5 Feb 2015
Producers Rush to Meet Consumers at Record-breaking 25th Food Expo
Attracting 460,00 visitors, as well as more than 1,100 exhibitors, across its five-day run, the HKTDC Food Expo proved, once again, to be Asia's most lively and enduring annual showcase for the very finest in both eatables and drinkables.
It was back to the future with ice creams, signature dishes from star chefs and a bacchanalian atmosphere at the annual HKTDC Food Expo. As usual, it was packed with gourmands in search of gourmet delights, as well as those looking to satisfy the demanding palate for profit of both caterers and buyers.
A record number of visitors celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Food Expo, held concurrently with the inaugural Home Delights Expo, Hong Kong International Tea Fair, and International Conference & Exhibition of the Modernization of Chinese Medicine & Health Products. The fairs attracted 460,000 people over five days, a 12% increase on the previous year.
Organised by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC), at times the Food Expo resembled an upmarket night market, particularly on the first and third floors. Here a mountain of food on was offer, with a consequent sea of people washing around, many of them dragging wheeled suitcases in order to stash away the maximum number of freebies.
Overall, in excess of 1,100 exhibitors from more than 20 countries and regions showcased their wares at the event, while the fifth floor trade halls welcomed new pavilions from Thailand, Australia and the Chinese mainland's Gansu Province. According to Trish Pascuzzo, Manager of the New South Wales trade delegation, Hong Kong had proved a promising market for the Australian state, with the Food Expo allowing it to boost its presence in both the city and across the wider Asia region.
The fifth floor – though the action was far more sedate than in the notoriously lively public halls – was where much of the Expo's real business was actually conducted. In total, HKTDC had organised more than 70 buying missions, comprising some 2,200 trade buyers. A number of key buyers had also set up their own booths, notably two Hong Kong grocery chains – ParknShop and 759 Store. Explaining his company's presence, S.H. Au Yeung, Deputy General Manager of 759 Store, said the format worked well, allowing buyers to be more selective, adding: "It saved us a lot of time walking around to find suppliers".
One exhibitor that moved its usual pitch from the fifth floor to the group pavilion and public zone on the third floor was the Canadian Food Exporters Association. According to Susan Powell, the Association's President, she was more than content with the change as it allowed the country's food producers to make direct contact with consumers.
She said: "We have been coming here for years. Consumer awareness of our products and consumer spending power actually very good, but what we are aiming at by being in the public hall is to get consumers to put pressure on local supermarkets to pick up our goods and put them on their shelves. Blueberries, maple syrup and so on, we are well known for, but not so much for our other products. We are really trying to raise awareness of what we produce, which is actually an awful lot."
Though Powell said visitor numbers were higher this year, she also said there was possibly less business being done, with many of the Chinese mainland buyers principally after pricing and novelty. For her own part, she said: "You're not going to get that with Canada."
This idea of quality before quantity was echoed by Dr Walter Huber, Proprietor of Hainle Vineyards Estate Winery in Canada, who confessed himself impressed but not surprised by the mass of visitors saying: "People are passionate about good food and wine, and we have done well."
Winemaking is a tradition for the Huber family and one that dates back to 1167 and its Austrian heritage. When Huber moved to Peachland, British Columbia, in 2002, in order to take advantage of the area's micro-climate and pristine environment, he ensured that his hone country's 1856 wine purity law, relating to growing and cellar practices, was followed to the letter. Hainle was North America's first ice wine producer and it was also certified as Canada's first organic winery. Huber says: "The wines speak for themselves", citing the fact they were recently given a top 1% world ranking by Vivino wine magazine.
It was, however, a last minute change of plan that bought him to Hong Kong. He said: "We were planning to go to the Russian wine expo in St Petersburg but, at the last minute, the Ukraine situation made us change our mind and we decided to transfer here. We are very pleased with the way it turned out, though, because there is a huge untapped market here.
"Actually, we did come here two years ago, but the market wasn't quite ready. It was similar to when the Chinese used to come to our vineyards. They tended to buy the cheaper wines, but they are very keen and quick learners. Now they prefer the real ice wines rather than cheap and pale imitations. Their tastes have changed and they tend to seek out quality rather than price. They always say that quality is expensive, but actually it's priceless."
Another trade mission that chose to switch from the trade zone to the group pavilion in the public hall was Sapporo, the fourth largest city in Japan. This year it fielded eight booths, ranging from ramen restaurants to Hokkaido shellfish and was sold out across the board by the final day. Tanaka Kiyonoro, the head of the mission, maintained that Japan's economic slowdown had obliged its food producers to look further afield for sales.
Cheaper, but just as cheerful, was the "It's more fun in the Philippines" booth, which naturally enough was swamped by a large contingent of the city's Filipina maids in search of the true taste of home – with many of them dragging their employers along with them. Sardines, sweets and sauces were the big sellers here, according to – perhaps surprisingly – the sole Hong Kong agent for the country's foodstuffs. He indicated that prices had been lowered in order conduct trials of number of new products, notably LPA fresh coconut water and a honey wine. He said: "We want to see what kind of reaction we get. This is the future."
Another trial product to cause a sensation was Mini Melts, over in Hall 3B, where grown-up kids with a taste for nostalgia waited in a queue that snaked around the Expo. These colourful pellets of ice cream are frozen and stored at a tongue-chilling 40 degrees Celsius and were developed in the US 20 years ago. They were a big hit in Hong Kong at the time, but then died out, only to be resurrected in time for the Food Expo.
Eric Chan and Christa Chan, two students, waited in line for 40 minutes just to grab small tubs of the ice cream. Eric said they had gone to the Food Expo to see if there was "anything new to taste and try" and when he came across the Mini Melts, he just had to have one. He said: "I don't really remember how the chocolate tasted, so I'm going to try that one again."
Kenix Chan, Sales Manager of Delicacy Path Co Ltd, the sole distributor for Mini Melts in Hong Kong and Macau, said the product uses first-grade milk products and is made in South Korea, adding the low temperature guaranteed a "slow melt" and a packed flavour.
Commenting on the reception for the revived product, she said: "It's been crazy. I don't think we're very popular with the other exhibitors because there have been so many people on our stand. The response kind of took us by surprise. This was a test for us because a lot of the people are here just for nostalgic reasons. It's a really young demographic because these ice creams were around just 10 years ago.
"This really gives us a lot of confidence to open a dedicated store, though the plan was to supply special freezers for the product. Because of the reaction, though, which really did exceed all our expectations, we have to seriously think about the next stage."
The main arena for lovers of fine dining, rather than frozen novelties, however, was the Gourmet Zone. Featuring four themed areas – Western Delicacy, Asian Cuisine, Chic & More, and Sweet Delights – it was a banquet with something for everyone, with celebrity chefs cooking up a variety of dishes for all-comers.
Among the professionals was Guillermo Delavault, Executive Chef at the Mira Moon, who prepared and served a number of his signature "super-giant tapas" dishes, watched by a packed crowd and filmed for TV. Commenting on the show, he said: "Everyone here is a foodie and, of course, Hong Kong is an incredible market for cuisine and top restaurants so it all makes sense. People were very curious about how my dishes were made and it was, I think, entertaining for them."
The HKTDC Food Expo 2014 took place at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre from 14-18 August.
Jules Quartly, Special Correspondent, Hong Kong