FOCUS: Australians enjoy access to luxury food as restaurants, exports shut

Apr 30 , 2020. – 1 hour ago – 16:36 By Anna Watanabe, KYODO NEWS

(Photo taken April 28, 2020 shows a Vic’s Meat retail store in Sydney.)

SYDNEY – With export markets and restaurants shuttered for weeks in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Australian producers and wholesalers have begun selling high-end stock directly to the public, giving ordinary households rare access to luxury meats and seafood.

Before the pandemic, Walker Seafoods Australia exported up to 80 percent of its catch — predominantly yellowfin and big-eye tuna — to restaurants in Japan and the United States. Domestic sales from the Queensland-based business, which is also Australia’s largest wild-caught tuna fishery, were reserved for some of the country’s most well-known, high-end restaurants.

But as COVID-19 cases spread to the United States, co-owner and managing director Heidi Walker said almost all its sales disappeared overnight.

“I checked my phone, and I saw one of my customers in New York say, ‘Heidi, that shipment we’re getting in a few days, we can’t take it, we’re closing,'” Walker said, describing the buyer as the largest seafood wholesaler on the U.S. east coast.

“And then I rang Japan. They were OK at that stage, but within a few days, that collapsed, too.”

In order to keep its roughly 50 staff members employed, Walker Seafoods struck a deal with Coles, one of two supermarket giants in Australia, to begin selling its sashimi-quality tuna.

“The public are really happy. (Coles) had stores sold out within 10 minutes. They said they’ve never had anything like it,” Walker, 45, said.

“They’re putting in massive reorders that I can’t fill because we don’t have enough fish. So that’s a good problem to have!”

Although Walker has had some calls from Japanese restaurants looking for produce, she said she is now having difficulty exporting her stock because almost all international flights have been grounded.

At the beginning of April, the Australian government launched an AU$110 million ($72 million) initiative to charter flights carrying high-value, perishable agricultural and fisheries exports to key overseas markets, including Japan, with return flights to carry medical supplies.

However, while roughly two-thirds of the total value of Australia’s agriculture, fisheries and forestry production is exported, a significant proportion of produce is staying onshore.

For Sydney-based meat wholesaler Vic’s Meat, it is the sudden closure of the country’s restaurants that saw the business turn to online sales.

While the company has two long-standing retail stores, ordinarily 70 percent of its sales go to restaurants such as Bennelong, located inside the Sydney Opera House.

Now the company has opened a range of dry-aged and wagyu beef, normally reserved for high-end restaurants, for home delivery.