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How different are Ontarians and Quebeckers? Online butcher finding out

Pascal Arsenault co-founded Maillard, an online butcher shop based in Terrebonne, Que., with his father.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

Each week, we seek expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.

There's a tinge of envy in Pascal Arsenault's voice when he talks about the grilling season in Ontario compared with Quebec.

"We receive maybe three metres of snow every year," laments the co-founder of Maillard, an online butcher shop based in Terrebonne, a suburb of Montreal. "In Toronto, you don't have a lot of snow, so you can use your barbecue all year long."

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This is the kind of nuance Mr. Arsneault is focusing on as he tries to establish a market for Maillard in English-speaking Canada.

His mail-order butcher shop is an offshoot of TGV Distribution, a meat and frozen-food company that Mr. Arsenault launched with his father in 2006. Over the past decade, TGV has grown to 20 employees as it packages, stores and delivers to major grocery chains and food processing plants in Quebec. The company has a small number of customers in Ontario, about 5 per cent of its overall business.

A difficulty finding specialty meats to cook at home spurred the idea for a new venture.

"From where I'm living, the closest butcher shop is around 30 minutes away," says Mr. Arsenault, a chef by trade. After noticing a boom in online meat-delivery services in the United States, he realized he could marry his passion for cooking with his experience in food distribution to begin selling specialty meats directly to consumers in Canada.

In June, he launched Maillard, named after the chemical reaction that gives seared steaks their flavour. The company offers hormone- and antibiotic-free specialty poultry and beef as well as more exotic offerings such as aged beef, duck and lamb, trimmed and ready to cook. The cost of delivery ranges from $25 for smaller orders of less than $100 to free for larger orders. All meats are frozen and delivered the next day.

"We have a lot of repeat customers. Over 85 per cent of the time they reorder," says Mr. Arsenault.

The company has 500 customers in Quebec, but Ontario is proving to be a tough nut to crack. Part of that uphill battle is quelling consumers' fears that, winter aside, meat will thaw if it sits at their front door while they are at work. Maillard has invested in recyclable, isothermic coolers that use dry ice to keep products frozen for 30 hours. "We need to invest a lot of time to teach the consumer that what we ship will stay frozen," he says.

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Cultural differences also play a role. High-quality specialty meats are more commonplace in Quebec, and people tend to eat at home. If the growing number of trendy restaurants in Toronto is any indicator, Ontarians favour eating out.

But Mr. Arsenault says he suspects busy schedules and the intrigue surrounding gastronomy are creating a market favourable to his business.

"Everyone is working hard in a big city like Toronto… they don't have enough time to go to the grocery store," he says. "[So] you just pull your little box out of the refrigerator and you have your thawed meat, then you cook."

The Challenge: How can Maillard crack the Ontario market?

THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN

Sylvain Charlebois, dean of the faculty of management and a professor in food distribution and policy, Dalhousie University, Halifax

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What is niche in Quebec is super-niche in Ontario. I would suggest getting to know the market by doing some testing, some study without committing too much to the retail yet. The challenge for Maillard is to educate the market on why his products are different, the differences of cuts and how the meats are prepared.

I would adopt an incremental approach and start with a decent-sized market, somewhere like Guelph or Kingston, for example. That's what Wal-Mart does, and it's a multibillion-dollar company. Get involved with catering opportunities, some local food fairs and learn from that what you need in terms of marketing your product and how you can actually move on and get closer to Toronto.

Jonathan Ferrari, chief executive officer and co-founder of meal-kit subscription service Goodfood, Montreal

We have 500,000 subscribers, a 50/50 split between French and English-speaking Canada. For us, one of the biggest considerations for growing outside Montreal and Quebec was marketing. The original name of the company was Culiniste, which was a francophone reference to someone who loves the culinary arts. It was a great name, but people couldn't pronounce it in anglophone Canada. We didn't think we could build any brand recognition outside of Quebec if people couldn't say the name. I never thought the name was so important but if you look at Loblaws they rebranded all their stores in Quebec as Provigo, and Shoppers Drug Mart is Pharmaprix.

I don't know what the right answer is for Maillard, but changing our name was a decision we took to harmonize our brand.

Also, maybe they could try recipes that highlight local tastes – Caribbean-inspired in Toronto could do well, but in Quebec more traditional. Try to appeal in subtle ways, work with local chefs in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto. Blogs can be a good way to interact with local communities.

Noah Goldberg, owner and chef, Peter Pan Bistro, Toronto

The culture in Ontario is: I'm going to go to the grocery store and I'm going to buy my protein from the glass box and it's going to be single-portion – there's a huge disconnect between the meat they buy in packages and how it's actually prepared by butchers. The distribution for off-cut or unique styles of meats isn't there for the average residential consumer, so there's definitely an opportunity if Maillard can get the word out.

He should definitely look into teaming up with chefs. We're doing a veal dinner tomorrow, for example. We teamed up with suppliers and we do a six-course meal around veal and that helps promote our supplier and the idea of eating every part of the animal.

Or what about setting up a retail store of sorts, just for advertising and word of mouth? Maillard could set up a butcher shop in Toronto that is super modern or super aggressive as a talking point and a means of advertising and credibility, even if it's just a butcher shop pop-up.

THREE THINGS THE COMPANY CAN DO NOW

Run a pilot

Test the product with an aggressive advertising campaign in a smaller city such as Guelph or Kingston.

Localize the brand

Appeal to consumers on a local level by partnering with regional chefs and developing Anglophone-specific marketing.

Host a pop-up

Create a pop-up butcher shop in Toronto at a trendy restaurant or interesting retail space.

Interviews have been edited and condensed.

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