Home cooks targeted by venison marketers

Home cooks targeted by venison marketers

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Venison marketers are building demand for NZ venison products that consumers can eat at home. The challenge is to find profitable channels to replace reduced demand from foodservice during Covid-19. Retail, on-line and meal kits all show potential.

“As with other premium proteins like rock lobster and lamb racks, premium venison cuts have mainly been sold through foodservice suppliers to restaurants,” said Deer Industry NZ marketing manager Nick Taylor.

“This demand vanished when markets went into Covid lockdowns. Now, as countries move out of lockdown we are seeing foodservice recovering, but it’s a tentative recovery. There is nervousness in Europe and of course, the news from the United States keeps getting worse. China and New Zealand are among the few good news stories – they’re returning to a new normal.”

Taylor was speaking at the 2020 Deer Industry Conference – an on-line event held on three successive Tuesdays in late June/early July – alongside marketing executives from the five main venison companies.

The sudden world-wide loss of demand from food service has forced the marketers to pivot to other sales channels that directly target consumers. He said this is not easy. Different cuts, portion sizes and packaging are needed. The new channels have to agree to carry the product and promotional campaigns have to be put in place.

Toni Frost, marketing manager for First Light Foods, said their first step was to get consumers used to buying venison at retail for home cooking.

“We are starting by building their awareness of lower value convenience products and then we’ll move them onto higher value cuts as their awareness and confidence grows. Covid has forced us to look outside the square. As a result of that I think there are huge opportunities to build new pathways for venison in the future.” 

DINZ executive chef Graham Brown developing a family-friendly venison meat ball recipe in his home kitchen during the lockdown

Mountain River Venison marketing manager John Sadler said moving more venison out of foodservice and into retail is challenging, and the challenges keep coming.

“Generally speaking, retail demand is for chilled product, but transit times on sea freight are getting longer. Each year the last ship for the game season leaves earlier and the cost of air freight has doubled.

“We’re therefore working with our partner in Europe developing marinated cuts from frozen venison for chilled retail sale. We have a chilli-spiced product, another with herbs and will have summer grilling items for the BBQ. These are some of the innovations that will help us sell more venison at retail.”

Taylor said the industry is investigating meal kits in the United States, as an  opportunity for New Zealand venison.

“People who had not tried meal kits under normal circumstances, did so under lockdown and have found them very convenient and of a high quality. This sector has seen big increases in customers in the last few months and this growth is projected to continue.”

For its part, Silver Fern Farms has – on the strength of record sales of its venison retail packs in New Zealand during the lockdown – has expanded its range of retail packs in the United States to include venison. Sales manager China Glen McLennan told the conference the company was also building its own e-commerce platform in the US, which will include venison.

To support the companies with their product and market development work, DINZ has increased its funding of joint promotions to nearly half a million dollars. New online direct-to-consumer sales channels in New Zealand and Australia are being explored, and there have been more retail promotions in Europe and New Zealand.

An easy-to-prepare Middle Eastern-style NZ venison flatbread dish, developed by DINZ executive chef Shannon Campbell

Because the industry’s chefs were not able to get out and about during the lockdown either, they were set to work developing new resources for food service when it opens up, along with some more consumer-friendly recipes.

Taylor said that with the increased focus on direct-to-consumer sales, Graham Brown focused on family-friendly recipes. Shannon Campbell has been creating new recipes, focusing on cuisine styles that are becoming more and more popular in Europe such as Japanese street food, Middle Eastern, along with more mince-based recipes now we are seeing more mince on grocery store shelves.

In China, deer industry research has shown that Lu and Sichuan cuisines are the Chinese food styles most suited to venison. But because Chinese chefs are unfamiliar with cooking venison, there’s a lot of educational work to do, he said.

“The challenge is to show Chinese chefs how to adapt their traditional recipes but leave enough room for the unique flavour of venison to shine through,” Taylor said. “We are in the midst of developing new website and educational material including resources specifically for Chinese social media channels.”

Meanwhile, the marketers are keeping a close eye on the growing shoots of recovery at food service, particularly in Europe, where Covid cases appear to have peaked. With their holiday season starting, restaurants are reopening with social distancing and increased hygiene, but with 15,000 new cases a day still occurring in Europe, there are challenges ahead.

Taylor referred to market research from Mintel that says many consumers in Europe are likely to have health concerns about dining out and have limited budgets to do so. Restaurants will need to have value-based promotions to woo customers back from off-premise dining – whether home cooking, take-aways or meal kits.

“Mintel expects this to continue for up to two years, during which time many restaurants will struggle. As the post-Covid recession deepens and consumers reduce their spending, some restaurants will shut for good.”

Alliance Group venison marketing manager Terry O’Connell said he’s been hearing some positive chat from Europe about venison sales prospects during the game season in the upcoming northern autumn, but this is not translating into as many firm orders as the company would have liked to have locked in at this time of the year.

“Some importers are hesitant to place orders because they fear a second Covid wave. They are hoping for just-in-time deliveries, but this puts us in a very difficult position. Airfreight costs twice as much as it did last year and there are fewer ships available.”

Longer-term, marketers are confident that demand for premium venison cuts from restaurants will bounce back.

“Restaurants are in the business of bringing people together and creating a unique experience for them, it is not something we can replicate at home,” said Taylor. “In a US survey conducted in June, 40 per cent of respondents said visiting a restaurant was the thing they were most looking forward to following relaxed social distancing,” he said.