After emigrating from Korea to start a tofu factory on Canada’s west coast, Jeff Min saw a larger opportunity—food products for Asian consumers looking for familiar brands. The entrepreneur moved to Ontario and launched Galleria Supermarkets, which in turn spurred him to start up Korea Food Trading, an importer and distributor aimed at broadening the Asian foods category across Canada.
The 10,000 products in KFT’s catalogue encompass 14 major Korean brands. The company serves ethnic and mainstream retailers, with distribution concentrated in the Greater Toronto Area. The most popular products fall into the grocery category, typically snacks, instant noodles, drinks, condiments and spices. The most challenging items to sell to the broader market: single ingredients, such as blackbean or soybean paste, used in meal preparation. Non-ethnic consumers aren’t accustomed to the the taste, smell and look of the products, says Chris Younger, the company’s director of national accounts.
To expand its network across the country, KFT is focusing on breaking into the non-ethnic market. “The challenge is how to get a national Korean brand to mean something to the mainstream Canadian consumer,” notes Younger. Critical to that goal is figuring out how to make Korean brands accessible to consumers who are not only unfamiliar with the products but who are unable to decipher the language on the packaging. KFT is now working with its suppliers to develop new packaging aesthetics for the Canadian market.
The company is also collaborating with major mainstream retailers, which have the distribution channels that would help to truly transform ethnic food sales. “Consumers need to be seeing the products all the time and everywhere,” Younger says. “It builds a sense of trust. With national retailers, consumers can become familiar with products. Every time they go for a shopping trip, maybe they come closer and closer to trying a product.”
Employees: 35 Annual revenue: $40-million Years in operation: 7 Korean products distributed by KFT: 10,000
1. Have patience. “Commercializing Asian products in the mainstream doesn’t happen overnight,” Younger says. “It’s a process and an educational experience for both us and our retail partners. It takes time to build an offering that resonates.”
2. Treat clients as partners. Educating Korean manufacturers about the Canadian market, from taste preferences to labelling aesthetics, is critical to KFT’s growth and success.
3. Get your hands dirty. KFT staff engage in every level of the sales cycle, from package design to store manager education. “We will physically stock the shelf to ensure the product is presented as well as it can be to the consumer,” Younger says.