- Local produce may have a moment to shine amidst a lack of imported goods
By Dimithri Wijesinghe
This past weekend, Brunch visited a well-known restaurant in Colombo for a New Year celebration, one which we have frequented several times over the years. Following what was undoubtedly a fantastic meal, an interesting observation was made noting how some of the menu items had changed, with different ingredients and resulting in a different taste – not bad, just different.
These changes appear to be common across the board for many restaurants, as Lankan restaurant owners have had to adapt to the changing economic and political climate of our island.
This past year has been an interesting one for Sri Lanka, to say the least. As the global collective made efforts to recover from the ruins of the Covid-19 pandemic, Sri Lanka was faced with yet another crisis.
With the economic crisis came import restrictions and now with the dawn of the new year, we will also soon experience some key tax changes as per the proposed Budget for 2023.
The lack of readily available materials and ingredients has been a major challenge for many industries over this past year, with the hospitality industry having to look for alternatives when it comes to menus.
Speaking to The Sunday Morning Brunch, Rocco’s Co-Owner Judy Wikkramatillake noted that they had indeed made some changes with purchasing due to these newfound obstacles.
Considering that Rocco’s prides itself on serving authentic pizza dishes and many other food items, they rely on a number of imported goods. “Things are a little different now, but we make do. We have had to change ingredients like peeled tomatoes which we used to import, switching to what’s available locally. We have even changed some cheeses to what is available locally,” she said, however noting: “Not that it’s bad, it’s just different.”
She noted that this had primarily been due to the disruption of supply chains and the available product being too expensive, leading to the restaurant not being able to justify the pricing. Therefore, they have had to make do with what is available locally and incorporate alternatives.
Invest in local products
MSD Capital Holdings Group Managing Director Dinesh Wijesinghe, whose company operates a number of Sri Lanka’s restaurants and bars including the famous Sugar restaurants, also shared his thoughts on the matter. He noted that considering the lack of an overnight solution to the situation, the hospitality industry had realised the need to adapt and had in fact followed suit.
“We have had to look at local alternatives. There’s nothing else we can do. It is not a short-term thing and we are looking at a couple of years of this. It’s not like we can just wait for six months until it blows over,” he said.
He however noted that this was not a particularly negative thing, especially when considered from a tourism perspective. “If you go abroad, you will see that they serve whatever is excessively available in their country,” he said. “This lack of imported ingredients is likely to affect a very small faction of people.”
He added that some of the local alternatives had turned out to be better options overall: “We have made some substitutes like using local berries called ‘dan’ (Syzygium caryophyllatum) instead of blueberries and it has worked out better than frozen blueberries because we can get it fresh. We have swapped imported oranges for local mandarins and oranges. We actually stopped serving salmon well before these restrictions came about, because why would we continue to do that? We serve what is available locally found within our island,” he said.
He further noted that while there was a lack of availability of imported beef and perhaps lamb, there were other meats. “We have really good pork, it’s awesome. I don’t think people would expect us to have lamb; if you go somewhere in the Middle East, you will likely face difficulty finding pork but that doesn’t turn people away.”
Wijesinghe said that what mattered was how the ingredients were prepared and presented; if the expected standards were maintained, the industry would be able to move forward.
Lean on what’s available
With regard to spirits, Wijesinghe said: “It is what it is,” noting that they had learned to lean on what is available such as local gin, rum, and arrack. “We will promote what is available locally and of course, if you want the imported stuff, that can be made available at a price,” he noted, adding however that even foreigners would scoff at certain prices, especially of items such as good cuts of beef, which would have to be served at an exorbitant rate and that a foreigner would not be willing to pay thrice the value of what they would be paying at home.
He said that the prices of available goods would be a matter of concern and even then, it would mostly impact the locals. “If you are a foreigner bringing dollars into the country, you are not going to feel it, because a dollar will get you what a dollar has always gotten you. However, things are different for the rest of us,” he said.
Harpo’s Cafes & Restaurants Founder and CEO Harpo Gooneratne also shared similar sentiments with regard to pricing. He added that while the new price increases and their effects could not be quantified just yet, as the season, and December especially, were always an anomaly when compared to the rest of the year since most establishments tended to do well during the holidays, the hospitality industry would be impacted when it came to energy costs.
He said that as an industry, they must figure out how to manage costs: “We are now seeing a 29.5% extra charge on the original bill, so there will be costs incurred.”
Gooneratne shared that moving forward, they were trying to remain positive and focus on what was important, which is innovation to find workarounds and alternatives. “There was a time when everyone opted to stay at home and we still managed to deliver food to their doorsteps,” he said, noting that the important thing was to focus on what could be done.
Future of hospitality
While our own restaurant experience was slightly different from what we were used to, it was certainly not a negative experience. It is evident that the hospitality industry will likely adapt to the current and upcoming climates as it always has. The changes may even be for the better, but while Lankans are resilient, there will be those who will have a much harder time than others.
As the restaurant owners have all expressed, while they are ready and willing to make changes, their concern is the inevitable price hikes and how they will be able to mitigate its after effects. We will have to wait and see.