China has been at the top of the headlines at the heart of the global COVID-19 outbreak. After two months in lockdown, the once steadily growing customer base for the food service industry has almost completely dried up. As China’s outbreak starts to show signs of subsiding, and lockdown restrictions are being eased, we asked if there has been a surge in customers dining out after spending so long locked away at home. We checked in with Hunter McGregor, key Mountain River partner in China, to learn about the situation on the ground and hear if there has been a recovery to the market. Although Shanghai didn’t experience the full lockdown that Wuhan did, the partial lockdown restrictions have had a major impact on business. Like here in New Zealand, restaurants, bars, and shops have all been closed. Lately, there has been an easing of restrictions but Hunter says “they’re relaxed to a point but there are still plenty of restrictions in place to make sure it doesn’t kick off again.”
As for the restaurant trade, he says it’s ‘non-existent’ and that ‘plenty of places are re-opening but no one is eating out.’ As an example, he talks about a customer who works in a high-profile restaurant in Shanghai’s historic Bund district. “Pre-virus, they would’ve had on average 240 people per night. Now, on weekend nights, they have about 40 per night. This is a big change and it’s uncertain what’s going to happen in the coming months.”
In terms of selling directly to consumers, there will be challenges as China implements its ban on the sale of ‘wild meat’, leaving a sense of uncertainty. “They have commented in the media that venison is on the list. This is a bit of a challenge as nothing is really clear at the moment but we don’t think/hope the sale of venison will be banned. The Chinese government is talking about a banned list of animals but it hasn’t been released yet. If it is on the list, it’ll include co-products and Velvet, which is a massive challenge for the industry. Logically, NZ venison should be fine but we just don't know. We have not been told officially we can’t sell NZ venison, so we'll just get on with it ”, says Hunter. In short, the industry will be holding its breath to see what concrete food regulations the Chinese government announces as restrictions are eased off. The good news, as Hunter states, is “more and more places are re-opening, people are heading out, and the weather is getting warmer. So things are heading in the right direction”. The very fact that people are heading back to work is encouraging in itself and the government has been pushing for this to happen. “To be fair, the government has done a great job moving millions of people around the country to get them back to work”, he says.
On a personal level, Hunter notes the management of the crisis by the Chinese government has been very good. “At no point during the whole time did we feel unsafe in Shanghai. We were worried and concerned, but felt OK where we were”. It seems this has been the Chinese government’s mantra throughout this crisis; prioritising human safety. And though the food service business has suffered through the restrictions over the last few months, Hunter is hopeful there is a light at the end of the tunnel and things will pick up again. As he put it, “it’s like starting our business again but this time we know what we’re doing”.
Glen Whyte embarked on a sales tour to the USA in September, presenting Mountain River Cervena Venison to a variety of chefs and restaurants around the country. The first day of the tour saw Glen in Brooklyn, New York, with sales rep Stephanie Schneider from importer/distributor D’Artagnan. He presented our venison to 6 chefs that one afternoon! Stephanie reported the chefs were very enthusiastic about hearing the Mountain River story - and Glen did a great job of telling it. Her take on the meetings, Glen’s presentation and chefs reactions follows…. In each meeting, Glen showed the expanse of the land in New Zealand, the grasses and feed that they grow, the way that the deer are fed, and the way the deer are contained and shifted around the land with the fences. He also talked about the breeding of the deer at his father’s farm and the time frame and age at which they come down to his land for the grow out period (they are born around Dec 1st and come down at beginning of March). They come down at about 125 lbs and then grow to about 225-300 lbs. Furthermore, he talked about the happiness of the deer, that they ‘play’ and how they come right up to the farmers and come when they are called out to. Deer from Glens farm are transported on truck and to the processing plant in a very short, stress free time and the deer then have a day to relax before the processing at Mountain River. The consistency of sizing and weighing of cuts at Mountain River was also discussed in depth. Glen showed a lot of pictures of the processing plant of some specific cuts being butchered, weighed and then some of the packaging. Glen mentioned to chefs that calling the product Cervena and explaining what it means on the menu is a great way to distinguish the product from wild venison and that it’s a great dialogue for the server to have with the guests (i.e. a great selling point!). He also talked about the fact that Cervena venison can be put on the menu all year, trying to diffuse the traditional view that venison is only a winter item. When it came to the tasting (Glen brought a rack cutlet) all the chefs loved it. They were impressed with the flavour and the tenderness of the meat. They were encouraged to try searing or grilling it with just a little salt and pepper - although a couple of chefs added some extra seasoning. The cut was perfect for representing the quality of the meat and it cooked pretty quickly. During the tasting, Glen also talked about which cuts would be interesting for their menu. We’re pleased to report that all of the chefs said yes - they want to bring it in for their menus! At Five Leaves, the Australian owners said yes, absolutely it would be something for their dinner menu. They had doubts, whether their clientele would be venison eaters as they sell many burgers and avocado toast, but they immediately wanted to try it out and put together a special of grilled venison after the visit. Take a look for yourself: Feedback from the other chefs/restaurants that day: Sunday in Brooklyn – The Chefs loved the meat. Derek wanted to know who else was selling in the neighbourhood, because he wants to be different. He would choose the Tri-Tip, Denver Leg, or Saddle. He really was interested in Venison Offal – Hearts specifically. P and C - He has used the Osso Buco in past restaurants. He really appreciated the tenderness of the meat. He thought the tri-tip, rack or the loin could be great for a small plate or a tasting menu. River Café – Chef Brad was interested in the breeding aspect of the deer, so Glen talked about that. At his Dad’s farm the deer roam into the hills and they introduce a stag to the mix. When the female deer are ready, they come back on their own. He is interested in the saddle for his fall menu which hopefully will be launched by end of the month. The Bathhouse (not open yet). They had taken some stew meat already to recipe test. Their menu will tout the sustainability of products and they want to have items people who are health conscious will want to eat. They are trying to figure out which cut will work (we tried to push the saddle as there are several applications). The Hoxton – This was a last minute add-on, so we didn’t get to do a tasting. Chef Raoul is familiar with our product but this is a new kitchen for him. He is into striploin and tenderloin. We also suggested Denver leg. Glen and chef Raoul talked a little about his wood fired grill and what items he cooks there and how that works. Stephanie says that she also learned a lot on the Brooklyn visit. She mentioned appreciating Glen’s dedication and passion for the animals and his farm, and his professionalism in wanting to provide the best product! We look forward to continuing the relationships with these 6 chefs and seeing how they use our venison on their menus.
Nestled at the heart of the Bernese Alps, the Glacier Hotel – a staple of the Grindelwald landscape since 1864 – is a home away from home. Striking a balance between homestyle comfort and sustainable design, this boutique hotel offers a luxurious alpine experience unique to the area. One of the core elements of the hotel is the Glacier Restaurant. Described as ‘food for the soul’, their menu boasts exquisite, sustainably sourced ingredients with a focus on homemade, seasonal meals. Mountain River was recently given the opportunity to showcase samples of venison during a promotion with Swiss chefs from the Grindelwald area, hosted by the Glacier Hotel. The chefs tasted the petit tender in a variety of ways, including carpaccio, tataki, tri-tip, as well as short ribs and knuckle round. Shannon was also able to provide background on Mountain River’s sustainable farming practices. After the promotion with Shannon Campbell, two restaurants have begun using Mountain River venison on their menu. The first is the restaurant at Hotel Spinne - https://www.spinne.ch/en . The Hotel Spinne is located in the heart of the glacier village of Grindelwald at the foot of the Eiger North Wall in the Jungfrau region. The Spinne (Spider) is an ice field in the North Wall which, because of its permanent snow formation, resembles a spider. Their restaurant, the Rôtisserie, Ristorante Mercato & Bistro, put on a dish using venison rump. The next two dishes (ribs and rump) are on the menu at Hotel Aspen - https://www.hotel-aspen.ch/en Built in a classic Swiss chalet style, the Aspen Alpine Lifestyle Hotel in Grindelwald is next to the hiking trails and ski slopes of the Kleine Scheidegg/Männlichen Area. From this success, Mountain River looks forward to seeing the partnership with chefs in Grindelwald, Switzerland grow!