Korea Food Trading
When Jeffrey Min immigrated to Canada, the Korea-native had aspirations of starting a tofu factory, but what he found was a much larger opportunity. Min identified a gap in eastern Canada’s Asian food market, and therefore decided to deliver food products from across the Pacific to Asian consumers looking for familiar brands.
Min moved from British Columbia to Ontario to start up Galleria Supermarkets, which sparked the inception of Korea Food Trading (KFT), an importer and distributor aimed at bringing a wide range of Asian products to the Canadian provinces. “Min established KFT in 2002, but the original company [MWF Trading] dates back to 1987,” shares Sam Kim, director of KFT. “Before KFT, we were a small importer and distributor, but when Min came in he wanted to shake things up a bit.”
And Min shook things up; he set out to target both Asian consumers and the non-ethnic food market. “We started to try to introduce Korean and other Asian food products to non-Asian businesses and diversify our customer base,” explains Kim.
Today KFT operates six locations, including a sister company throughout Canada, with distribution concentrated in the greater Toronto area. Additionally, the company also ships across the country.
“From Ontario to British Columbia to Nova Scotia, we offer local deliveries,” notes Kim. “We started out as just a trading company, but we’ve also opened a new retail location and a second, third and fourth are in the works in Mississauga. We’re also looking to expand our warehouse and distribution square footage.”
From Noodles to Octopus
KFT advertises more than 10,000 products in a 48-page monthly catalogue that encompasses over 14 major Korean brands. The company services ethnic and mainstream big-name retailers, such as Wal-Mart, Costco, Loblaws, Sobey’s, Metro and Highland Farms.
“Our most popular products are grocery items and snacks, such as instant noodles, drinks, condiments and spices,” notes Kim. From coarse sea salt to seaweed, vegetable and beef dumplings to fish sauce, oysters and octopus, Oriental-style noodles and even pickled radish, KFT delivers the best of Asia to Canada.
The company sells traditional items, such as black beans, soybean paste, curry powder, soba noodles and all forms of rice used in meal preparation. However, KFT also sells a variety of fun, unusual items to the western world, including banana-flavored milk, instant peanut snacks, specialty cookies and chocolates.
Bringing Asia to Canada
“Non-ethnic customers aren’t accustomed to the taste, smell and look of the products so we’ve had to really work to break into the non-ethnic market,” explains Garth Mercer, director of national accounts for KFT, in a news release. “The challenge is how to get a national Korean brand to mean something to the mainstream Canadian consumer.”
Part of delivering Asian foods to the non-ethnic market is accessibility, because the majority of Canadian consumers cannot read the product labeling. KFT has partnered with suppliers and major retailers to develop packaging that better suits the Canadian market.
“Consumers need to see the products all the time and everywhere,” adds Mercer. “It builds a sense of trust. With national retailers, consumers are more apt to become familiar with products. Every time they go for a shopping trip they come closer and closer to trying something new.”
Mercer says it’s a lesson in patience. “Commercializing Asian products in the mainstream doesn’t happen overnight,” he 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.”
Nonetheless, KFT has made great progress over the last three years. “We’re getting there,” adds Kim. “We’re doing four or five times the business we were when KFT first started and we’re now supplying products to major nationwide retailers in addition to Chinese and other Oriental markets.”
KFT is doing so much business that Kim says the company needs room to grow and is set on future expansion. “We need more room for distribution and warehousing,” he notes. “A new 150,000-square-foot warehouse and two new retail locations are in the works.”
Even with a slow economy, Kim says KFT continues to see an interest in ethnic foods. “Oriental food markets and restaurants, including Japanese and Thai, have grown rapidly over the last couple of years, because they generally offer healthier food choices,” he shares. “If it’s unique, flavorful and healthy, it’s a win-win.”
Through patience, expert marketing and education, KFT has grown to become one of the largest in Canada’s Asian foods market. From package design to store manager education, Korea Food Trading is engaging all of the participants in the food chain and delivering traditional Asian products to a non-traditional audience.