Image above: No tomatoes? ; empty shelves in Waitrose Chiswick High Road
Shortages in most major retailers, but not local greengrocers
Supermarket shelves in Chiswick are starting to reflect the nationwide tomato shortage, while smaller, independent greengrocers remain largely unaffected.
The British Retail Consortium, which represents all the major supermarkets, says the supply issues are industry wide. It says difficult weather in southern Europe and northern Africa disrupted the harvests of a range of crops, including tomatoes, peppers and aubergines which has, in some instances, quadrupled their wholesale price.
In the winter months the UK imports around 95% of its tomatoes and 90% of its lettuces, most of them from Spain and north Africa. The shortages and rationing of selected salad items at some supermarkets, including Asda and Morrisons, involves several factors, including the climate crisis, energy prices and Brexit. While the poor weather over winter has been the key factor, the fragility of the modern supply chain is also largely to blame.
Farmers say supermarkets face problems because industrial-scale growers cannot fulfil their contracts, whereas greengrocers and fruit and veg stalls are better placed to deal with shortages, because they order from individual farms and local wholesalers directly.
On Monday (27 February), I visited Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Co-op, Tesco and M&S as well as some of Chiswick’s smaller fruit and veg retailers to see how they’re coping with the reported national produce shortages.
Images above: Fruit and veg at Charlie’s Fruit Bowl stalls, tomatoes on display at Colin’s of Chiswick
“What shortages?” say High Road greengrocers Collins
All three independent greengrocer stalls along Chiswick High Road appeared to have ample supplies of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers.
I asked Kevin, who works at Colin’s of Chiswick (300 Chiswick High Road), whether he had any trouble sourcing his produce amid nationwide shortages. He said while said the price has gone up from £7-10 a box to £18-22 a box at market, there were “thousands” of boxes of tomatoes available for him to buy every morning.
Kevin attributed the rise in cost to soaring energy bills, which has delayed planting under polytunnels (plastic-covered greenhouses under which seedlings are grown) meaning supplies for supermarkets are scarce and prices rise for everyone else. He said this has been good for business, with people finding supermarket shelves empty making their way to his stall.
“We’ve been busier certainly”, he laughed, “definitely much busier”.
A man working at Charlie’s Fruit Bowl, who didn’t give his name, laughed and said “what shortages?” when I asked him the same question about his produce. He simply pointed to the vine tomatoes, mixed peppers and cucumbers on display and said wholesalers were full of produce and then continued moving boxes of vegetables around the stalls.
Images above: Lemon & Limes Turnham Green Terrace, tomato produce on shelves in Lemon & Limes
Lemon and Limes – Turnham Green Terrace
Lemons & Limes, greengrocers on Turnham Green Terrace is owned by a Turkish family, who also operate a similar store in west Hampstead.
Mel Ahsak, the General Manager, said while they still have lots of tomatoes on display their selection used to be much wider.
On their website, there are 18 different types of tomato listed, though only eight were on display on Monday morning. Mel said they have fared better than the supermarkets because supermarkets work in a different way to smaller retailers, who usually buy from farms directly like they do.
“We used to have a much bigger selection,” Mel said, “including mixed heritage cherries and lots of others. Now we have a limited selection.”
Mel said this was because prices have gone through the roof, with boxes being £13.00 – £15.00 even 12 months ago, but some boxes can reach an eye-watering £26.00 per box which they can’t afford.
Images above: Waitrose Chiswick High Rd, empty tomato and veg shelves
Waitrose – Chiswick High Rd
A spokesperson from Waitrose said they have seen a “slightly lower” impact on their fresh produce stock than some other supermarkets because they stock items from other territories, such as Italy, which have not been impacted by poor weather. They added Waitrose’s “extensive range” has helped, with some stores stocking over 20 varieties of tomatoes.
Despite this, Waitrose in Chiswick is had the fewest tomatoes on display of the retailers visited on Monday. Cherry vine tomatoes, essential tomatoes, baby plum tomatoes, essential cherry tomatoes, red choice tomatoes, classic vine tomatoes and red, green and yellow peppers were all ‘temporarily unavailable’.
So if Waitrose is better prepared for supply chain issues, how come Chiswick’s branch is empty? Apparently, just because too many people in Chiswick shop there. Waitrose’s spokesperson told The Chiswick Calendar:
“We’ve had incredibly high demand in Chiswick – but please be assured we are working hard to get tomatoes back on shelves as soon as possible.”
Image above: Sainsbury’s Essex Place, dwindling tomato shelves
Sainsbury’s – Essex Place
Like Waitrose, Sainsbury’s say they have no plans to implement a ration limit on their fresh produce, unlike rivals Tesco, Aldi, Morrisons and Lidl, some of which have limited customers to buying two tomatoes per person.
Shoppers seem to be taking advantage of this, because Sainsbury’s tomato shelves were largely empty by 1.00pm on Monday, including cherry, baby plumb, and large, ‘Best of British’ and pomodorino tomatoes. A handful of loose vine tomatoes remained.
Some selections had been out of stock since opening, with a yellow sign reading ‘Sorry, temporarily out of stock’ in place below empty shelf slots. Individual sweet, red, green, orange, yellow and mixed selections of peppers shelves were empty too.
Highlighting on Sunday (26 February) how this is a regular occurrence in the Chiswick store, one customer complained on Twitter:
‘Standard for Chiswick. Is it a Brexit benefit for staff that don’t have to handle any more?’ – @twitt3rvan
Images above: M&S foodhall Chiswick High Rd, tomatoes on display inside
Marks and Spencer – Chiswick High Rd
The Marks & Spencer Foodhall on Chiswick High Rd had plenty of cherry tomatoes and vine tomatoes.
M&S are one of the supermarket chains who have not placed buying limits on their produce, and they seem to have ample supplies.
A spokesperson for Marks & Spencer said the group was not immune from the supply issues, but had mitigated this by some degree by sourcing from ‘alternative growing markets’.
Images above: Tomato and veg shelves in Tesco Express, Co-op, Sainsbury’s Local
Tesco Express, Co-op, Sainsbury’s Local – Chiswick High Rd
Smaller supermarket stores such as Tesco Express, Co-op and Sainsbury’s Local had some stock, largely cherry or baby tomatoes. Only Sainsbury’s local had loose vine tomatoes.
Last week, Tesco announced they’d be putting limits of three per customer on sales of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers.
As Britain’s largest grocer, Tesco said it was introducing limits as a precautionary measure to ensure customers could get the produce they needed.
It said the limits applied both to loose fruit and vegetables and to produce sold in packs.
Co-op have not said whether they intend to ration stock.
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