Starting points found for NZ venison in China

Hunter McGregor sets off for work on New Zealand venison business in Shanghai.

A recently concluded pilot development trial has directed venison exporters where to concentrate the introduction of farm-raised New Zealand venison in China. But, it’s not going to be easy in a market unfamiliar with the meat.

Initial research by global market research agency IPSOS highlighted there were substantial difficulties for venison in the Chinese market – not least from Chinese consumers and chefs unfamiliar with the meat. But, the Marketing Working Group (MWG) – the group of five venison exporting companies – wanted to further understand where the opportunities were for New Zealand venison in selected foodservice channels in certain regions.

John Sadler of Mountain River Venison, one of the five companies, has been leading a project working with Hunter McGregor of Shanghai Rata Trade Company to see where opportunities may lie. The project, which started in October 2016 and concluded in April 2017, has been funded by the deer industry’s Passion2Profit (P2P) Primary Growth Partnership with the Ministry for Primary Industries and New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE).

Deer Industry NZ (DINZ) venison marketing manager Marianne Wilson explains: “The pilot development project gives us an understanding of the place for New Zealand venison in Western restaurants in China: which cuts and which applications will work.”

McGregor set off with his now iconic chilli bin on wheels that has featured in many deer industry presentations to illustrate the difficulties of working in the challenging emerging market.

Over the six months of the trial, Sadler and McGregor visited more than 190 chefs working in Western-style restaurants in 12 regions, including Shanghai where McGregor is based. The mission was to introduce the chefs to farm-raised New Zealand venison, to find out how they might like to use it and which cuts would work best for the culinary styles.

As part of the programme, DINZ executive chef Graham Brown spent two weeks talking to chefs and giving workshops and a masterclass at the Shangri Lu Pudong in Shanghai on China’s east coast, the Beijing Westin Hotel in the northern capital and the Chonqqing Intercontinental hotel in the country’s south-west. NZTE consultant chef Dion McGrath also gave a Masterclass.

Overall, the team found there was plenty of interest in the product. Their report shows that while chefs had a positive response to New Zealand venison, once they’d tried it, they were unsure about their front of house’s abilities to sell it to their customers.  However, they were interested, and surprised, to learn of consumers’ positive feedback to the meat, once they had been persuaded to try it.

Around 5,300 kgs of venison was sold as a direct result of samples and/or meetings during the trial.

While there is potential for the high-end middles cuts in the market, the work found, it was the shanks, ribs and boneless shoulders that were found to be the best cuts for the wet Chinese dishes.

“Rumps too, because it’s a great product and good price point,” McGregor writes.

High-end Western style restaurants in Shanghai were identified as a suitable starting point for introducing farm-raised New Zealand venison. Western style cuisine is growing and the restaurants are commonly run by European chefs who are familiar with venison, the report notes.  Many western restaurants are also headed up by Chinese chefs, they have little to no knowledge of venison and a long-term programme – perhaps over two decades –  is required to introduce the meat, educate and convince them that New Zealand venison has a place on their menus.

“We have an opportunity to position New Zealand venison as a new year-round, healthy meat in China,” says McGregor.

Because of the vast differences in traditional culinary styles, McGregor found chefs in some regions were less interested in using the meat, but Shanghai, a food and beverage leading region in China with a population of 24.5 million, looks the most promising place to start.

“Both John and Hunter are confident there is a niche market in Shanghai,” says Wilson.

A $60,000 12-month plan of promotional work in Shanghai is being drawn up for the MWG to consider for its new financial year, starting in October this year.

This will focus on Western-style restaurants and include tackling another major barrier identified by the work: perhaps unsurprisingly, language.

“More work needs to be done on messaging specifically for China and our target markets and to develop tools in Chinese such as culinary instruction, Chinese recipes and videos for sales personnel to use,” says Wilson.

More workshops and masterclasses with Graham Brown will be part of the plan, along with building relationships with Chinese chefs and their associations. In addition, a Shanghai-based “Chinese Graham”, a Chinese-speaking Kiwi chef who can work authoritatively with the target groups of chefs will need to be sought.

One result of the work being done by McGregor and Sadler is a two-month venison promotion from August at Fairmont Hotels, The Cut restaurant – Beijing’s ‘destination for steak’.  Swiss chef Christoph Zoller, who is very keen on using high-quality seasonal ingredients, is proposing a venison menu featuring seven venison dishes.

“It’s early days, but it is a solid start,” says Sadler.

 This article first appeared in Deer Industry News magazine (August/September 2017) and is reproduced here with permission. Check out the magazine for more in-depth deer industry specific news.

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