“One of our growers last week expected fifty workers for his harvest but only seven showed,” says Jürgen Blommendaal.
Blommendaal is a manager at UDEA, a Dutch organic fruit and vegetable wholesaler that ships goods across Europe.
Speaking on the phone from his office just outside of Eindhoven, Blommendaal is talking about a vegetable farm in Italy that he buys from.
“People are allowed to go to work if it is necessary, but some people don’t dare to go to work,” he says, because of fears of catching or spreading Covid-19.
At the other end of this supply chain is the organic food shop Noms, in Phibsborough.
“Most of our deliveries are still coming,” says Naomi Sheridan, owner of Noms. “They might be delayed but so far every supplier is still delivering.”
As Covid-19 disrupts the food industry across Europe, some shops in Dublin are starting to feel the effects in small ways, like Noms’s delay. However, many were pretty well prepared as the supply chain had already been expecting a shock – Brexit.
“Last week we had our busiest week ever, people were coming in to bulk-buy,” says Sheridan.
“Flour. Oh my god, we have never sold so much flour. I think everybody is planning on making their own bread,” she says.
People don’t normally stock up on food because they live in a world where they feel there is a certainty to where the next meal is and there is a never-ending supply in the supermarkets, says Gary Sinclair, a lecturer in marketing at DCU, specialising in consumer behaviour.
But now with all the news coverage of busy supermarkets and even, in some cases, empty shelves, people are stocking up more – though it’s not necessarily “panic buying”, Sinclair says.
“Even at the best of times most human decisions are made by looking around you to see what other people are doing,” he says.
So with an increase in sales, can Sheridan keep her shelves stocked?
“We probably have about two to three weeks’ of stock left for flour,” she says.
However, other, perishable items, such as fruits and vegetables can only be stocked a week in advance, she says.
“Normally I would get a lot of organic veg from a Dutch supplier [UDEA],” says Sheridan.
Suppliers such as these are telling Sheridan that they are going to take longer than expected, she says.
Typically, Sherridan would place her order three days in advance with UDEA. “So I placed my order on Thursday for Saturday, but it’s only coming in on Sunday now,” she says.
“I think we have a few difficult weeks ahead,” says Blommendaal, Sheridan’s vegetable supplier.
UDEA sources fruit and vegetables from Spain and Italy. “Oh, stuff like oranges, broccoli, and lettuce,” he says.
The fruit and vegetables would be transported to their warehouse in the Netherlands, and then sent on to the ** Dutch market and the rest of Europe.
The vegetables that sit on the shelves at Noms in Phibsboro are transported via truck.
Drivers haul these from the Netherlands to Britain by road, and then over to Dublin by boat.
“Transport is also a problem. Border control is back again so there is a queue at the border,” says Blommendaal.
Delays like this can be a big concern for fruit and vegetable suppliers, Blommendaal says, because these items need to arrive fast so they are fresh.
And Covid-19 isn’t just a concern for long supply chains that stretch all the way to Spain and Italy. It’s also a worry for chains that only stretch to Meath.
“Our main concern at the moment would be whether people can travel,” says John Flynn, an accountant at Clarke’s Fresh Fruit farm, which supplies strawberries to businesses around Dublin.
“We usually take a lot of seasonal workers over, due to the nature of the work,” Flynn says, including a lot of people from Poland, but travelling across Europe is much more difficult now.
Right now Clarke’s is looking at back-up plans if things stay the way they are, says Flynn. One of the options they are looking at is hiring more people locally.
“If things continue the way it is maybe there will be people who want to work because they won’t have work elsewhere,” he says.
So how are shops and suppliers planning for whatever comes next? “I don’t think you can plan for this,” says Blommendaal.
Currently, he is just relying on his suppliers to fill up his warehouse as his stock depletes, he says.
At the other end of the supply line, Sheridan says that she is feeling worried. “No, I don’t have a contingency plan,” she says.
“I’m anxious, like, I’m very anxious. I guess because it is so unknown,” says Sheridan.
However, some Irish supply chains have been stocking up for a while for a different reason, says Sinclair, the UCD lecturer.
“Because of the kind of chaos that was expected with Brexit, the supply chains have been bulked significantly for a crisis,” he says.