Joe Campbell is not one to give into temptation.
If he were, the chief operating officer of U.S. restaurant chain Chickie's & Pete's would have long ago given up on importing PEI mussels in favour of cheaper suppliers elsewhere.
"I have people banging my door down saying, 'Come on, switch over, we can save you so much more money,' " Mr. Campbell says. "And they can save me a lot of money."
Canadian Cove mussels, a product of Prince Edward Island-based Atlantic Aqua Farms, has supplied Chickie's & Pete's for more than a decade and Mr. Campbell acknowledges that over the years he has tried mussels from other suppliers who promise him tens of thousands of dollars in yearly savings. But for Mr. Campbell, quality wins over money every time.
"Price means something, but it's not the driving force. Quality is the driving force.
"I've never had a problem with shell size, meat ratios, spawning. … The tracking system and quality control is some of the best I've seen in I can't tell you how long," he says. "I wish I could have another ten suppliers like Canadian Cove. I do have a lot of good ones, but [Canadian Cove is] like the Cadillac."
Export business is up for Canadian Cove – the largest mussel producer in Atlantic Canada, according to the PEI Aquaculture Alliance – and many of its counterparts, thanks to years of brand education, advertising, and consumer marketing on the part of the industry. Last year, mussel production equalled about 18 million kilograms in PEI, where there are more than 130 mussel growers on the island. Three decades ago, mussel production was less than 41,000 kilograms, the Alliance states.
Getting the word out to restaurateurs, markets and other consumers about PEI mussels has been a lot about branding, explains Terry Ennis, chief executive officer of Atlantic Aqua Farms and member of the Mussel Industry Council.
"I always say to people that somebody spent some money 20 or 25 years ago promoting the brand 'PEI mussels' and it was money well spent because now it's sort of like tissue," he says. "People call tissues 'Kleenex' [the brand name] and, like this, PEI mussels has become a generic term for live, fresh, good quality, mussels."
PEI mussels are the brand name for blue mussels produced in the province, which are grown in large mussel beds in shallow bays and inlets along the island's coast. They are farmed and exported year-round, meaning they don't have a season and importers can have them fresh upon request.
"We've put a lot of effort into raising consumer awareness and educating people about the heath benefits, the sustainability, and how easy it is to prepare mussels at home," says Mr. Ennis, detailing the efforts of the Mussel Industry Council, started by several large mussel producers to promote their product.
Trade show booths, advertisements, culinary school demonstrations and increased use of mussels by TV celebrity chefs, such as Michael Smith, took a few years to pay off, but it has meant a steady increase in demand for producers like Mr. Ennis.
"It takes a little while to get some traction but the industry is now seeing a 6-, 7-, 8-per-cent growth year over year for the last couple of years," he adds.
The United States has long been the primary market for PEI mussel exports, with the northeastern states especially driving demand. Of the mussels consumed in the U.S. in 2011, 48 per cent come from Canada, with New Zealand following at 35 per cent and Chile with 16 per cent, according to the Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance's executive director Ruth Salmon. It took until 2010 for Canada to surpass New Zealand in U.S. mussel imports, but proximity finally prevailed.
"And because [the Northeastern U.S.] is so close to Atlantic Canada, we can ship fresh product in and that is the appeal and makes us competitive compared to a product you're bringing in from some place like New Zealand," Ms. Salmon says. "You can harvest product and have it on someone's plate in a restaurant easily in 48 hours, sometimes even less. It's our ability to do that, that the producers in New Zealand and Chile just don't have."
But now the industry is turning its marketing tactics on the Canadian consumer to help drive the next leg of mussel demand by trying to take the intimidation out of mussel preparation and bring this seafood out of the restaurants and into the average kitchen, Mr. Ennis says.
"When you're out at a restaurant people love them, but then maybe you're a little intimidated when you look at them on the fish counter at a retail store. To take them and prepare them for a home meal might be a little intimidating," he explains. It's a simple product to prepare, but many people have a mental block and that is what needs to change if the industry is going to get mussels into the hands of the at-home cook.
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