Shanghaiist had the opportunity to sit down with Denise Cheng, general manager of Kiwing Fine Foods, to learn a bit more about the organic food industry here in Shanghai. Some readers may have recently attended the Organic Farmer’s Market at El Willy, which has happened the past three Saturdays and is co-sponsored by Kiwing.
What led you to the decision to start your own organics food company?
Last year my family came across some land on the outskirts of Shanghai. My family always had a dream of cultivating our own plot of land and growing healthy vegetables. None of us had any experience with farming or agriculture at all, but it was something that we thought would be interesting to try.
It wasn’t until this year, after asking family and friends and getting a sense that they were willing to pay a little more for vegetables that they felt were truly safe, that I thought we could actually try to turn this into a business. We devoted a third of our land for the organics, which means no chemical fertilizer for the vegetables and free-range chickens and ducks that live on organic feed.
How does a group of people that has no experience in the business of farming go about doing it?
We brought in experts that had done work at the School of Agriculture here. We also are surrounded by farmland that is tended to by small farming families. It was just a matter of bringing in the right people at the beginning. It’s not as if members of my family and I are the ones out there actually planting everything. But these experts know the best growing practices, know which seeds are the best.
OK, so you’ve got the foods part of it ready, how did you go and start marketing your company?
Most of it was word of mouth, friends who really felt the taste of our vegetables was better than the stuff they could get at the supermarket. The first chef I was introduced to was Willy.
What is your take on the local organic food industry in China? Is there increasing awareness and interest and thus more competition?
This is already happening. Around Shanghai, there is a growing interest in organics in bigger cities like Hangzhou and Nanjing. There are actually organic farms and companies that have been around for over a decade, but it has been a bumpy a ride. From my knowledge, a lot of them have gone out of business, and those that have hung around may only now be seeing the kind of market develop the way they anticipated earlier on.
Is it safe to assume that the demand for organics is still coming from restaurants and not individual shoppers?
Yes, as of now we mainly supply to restaurants and hotels, but we do offer poultry and egg delivery for individuals. We are seeing more and more interest by shoppers, like when they try the vegetables at the farmer’s market at El Willy. People are definitely tasting a difference.
What about Chinese restaurants? Any interest from them?
No, not at this point. I think for Chinese restaurants it’s still about cost.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face in this kind of business?
The biggest challenge we face is dealing with conditions that are out of our control. No matter what we do, the air around Shanghai is going to have its issues. We can’t predict weather, obviously. So what we do is control what we can control, like owning the packaging and the delivery, and also partnering with neighboring farmers to bring their crops up to our standard of quality so that we can source from them if we can’t provide for our customers ourselves. This way we ensure quality and supply, and these are things we can actually control.
We ask this of everyone we interview. Any recommendations four our fine, free-range readers on where to dine in Shanghai?
I recently tried Maggie’s Shanghai restaurant, it was really good. For western food I have been going to Vue at Hyatt on the Bund.
Was hoping you’d tell me about some secret burrito place. Thanks for your time.
Eric Hu is Shanghaiist’s Food Editor. Email tips, recommendations, and news and gossip about Shanghai’s food scene to food at shanghaiist.com.