Classic Fine Foods Malaysia: Distributors tackle shake-up by targeting shoppers at home

June 3, 2020

Pasture-fed lamb and beef from Australia. Smoked trout and summer truffles from France. Durum wheat pasta and olive pesto from Italy. Irish cheddar, New Zealand muesli, Swiss pastries, U.S. bagels, British pecan-walnut butter, Belgian potato croquettes and Thai aloe vera beverages.

Premium wholesaler Classic Fine Foods Malaysia promises a selection that spans more than half the world's continents. But disruptions in supply and demand have forced international food distributors to take extraordinary steps to bolster the market for imports, such as by selling directly to customers at home.

"It’s very difficult today for us to see into the future, but definitely, we need to adapt," says Nicolas Le Toumelin, general manager of Classic Fine Foods Malaysia. "We're all dependent on the way the crisis is going to be resolved."

The logistics team, photographed in 2019; Classic Fine Foods Malaysia has retained its entire staff throughout this upheaval.

When the world went into lockdown in mid-March, flight stoppages buffeted Classic Fine Foods, a Hong Kong-headquartered specialist that operates in about a dozen nations, including Malaysia.

Air freight was halted to Kuala Lumpur from Paris, through which Classic Fine Foods' European imports are routed. Products are flown from across Europe on Monday, land in Paris on Tuesday, board the planes Wednesday and reach KL by Thursday.

"At the peak of the Movement Control Order, it was complicated. We had to really negotiate to get a flight slot," Nicolas says. "We have to make sure we consistently have supply."

At the same time, demand dwindled drastically. Classic Fine Foods supplies to hotels, restaurants and supermarkets. For weeks, many clients in the hospitality sector paused their orders for fresh ingredients, since they couldn't serve customers.

Direct flights from Paris are still absent, but a workaround has been found: Emirates and Etihad fly from Paris to the Middle East onward to Malaysia. It's not as speedy or convenient, so consistent stocks of seafood from Europe can pose a problem, though fresh fare still comes in every week or two.

Dry products enter by sea, largely unaffected by the pandemic, arriving from Australia within three weeks and from Europe within two months. Stabilising prices and quality has been a priority, with Classic Fine Foods bringing in higher volumes per shipment to offset the fall in transport frequency.

As restaurants languish, retailers have flourished. Classic Fine Foods experienced a brief cheese shortage as customers made a run for supermarkets in the first week of the Movement Control Order.

It makes sense, then, that the company has ventured into consumer retail for the first time, initially facilitating deliveries via their social media accounts before investing in an e-commerce platform.

The spin-off, Classic Deli, seeks to satiate public demand for gourmet groceries, from frozen Angus beef patties to mascarpone cheese. "We're offering a resource for people who are more cautious in the way they go out, the way they behave. Because of this crisis, our role is to provide support to everybody. This is an added opportunity for consumers to get the product they want," Nicolas says.

The website "is still being fine-tuned," he adds. "We will always try to make it look better, more accessible and easier for people to use, and try to add more and more and more products. At the moment, we have around 250 products. Slowly, we'll announce our beverage category, where we are able to put out coffee or tea or lemonades.”

Doubts linger about how to estimate demand for food imports. "Restaurants have now reopened, but they’re operating at low speed. To get back to normal is going to take some time."

Reporting by EDKL writer Aiman Azri. Interview excerpts were edited for brevity. Images are courtesy of Classic Fine Foods Malaysia.

This is the 15th part in our series on how people in Malaysia's food industry are confronting their current challenges.

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