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Wine, women and Guam – a taste of the 2013 Hong Kong Food Expo

Photo: The Food Expo 2013: All the world's mightiest cuisines under one roof. And Guam.
Food Expo 2013: All the world's mightiest cuisines under one roof. And Guam.

Ham stole the show at this year's HKTDC Food Expo. Not just any old ham from any old porkers, but Spanish Iberico ham from special black pigs left to forage freely in oak parkland and aged for up to 50 months.

Along with the several speciality vendors, Iberico even found its way into Ice Cream Gallery, where brave showgoers could sample Iberico Jamon Melon Ice Cream, made from 24-month dried Spanish ham and Hokkaido melon. As a crowd-pleaser, only Japanese beef came a close second, even in its Australian incarnation – with CAS Wagyu (Hong Kong) Ltd showcasing pure-bred antipodean grass-fed Wagyu that was every bit as popular as Japanese Minami Cattle Feedlot's fried beef samples.

Overall, the show got off to something of a sluggish start, largely thanks to Typhoon Utor. Mia Li Ka-man, a PR exec with Tung Chun, a Hong Kong-based soy sauce maker, was one of many who saw business pick up quickly. She said: "We were quite worried on the first day, but during the weekend there were more visitors than last year."

Li's experience was shared by many other exhibitors, with most reporting that sales were up 10% or more compared to last year. According to the organisers, this year's event attracted some 410,000 attendees over the five days, 5% up on the 2012 figure.

This year the usual mixture of public and trade halls featured discounted packaged, frozen and canned foods, as well as a range of gourmet items, including fresh produce, patisserie, meats, jerky, foie gras, cheese, oysters, sauces, honey, desserts and health products. Drinks were, of course, equally well-represented, with an abundance of coffee, wine and beer on show, while an entirely separate section was devoted exclusively to premium teas.

As well as a number of familiar faces, the event attracted several first-time visitors, including delegations from Guam, Saudi America, Poland and Iran. Among the 1,520 stands there were, of course, plenty of new and unusual products on show.

Highlights here ranged from Sai Ying Pun café Safety Stop's Indonesian Kopi Luwak civet cat coffee beans (at US$1,800 per 100grams) to cheese from the Polish Regional Dairy Cooperative OZO. There was also artisan Luna Olivo olive oil from California and, from the Guam show debutantes, Warehouse Pacific beef jerky and mango cake and Island Memories cookies.

Perhaps, despite expectations, Guam didn't provide the most exotic of offerings, with Xiang Fei raisins, originally made as a tribute to the Qianlong Emperor and his paramour during the mid-19th century reign of Qing dynasty, a clear contender. The delicacy's more modern incarnation came courtesy of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps Fruit Industry Co Ltd from the Urumqi region of northwest China.

Other close contenders for the title included the Mini Snowy Moon Cakes with Chunky Blueberry and Bean Paste that were just one of the more imaginative varieties of moon cake on offer from Hong Kong's own Taipan Bread & Cakes. A case could also be made for Iranian Caspian Sea Water Beluga Huso Caviar, the world's rarest category One caviar, which was back on the market after a 13 year absence thanks to Spain's Caviar Bank.

By number, the top five categories for new products were canned, frozen and processed food; biscuits, snacks and confectionery; health, green and organic, non-alcoholic beverages and kitchenware, according to the event's organisers.

In terms of visitor offers, these ranged from free and discounted food in the public halls to upmarket, extremely high-priced items in the Gourmet hall. While the popularity of high-end food was undeniable, a trend marked by the Expo's expanded Gourmet Zone, health food products and a number of new crossover items were actually attracting more attention.

Photo: The Gourmet Hall: 'Don't mind if I do…'
The Gourmet Hall: "Don't mind if I do…"

Despite the undoubted bustle of the event, exhibitor views were mixed. Shirley Man, Proprietor of Headtable Company Limited, a Wan Chai-based gourmet food and wine specialist, expected more higher spend customers to pass through the Gourmet Zone. She said: "We're finding that either customers are rather cautious when it comes to spending on gourmet food or that they simply came to the Food Expo for free food tasting."

Another trend commented on by several suppliers was the general attitude to Chinese mainland and Japanese produce. The Guam contingent, all first-timers, confessed themselves surprised about the concerns.

The Guamanians, however, were bowled over by the intense interest in their fresh fruit and vegetables, especially from China importers. Expressing their delight, one said: "Guam's food is all USDA-approved, meaning it's in line with US standards. We have clean water and, for import purposes, we're close to Asia and have a wide variety of fruit and vegetables – all with a US stamp of quality. This seems to be very attractive to buyers."

The farmers who make up Beachside, a California-based distributor of agricultural produce, told a similar story, reporting generally raised interest from Asian buyers. Derrick Stinnett, Export Sales Manager of Suntrade Export Services, Beachside's Asian representative, said: "We're here to find importers to develop our fresh vegetable market. There's a lot of demand because our quality is wildly different to what's available elsewhere."

Despite the feelings on the show floor, the organisers said that the anti-Chinese produce sentiment was not that pervasive, believing that novelty and a greater willingness to experiment accounted for the success of certain overseas companies. Commenting on the popularity of the Guam exports, an HKTDC spokesperson said: "The high level of interest in Guam produce should not be over-stated. The attention it attracted was helped by the fact that this was their first time Guam had exhibited at the fair. Overall, we feel the Food Expo has a wide enough range of offerings to suit virtually any demand."

The organisers said they had received a great deal of positive feedback from attendees, regarding both the quality of exhibits and the number of new products on offer.

The experience of Stephanie Lim, Senior Manager of Singapore's Li An Foodstuff, an exporter and distributor of biscuits, snacks, pre-mixed coffee, cookies and candies, seems to confirm that. Claiming to be more than happy with the number of new global suppliers she had met, she said: "This is the reason why I came here and I am satisfied. Thanks to introductions made by the organisers, we managed to meet new connections easily and we are now talking to two new suppliers in Poland."

Lim was not alone in praising the organisation of the event. Tony Ho, a purchasing officer for Hong Kong's Café de Coral Group, came to the Expo in search of new sauce varieties from around the world. He said: "The staff here have been very helpful in terms of pre-screening suppliers and setting up appointments. The guided tours for buyers are particularly impressive."

Photo: Iberico ham: the premium product that stole the show.
Iberico ham: the premium product that stole the show.

As ever, many of the exhibitors took the fair as an opportunity to test the market and to introduce new products to the public. Juan Morales, Manager of Bon Bon Paradise, a Hong Kong-based gourmet food importer, believes some items, such as Iberico ham take a lot of explaining. He said: "We are, of course, very glad to explain, but it takes smelling and tasting too. I'm very glad that so many people are willing to learn."

Now in its 24th year, the fair has long been established as a place to experiment and engage with consumers and the trade alike. This year was no different, with many companies relishing the opportunity to meet new customers and potential trading partners.

For Crystalyn Hoffman, Managing Partner of Spicy Vines, a Californian spiced wine producer, this was her first visit to the event and she'd come in search of Asian distribution partners. Asked if the trip had proved worthwhile, she said: "It was a great event to enter the market with. We had lots of exposure to other brands and potential buyers, but I wasn't happy with the enormous number of public attendees seeking free handouts in the B2B section on the days that were supposed to be closed to non-trade visitors.

"'Beware of the ladies with the trolley carts,' became a common concern around our block of vendors, as samples of product got gobbled up by non-industry spectators. I knew they were allowed in on Saturday, but not on Thursday and Friday, the B2B days. Somehow, though they made it in with their trollies and made off with a lot of products intended for Saturday. More importantly, they detracted from our ability to engage with serious buyers.

"In terms of value, it wasn't too bad for us as we received STEP [State Trade and Export Promotion Program] funding. If we hadn't, then this would not have been good enough value."

"Despite that, we'd possibly come back next year, but I think we will focus more on wine and spirits shows. It seems this event is more focused on food."

In terms of the amount of serious interest she received from buyers, Hoffman described her feelings as "lukewarm happiness", saying: "We made most of the serious contact on our own, aside from the event." Asked how the event could be improved next year, her answer was unequivocal: "Control the public traffic in the B2B area."

Overall, exhibitor reaction was somewhat mixed. Jacob Park, Overseas Department Manager of Delice, the wholesaler for Korean bakers and confectioners, said his company had attended mainly to market their eye-catching machines to retailers and individual store owners. It was the company's third time at the show, but its first time on level five, the International Zone.

Summing up his experience, he said: "We hoped to meet more potential buyers by being on level five. We felt, though, that due to low foot traffic, we did not get as much exposure as we had when we were on level one. It would be better if more thought went into the location of the trade halls, ensuring that all three floors get good exposure."

The Expo rated "seven out of 10" for Shirley Man of Headtable, who said she had attended to help build her brand and to increase the exposure of her business. She believes she achieved both her aims in a relatively short period of time.

In terms of value-for-money, she placed it at the "reasonable" level and plans to be back next year, despite some reservations about the levels of interest she received from buyers. She said: "That could be due to the fact that the general public seem willing to compromise food quality to avoid cost.

Photo: More 410,000 attendees made for a busy and productive Expo.
More 410,000 attendees made for a busy and productive Expo.

"Next year, it would be better for us if more professional groups were invited along – bankers, doctors, solicitors and corporate clients. This would definitely improve customer flow in the Gourmet Zone."

With the Gourmet Zone seen as one of the key attractions of the event, the organisers have already taken much of the 2013 feedback on board, promising a renewed emphasis on the sector in 2014.

The HKTDC Food Expo was held in the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre between 15-19 August 2013. As well as public attendees, the event attracted 19,600 trade buyers from 63 countries.

Anna Healy Fenton, Special Correspondent, Hong Kong

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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