World’s largest fresh food market hit by closed restaurants

Lack of demand: Trading at the fish and seafood pavilion of the Rungis international food market near Paris. Fish and seafood prices have dropped as merchants in the sector are uncertain of selling their products due to the progressive general lockdown in Europe to limit the spread of Covid-19. — AFP

PARIS: On a typical day, 12,000 workers flock to Rungis International Market to sell fish, meat and other produce from as early as 2 am to the restaurants, supermarkets and farmers markets of Paris.

The world’s largest fresh food market, which occupies a space bigger than Monaco, claims to feed 18 million French people in the wider metropolitan area, or about a quarter of the country’s population. Its roots date back to the 12th century.

But when France imposed its lockdown in mid-March, many of the wholesalers’ customers were forced to close.

“It was a shock, ” Stephane Layani, the chief executive officer of Rungis, located 11.6 km south of the French capital, said in an interview. “We had a lot of produce that had to be thrown out. Flowers by the thousands.”

Rungis, which has been experimenting with home deliveries during the crisis, exemplifies how Covid-19 has upended businesses. Though France has begun to lift some restrictions, it’s unclear how quickly Parisians will be able to start dining out again or when life at the market will return to normal.

About 1,200 companies operate on the premises, including 400 wholesalers as well as transport and logistics businesses, with thousands of workers doing jobs ranging from unloading produce from trucks to removing fish scales and inspecting meat.

Food workers have been considered essential during the lockdown, but to varying degrees. The government has relied mainly on big supermarket chains and local food shops to feed the population.

Of the more than 10,000 farmers markets in France, three quarters were ordered to shut down.

Rungis is among the fewer than 20 wholesale markets deemed critical and thus allowed to stay open. And while activity has taken a hit, according to Layani, the number of workers coming in has remained constant during the lockdown to meet demand from local food stores and supermarkets.

“We had to act fast, ” Layani said. “We had to adapt to this incredible situation, where 18 million switched their eating habits from one day to another.”

To limit the amount of food going to waste, Layani and his team decided to try home delivery, betting that consumers would want to steer clear of supermarket aisles to avoid infection. It partnered with a five-year-old startup called Califrais that previously specialised in bringing Rungis’ fresh food to restaurants. Califrais set up a business-to-consumer web platform, and Rungis Livre Chez Vous (Rungis Delivered to Your Home) was born.

Califrais quickly called back its furloughed workers and began carrying out an average of 1,200 daily home deliveries, according to Simon Bussy, co-founder of the startup. It has appealed to homebound Parisians keen to have produce from the famous market, such as gourmet cheeses and strawberries, brought direct to their door.

Dominique Octave, who lives in the city of Corbeil-Essonnes near Paris, tried Rungis Livre Chez Vous and said it was worth it, despite it being more expensive than her local supermarket.

“If I have to pay a bit more to avoid transport, crowds in supermarkets and instead stay at home, then I’m willing to make an effort, ” she said.

Serving consumers directly is a major shift for a business whose origins stretch back to when King Philippe Auguste set up a market called Les Halles in the 1100s for fresh food wholesalers in central Paris. The market eventually outgrew that location and moved to its current site in the town of Rungis, close to Orly airport, in 1969.

Rungis is such an institution in France that it’s become an obligatory stopover during presidential campaigns, as candidates seek to muster support among agriculture and food workers.

Layani insists Rungis’ raison d’etre is still wholesale, not retail, and that the shift to home deliveries isn’t sustainable as a long-term business. Fishmongers are only generating 10% of their normal revenue for this time of the year, he said.

“What they’re used to is buying in bulk, selling in bulk, ” said V. Paddy Padmanabhan, professor of marketing at Insead business school in Singapore. “Breaking bulk is a very hard thing to do.”

France’s lockdown started to ease on Monday, with farmers markets able to reopen. The government has said restaurants will remain closed until at least early June.

“For lots of companies, this is the time to experiment, ” Padmanabhan said. “You do it because it allows you to keep things running. In this situation, it’s like oxygen.” — Bloomberg

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