|Putting the deli-cious into biltong|
|Wednesday, 24 September 2008|
No foodstuff is more beloved of South Africans, more authentically South African, than biltong. But as a snack category it remains largely haphazard, ephemeral and commoditised. Committed to lifting biltong into the realm of the premium, branded delicacy is Cape Town-based producer, Cape Deli, and as Brenda Neall reports, innovative packaging is key in realising its ambitions.
MOST South Africans are passionate about biltong, but few are as passionate or knowledgeable as Cape Deli's trio of directors. 'Biltong is more difficult, more perishable than dairy there are so many parameters to consider,' says founding director, Marius Nel. 'So what we're really passionate about is making biltong an exact science; it's the only way to sustaining a commercially-viable biltong business.'
Many failed biltong entrepreneurs would agree entirely. Biltong is not difficult to produce on a small scale, and thus the entry levels are fairly low. But few survive the big step upwards and what it takes for success when dealing with a highly-priced, super-sensitive raw material, half of which evaporates. Furthermore, consumers aren't prepared to pay from R180 to R250/kilo for second-rate produce and retailers baulk at product that goes rancid or develops mould. Most small-scale operations can't offer the requisite quality standards when it comes to production and packaging, neither do they have the marketing and distribution backup. Export opportunities, too, are non-existent without an EU and HACCP-certified factory.
It's a food business fraught with risk but it's one working fabulously well for Cape Deli. In taking a measured, serious and scientific approach to overcome the hurdles that trip up most wannabe biltong barons, Cape Deli's fortunes have grown dramatically, with sales doubling every year for the last three.
Marius started out in the biltong business about seven years ago, operating a small, farm-based factory and with some small retail outlets. While he learnt reams about retailing, experience that has stood him in excellent stead, he also realised there was more profit to be had as a wholesale producer. As volumes boomed, he brought in two new partners, Morné Vorster and Pieter Brundyn, both of whom had been in the meat trade for several years. Together, the three have raised the biltong bar when it comes to product quality and consistency, to brand building and effective merchandising, and to the all-important retail listings and distribution.
'We're a very energetic team, we have a strong marketing perspective, we understand the meat trade and we know how best to make biltong sell most retailers fail to appreciate just how profitable biltong can be if it's properly merchandised,' remarks Marius. 'The biltong market remains so under-developed despite being around for ever. We're working hard to change this scenario; to make something of its potential as the country's favourite snack.'
A key Cape Deli strategy, in fact, is to make biltong readily available to shoppers; to have it temptingly in their sight as much as possible. It gives much attention to prominent, in-stock merchandising, helped along by the design input of leading ad agency, Ogilvy Cape Town, that has taken on Cape Deli as one of its development clients, and which has built its in-store branding by stylishly capitalising on biltong's traditional appeal and its strong link to another great South African passion, sport.
The make or break of biltong begins with the raw material, and only the right quality will do for Cape Deli. This is always challenging, thanks to ever-increasing prices, beef/game shortages and seasonal fluctuations in meat composition and taste. Cape Deli currently works out of two factories in Blackheath, one devoted to the wet side of the chain, and the other to drying and packing. Both are stretched beyond capacity processing some 25 tons of meat/week, but plans are well progressed to amalgamate the operation in a new 3 500m2 plant in the same industrial node towards the end of the year. This facility will be EU-certified which, by implication, means it will meet stringent food safety and quality standards. The current factories will, in fact, shortly undergo their initial SABS audit for HACCP.
Biltong, by default, is a very labour-intensive operation, and Marius laments the dearth of appropriate technology to automate some of the processing. 'It's just an unknown quantity; no-one can help you with exactly the machinery you require,' he says.
Some 130 staff are employed in the cutting, trimming, curing, drying, collating, packing and despatch of multiple SKUs that Cape Deli produces under its own brand and several private labels, including Clicks' Delicious range. It has national distribution in Pick n Pay, SPAR and Fruit 'n Veg stores, Cape Deli products can be found at all Ster-Kinekor cinemas and on several airlines, and the company recently signed a coveted deal for exclusive selling rights at Newlands rugby stadium.
Being the market leader
Cape Deli prides itself on innovation and does not run shy of market leadership. For instance, there are several processing tricks it employs that it believes give it some competitive advantage, among them a cold drying process that results in a soft, non-crusty biltong surface. 'Cape Deli biltong or droëwors won't take out your molars,' quips Marius. It also recently developed an MSG and preservative-free (apart from salt) shredded biltong ingredient for Heinz's new Sensations range of frozen party snacks.
However, of most interest to this journal, Cape Deli has taken a big leap into new packaging territory with the launch of MAP packs using Sealed Air Cryovac's BDF tray over-wrapping concept. It's one the first in South Africa to adopt this technology that has been successfully applied for more than ten years in Europe and America, and certainly the first in the biltong game to do so. The packs are produced on a new ULMA BALTIC horizontal flow wrapper (see side story).
'Innovation is about more than growing sales; it's also about taking the risks out of our business, as any mistakes with such a perishable product are punished where it hurts most,' says Marius. 'MAP has long been on our horizon and we're now at a production scale where it makes brilliant sense; giving us the breathing space of extended shelf life as well as product integrity and safety. We, and our customers, have the peace of mind that our product is as good six months down the line as it was the day it was packed.'
The benefits go beyond shelf life, too. While several of Cape Deli's SKUs are still vac-packed, Marius believes MAP results in a better tasting product, and the sealed, over-wrapped tray also limits a big retail vexation in-store sampling ie shoppers who eat on the hoof and then dump the pack before they get to the till!
That people are tempted to steal biltong says much about its appeal and its perceived expense. A luxury item it certainly has become, but this is an issue that remains a constant irritation for Cape Deli: 'It's nonsense! Biltong is cheap at the price!' contends Marius. Having seen first hand at Cape Deli just what goes into its production, this journalist has to agree with him, and heed his advice that, as with most things, when it comes to biltong, you get what you pay for.
Cape Deli T +27 021 905 8966
BDF débuts in SA
THE feature on the case-ready meat concept from a few months ago reports on the impending launch of meat products packed in Sealed Air Cryovac's BDF (barrier display film), designed for MAP flow over-wrapping of trayed products. Cape Deli was the first to market in its sector a couple of months ago, while Gauteng-based meat packer, Just Lamb's packs can been seen in Pick n Pay's fresh meat fridges.
Cape Deli is using it to pack several SKUs that it merchandises in foam trays, and is thrilled with the outcome, not least the six month shelf life it expects to achieve, as it did in product trials.
'BDF is starting to make waves in South Africa, and not before time,' comments Rob Stockdale, country leader of Sealed Air South Africa. 'The holy grail for every fresh food producer is shelf life, and BDF is a great solution that combines pack safety and modified atmosphere technology with a high level of flexibility. While most case-ready or tray-ready MAP meat in South Africa is packed in heat-sealed barrier trays, BDF is a more cost-effective solution as it can be used with regular trays.'
The BDF system involves a barrier shrink film for over-wrapping trays in attractive packages and which are then shrink sealed. It provides a leak-proof, abuse-resistant package with extended shelf life, while maintaining the traditional in-store presentation. It has clarity and anti-fog properties for additional consumer appeal, while its co-extruded, multilayer, corrosion-free polyolefin formulation ensures clean, smooth performance and maximum seal strength and mechanical resistance. It is suitable for varied applications: meat, poultry, fish, fresh pizza, ready meals, sausages and cheeses.
Echoing Rob Stockdale's enthusiasm about BDF's advantages is Sealed Air OEM partner, Eddie Rademan, MD of ULMA SA: 'The concept offers outstanding versatility. One machine adapts to many formats and changes of products and this ensures high efficiency and good ROI, even for smaller companies with moderate production runs,' he comments. 'We believe it an ideal solution for South Africa, where many fresh produce vendors are looking for a cost-effective MAP solution as a means to cope with the country's long distribution chain. It's a winning option and we believe it will find many more takers in future.'
ULMA Packaging Systems (SA) T +27 011 608 4005
Sealed Air Africa (011) 923 4600
Leader photo: Cape Deli's new look: third-generation corporate ID that's beautifully rendered on its new premium range in stand-up MAP pouches.
First published in PACKAGiNG & Print Media Magazine, June 2008