Innovative SA brands defy COVID-19 cuts

SA red meat brands find silver lining in COVID times

Coronavirus
STRATH SUCCESS: Najobe Beef's Bob Heath in his Najobe @ Strath butcher shop. He says it has been a good year, with 25 per cent growth in sales.

STRATH SUCCESS: Najobe Beef's Bob Heath in his Najobe @ Strath butcher shop. He says it has been a good year, with 25 per cent growth in sales.

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The worsening coronavirus pandemic sent Australia into a spin earlier this year, causing mince to be stripped from supermarket shelves and threatening the viability of many businesses. But several innovative SA red meat brands have not just survived but thrived.

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For many South Australian businesses, 2020 has been a year to forget as the pandemic hit their bottom line hard through lockdowns and trading restrictions.

But several of the state's red meat brands have found ways to adapt and even benefited from consumers' willingness to pay a bit more for their food, in their quest to recreate dining out experiences at home.

These owners are hoping the growth - particularly in online sales - they achieved can be sustained.

RELATED: Restaurants to butcher shops.... the changes COVID brought

Najobe Beef's Bob Heath says COVID-19 has "done no harm", experiencing a 25 per cent jump in sales for 2020. He is in the process of employing new staff to meet demand.

"We lost the majority of our wholesale business and cafes overnight (earlier in the year) but at the same time the online business took off," he said.

Mr Heath says the Adelaide Hills-based business has about 2000 people registered online for regular updates, but this year he found customers had bought more and more often.

Despite their farm-to-shop business model, Mr Heath says it was a challenge to convince some consumers they would not run out of meat and they didn't need to order three times what they needed.

But he believes at the same time, the pandemic has made consumers become far more discerning about quality, provenance and food safety.

There is a very strong consumer expectation that it will be locally produced and they like the idea of supporting a family farm and family business. - Bob Heath, Najobe Beef

For the past decade, Najobe Beef has been attending the Adelaide Showground Farmers' Market but Mr Heath says in the past six months, he has fielded many more questions about how their food is produced.

"Being one of the few who were able to offer grassfed, free-range, locally-produced beef, lamb and pork has worked in our favour, I think," he said.

"There is a very strong consumer expectation that it will be locally produced and they like the idea of supporting a family farm and family business."

Najobe Beef, which began selling beef direct to consumers nearly 30 years ago, has grown a breeding herd of about 300 cows, run on properties near Strathalbyn.

Mr Heath and his wife Wendy also offer Zara Grace lamb and Rascal Jack pork from lambs they finish and slips they grow out.

About five years ago, they opened butcher shop Najobe @ Strath and later launched an interactive website enabling consumers in the Adelaide Hills and metro area to order sides of beef, lamb or pork or smaller individual packs delivered to their door.

"What has been interesting is since restrictions have eased again and cafes have reopened, we have seen this grow significantly but our private orders have not dropped off," he said. "Hopefully this will continue."

GROWTH AREA: Thomas Farms commercial manager Simon Tamke says the company's direct-to-consumer deliveries have grown 1000 per cent for 2020.

GROWTH AREA: Thomas Farms commercial manager Simon Tamke says the company's direct-to-consumer deliveries have grown 1000 per cent for 2020.

Thomas Farms is also enjoying strong growth in its home delivered boxes and plans on rolling this out further along the eastern seaboard next year.

About five years ago, the company launched Thomas Farms Kitchen, offering packs with ingredients to prepare gourmet meals.

This had a core group of loyal customers but Thomas Foods general manager commercial Simon Tamke says since absorbing direct-to-consumer sales into their domestic wholesale and food service business earlier this year, it has grown by about 1000pc.

Rather than selling pre-portioned packs they have changed tack, giving customers the flexibility to fill their boxes with beef and lamb processed by the company, as well as pork, chicken and seafood, and even fruit and vegetables in whatever quantity they want.

Deliveries are made within the metropolitan area with their own trucks, as well as regionally.

Mr Tamke sees their point of difference to other direct-to-door brands being Thomas Foods' ownership right along the supply chain, from farms to processing and distribution, giving consumers confidence in the quality and safety of the food they are buying.

We can pack everything from a four pack of Angus Pure rump steaks to schnitzels to a punnet of strawberries, based on the needs of the consumer. - Simon Tamke, Thomas Foods

"There can be a bit of an aversion to shopping for fresh meat online. People like to eye their selections but as they have been stuck at home or not keen to head to crowded areas to shop they have tried it and we are seeing them coming back," he said.

"We can pack everything from a four pack of Angus Pure rump steaks to schnitzels to a punnet of strawberries, based on the needs of the consumer."

Mr Tamke is hopeful they will be able to double sales of these Thomas Farms boxes in the coming 12 to 18 months in Adelaide, Melbourne and Brisbane.

"When COVID hit our food service halved, so this has been another avenue to get to consumers. It hasn't made up for the losses but it has been a nice hedge," he said.

Mayura Station managing director Scott de Bruin, Millicent, feared demand for their boutique full blood Wagyu would be hit hard during the pandemic, but instead he says it has created new opportunities, with tonnages remaining steady.

DINING EXPERIENCE: Mayura head chef and The Tasting Room manager Mark Wright and managing director Scott de Bruin with a couple of their Wagyu T-bone steaks.

DINING EXPERIENCE: Mayura head chef and The Tasting Room manager Mark Wright and managing director Scott de Bruin with a couple of their Wagyu T-bone steaks.

"What I find interesting is during the last economic shock, the global financial crisis, luxury items were worst affected as people really did conserve their money," he said.

"This time around was different in that not everyone was hit financially. When they couldn't go out to dine, they bought quality products at retail and bought more of it."

Mr de Bruin says their distributors worked hard in export markets to ensure consumers could still get their beef, but there was a quick transition from 100pc food service to putting big volumes into retailers.

"The timing of lockdowns was different in different countries, which helped us," he said.

"Singapore had the longest lockdown out of the markets we service but the Middle East was hardly affected, Dubai just kept ordering, and in China we saw demand go up but much of that was retail."

The ongoing impact of the pandemic, according to Mr de Bruin, is the cost of air freight into their Asian markets which has jumped 500pc, although the federal government's International Freight Assistance Mechanism scheme has helped reduce this back to 200pc.

Mayura's award-winning on-farm restaurant, The Tasting Room, was closed for about six weeks in March-April but head chef Mark Wright found other ways of getting to consumers, including supplying smoked briskets in hot packs at the local Foodland, beef jerky and online orders of ready to heat T-bone steak packs.

"During that time we managed to get some people to try our beef that may not have had an opportunity to access it out here," he said.

One of Mayura's BBQ packs it produced when COVID-19 restrictions were tight.

One of Mayura's BBQ packs it produced when COVID-19 restrictions were tight.

If there is a COVID-19 "silver lining", according to The Tasting Room head chef Mark Wright, it has been the number of South Australians, particularly those from Adelaide, who have visited the award-winning on-farm restaurant in the past six months for the first time.

"Time after time it has been the same conversation of people who had trips booked overseas who decided to head down to the fantastic wine regions and then came to see us," he said.

"They may not come back every year but they might come back every two or five years and they have gone back to Adelaide and told their friends."

Mr Wright is also excited about the return of events, especially Tasting Australia in May 2021, where they are partnering with Adelaide restaurants Sean's Kitchen and Magill Estate for several dinners, as well as creating The Tasting Room at the Town Square event.

Despite the pandemic, Mr de Bruin remains confident in demand for their top quality Wagyu beef, with Mayura in the process of doubling its feedlot to enable it to turn off 90 tonnes of retail beef each month.

"Quality always sells," he said.

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