Deer farmers supplying Mountain River gained a first-hand insight into global markets accounting for 80% of the Mid-Canterbury processor’s sales earlier this year. Andrew Swallow relays their man in China’s experience.

Just how hard it is to do business in China was hammered home to a group of deer farmers earlier this year as Canterbury processor Mountain River gathered its main in-market representatives for a field day.

Introducing the marketing team, Mountain River’s John Sadler ranked its sales to various nations by value (see table) before introducing a global team collectively responsible for 80% of the firm’s venison sales by value.

At 5%, Sadler said China was a new market for Mountain River and while there were a lot of people there, he had an open mind about the opportunity it presented.

“It could be huge, or not. We are working with the PGP programme to open up the top end food service market, with a focus on Shanghai.”

Meanwhile son-of-a-deer-farmer Hunter McGregor has been marketing Mountain River’s venison in China through his company Shanghai Rata for nearly three years, having been based there for 10.

‘It’s a low-trust environment: I don’t trust anyone and the Chinese don’t trust each other… It’s a very different environment to here.’

“The market is very complex,” he told the field day. “It’s a low-trust environment: I don’t trust anyone and the Chinese don’t trust each other… It’s a very different environment to here.”

For example, he sells cuts loose rather than by the box, and before recycling packaging he removes all logos and labels to prevent copying and potential counterfeit sales.

There are also bureaucratic difficulties, such as obtaining an import permit from Beijing for each shipment.

“It usually takes about a month and we usually get it, but you can’t take anything for granted.”

Shipping takes 25 days – air freight is too expensive, he said – and everything he sells is frozen. “Chilled would be too complex and if you defrost frozen nicely it’s still a wonderful product.”

The time it takes for official clearance to sell imported meat is another reason for sticking to frozen, he added. At best, it’s four weeks from arrival but it can be seven weeks before it’s released from government warehouses. Documentation must be correct.

McGregor said most of his clients are five-star hotels.

“I don’t sell to Chinese stand-alone restaurants because they don’t know how to cook venison and it’s a very complex market.”

Even dealing with the hotels is far from straight-forward, with the hotel chain typically employing the staff and running the hotel, but the building owner paying the bills. The problem with that is, if the building owner decides the food cost is too high, they’ll simply not use venison, so even if the chef and hotel manager want it on the menu, there’s no business.

Typically, it takes six-18 months to get on to the menu in a hotel, and for some he has to gain a special clearance just to get into the building. Some hotels will say they want delivery by truck, even though trucks aren’t allowed into that part of the city. McGregor refuses to outsource delivery because he doesn’t trust other operators to maintain the meat in good condition.

NZ Venison Shank by Chef Alan Yu at Alan’s Bistro on the Bund in Shanghai.

Government documentation must accompany each delivery which can also cause problems, such as if the dates don’t match the delivery, prompting the hotel to reject the consignment.

Even when the delivery is made, there’s still a long way to go to the consumer and it’s hard to ensure they’re going to get a good experience, even if the quality of the meat has been maintained up to that point. Head chefs will usually speak English, but the rest of the kitchen staff don’t and most Chinese staff have not used venison before. Often they have no idea how to handle it, McGregor said.

“I have to hope it’s defrosted okay and hope it’s cooked okay.”

Front-of-house staff are another challenge as they’re the ones responsible for promoting venison to diners.

Hotels and supermarkets are the only places he offers payment terms. “Everything else is cash.”

Despite all the difficulties, McGregor said he’s now selling venison in 15 cities and his venison business is “slowly growing off a very small base.”

Asked what the demand for New Zealand venison is in China, he was unequivocal. “Zero. There are no Chinese consumers saying we want New Zealand venison.”

However, they do want healthy, sustainable, high-quality meat from a reliable source.

“So we have the right product and it fits well, but there’s no demand.”

There are also plenty of people for whom money is no problem with some paying over $1000 for Tomahawk (beef) steaks, but venison’s price point is typically below top-end beef such as Wagyu, he said.

McGregor’s policy is not to compete with beef by trying to sell venison steaks to steakhouses, but to sell tartare – raw, minced venison – instead, which complements the beef.

“And there are no worries with how they cook it!”

Hearts are proving a hit as tartare, and cooked venison ribs are also popular. “They love eating meat from the bone. Even in 40-degree heat we sold a lot.”

In winter, shanks sell well for slow cooking.

Solely social media marketing

All Hunter McGregor’s marketing is through social media. “I don’t even bother with a website.”

The WeChat app is his main tool.

“Everybody has an account. It is like Facebook, and Twitter and all the other western social media platforms but better.”

It allows him to post marketing messages at any time, any day, to a targeted audience of contacts saved on his network. Consequently, it’s a lot cheaper and more effective than traditional marketing methods.

He urged deer farmers on social media to get in touch, a sentiment echoed by several other speakers at the field day.

“I’m keen to share what you do with the Chinese chefs and consumers. They’re really interested to know what’s going on with their food and where it’s coming from.”

Key points

  • Venison in China
  • Unfamiliar meat so no inherent demand.
  • Price point typically below top beef cuts.
  • Fits desire for health, quality and sustainability.
  • Bureaucracy, distribution, and education challenges.
  • Tartare proving popular.