Fubini knows all about the importance of goods arriving on time, as Brexit threatens to delay delivery of produce into and out of Britain.

Preparing for possible transit chaos at the border following Britain’s formal departure from the European Union on March 29, UK companies from supermarkets to carmakers are preparing to stockpile. 

However for Fubini’s company Natoora — a wholesaler, retailer and food producer — stockpiling fresh fruits and vegetables is not an option. 

“For us, the freshness of the product is essential,” CEO Fubini told AFP, speaking from company headquarters and warehousing facilities housed in a viaduct on a site once occupied by London’s first railway terminus in Bermondsey.

Whether his imported avocados, peaches and tomatoes will continue to arrive at the capital’s finest eateries on time is far from certain as lawmakers prepare for next week’s crucial UK parliamentary vote on the Brexit divorce deal.

“There is a huge amount of product that doesn’t grow in the UK, primarily a lot of the fruit,” said the Argentinian-Italian, who founded the high-end and seasonally-driven business 14 years ago.

“We are forced to bring product from the continent.”

Through the Tunnel

Natoora supplies more than 1,000 mostly top-end restaurants in a business spanning London, New York and Paris, with fresh produce sourced from farms in the UK, Italy, France, Spain and the US. 

“The consumption that happens at restaurants and the consumption in our retail stores, particularly eating out, is very sensitive to immediate consumer concerns” surrounding Brexit, Fubini, 44, told AFP. 

As boxes filled with imported lemons and limes and Christmas-season favourite Brussels sprouts were loaded onto lorries, Fubini also said that Natoora job applicants were down sharply over the past year amid Brexit uncertainty, especially among Eastern Europeans.

As for the supply chain, “there definitely is a concern about disruption”, he said.

Natoora’s produce from mainland Europe comes into the UK on refrigerated lorries through the Channel Tunnel linking Britain and France.

“On average across all the regions, you’re looking at 36-48 hours” from harvesting the product to arriving in restaurants, explained Fubini, who runs an operation comprising around 300 staff and an annual turnover of £30 million (RM159 million). 

“I am hoping that common sense, particularly in the case of something as critical as fresh food, will help us get through this.”

He added: “There is very little that we can do within our supply chain. We can’t stockpile, we can’t shorten our supply chain, unless we helicopter things in!   

“In order for us to plan, the only thing we can do is wait and see.” 

Stockpiling dry goods

One-fifth of the company’s turnover comes from goods that could be stockpiled, however, such as cured meats, cheeses, olive oils and beans.

“We can carry more stock” of these items, said Fubini.

“Fortunately because we’ve taken on a new site we have quite a bit of spare capacity to utilise.”

In the UK, British group Premier Foods has said it plans to stockpile to protect against a risk of delays at ports.

Britain’s biggest retailer, supermarket giant Tesco, said it could begin stockpiling tinned goods from January.

Another company, Majestic Wines, said it planned an additional inventory of bottles with a combined value of up to £8.0 million.

Away from the food industry, Britain’s key carmaking and pharmaceutical sectors have said they are also looking at possible stockpiling, as has engines maker Rolls-Royce.  — AFP

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