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B.C. caviar farmer takes over where Russia left off

Target Marine Hatcheries general manager Justin Henry, right, with employee Rob Haines.

Amanda Palmer/The Globe and Mail

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

Justin Henry knows that good things come to those who wait. Mr. Henry is general manager of Target Marine Hatcheries, Canada's lone producer of certified organic farmed white sturgeon. Target Marine began raising the fish at its land-based facility in Sechelt, a coastal town near Vancouver, in 2000. But it wasn't until 2011 that Mr. Henry and his colleagues got their first mature specimens.

Target Marine's freshwater tanks now teem with some 200,000 local Fraser River sturgeon. Most are small, but the company harvests female fish as big as 140 kilograms for their eggs. Target Marine doubled caviar production to roughly a tonne in 2014, and it expects to process twice that amount this year.

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The 16-employee company sells its Northern Divine black caviar – available in tins ranging from 30 grams ($88) to 1.8 kilograms ($4,320) – online as well as to stores, restaurants, distributors and wholesalers. (It also harvests male sturgeon for meat and sells fertilized organic coho salmon eggs to other aquaculture businesses worldwide.)

Target Marine has clients in Canada, the United States, Japan, Europe and Australia, Mr. Henry says. But even though its caviar sales grew 25 per cent in the past year, Northern Divine is far from a household name.

The product has plenty to recommend it. Target Marine began breeding sturgeon partly in anticipation of a caviar shortfall, Mr. Henry notes. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the overfished Caspian Sea has gone from being the world's main source of the delicacy to producing almost none.

Northern Divine caviar is designated as sustainable by the Vancouver Aquarium's Ocean Wise conservation program. In 2013, Global Trust, an accredited body based in Ireland, gave it the first organic certification for a North American caviar.

Northern Divine buyers know exactly what they're getting. Last year, Target Marine processed about 200 sturgeon in its caviar room, a sterile chamber that resembles a surgery. After extracting and rinsing the eggs, workers add a little Canadian mined salt and pack them. "We can trace that caviar back to the fish that produced it," Mr. Henry says. "And we know who that fish's parents were."

But Northern Divine must raise its profile among caviar enthusiasts who might still crave the traditional Russian variety – and get the word out about its organic status. "We're a pretty small company, so to create awareness about that is challenging," Mr. Henry says. "We don't have a solution yet.

The Challenge: How can Target Marine win over new and traditional caviar consumers with its organic Canadian product?

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THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN

Robert Clark, chef, author and sustainable-seafood pioneer; proprietor, The Fish Counter, Vancouver

The timing has never been better because there's a world shortage of caviar and the Caspian Sea has been closed down. For me, Northern Divine is the best-tasting caviar and mouth-feel that I've had since Russia lost control of the quality of caviar and the collapse of the Caspian Sea.

I don't think exposing it to wealthy people helps. Northern Divine may be served at a function for 5,000 people who happen to eat caviar 10 times a year, but those people don't get to decide what caviar they buy.

If you want your caviar in Hong Kong, exposing it to a percentage of the Hong Kong population is not going to do it. It's meeting the person who decides that that's the caviar coming into Hong Kong.

Another approach would be to work with wineries that produce sparkling wine. Champagne and caviar go hand in hand, so I'm sure there can be some co-promotion. The level of product awareness will go up simply by having relationships with sparkling-wine producers.

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Andrea Gray-Grant,  principal, Gray-Grant Consulting Inc., sales and marketing consultant for the Canadian natural, specialty and organic food industry, Vancouver

The best thing to do is take small steps. Focus first on your local market and build that out. Focus on exactly the stores you want to be in, focus on how you're going to do that – a full business plan. Then move on to possibly the States or internationally, but continue to focus on your Internet sales. Anybody anywhere in the world can purchase your products on the Internet, and it's the cheapest way to do business.

Where is the easiest way to make a profit? Is it going to be easy to go out into retail, where there's a million products, or to focus on a social media plan that isn't going to cost you a huge amount of money?

I would do a little analysis to determine your most profitable revenue stream. Hopefully you have more than one revenue stream because it's dangerous to only have one. And it's not the more the merrier, either, because if you've got too many then you lose your focus. Three or four would be decent.

Typically when I work with people, once we figure out what the opportunities are, we build a marketing budget. It's not a dollar figure. If you say, "I'm going to sell $2-million next year," you take a percentage – 2 per cent, 3 per cent, 10 per cent – and build a budget based on that.

It's very flattering to have product on the shelf. I've done it, and I was very proud. But I've seen this over and over again with my clients: It's like that wears off. Too often people say, "It's great – we're selling in 150 stores!" Well, that doesn't matter if at the end of the day you're making no money or possibly losing money.

Sam Waterfall, global food branding and marketing specialist, London and Singapore

Northern Divine is in a very good place to reposition traditional, old-school or establishment Russian and Iranian caviar as the past. They can take the position in peoples' minds as the fresh face of caviar – new, natural, organic, sustainable.

Don't think local versus global. Instead, focus on telling the story the ideal customer already wants to hear. Do that well online with keywords, and the ideal customer will start to find them. And I mean go to town: This brand has so much potential, but it needs to be fully expressed. Remember, the brand is not just the logo, it's the entire differentiating and defining experience and the way it makes people feel.

Use video. It's the most powerful way of storytelling online, and they have a visually rich story to tell. I see a four-minute mini-documentary. that starts underwater, face-to-face with one of these amazing fish, and progresses to show the natural beauty of the area to set the scene, then the farm and the 11-year story. Meet the passionate owners, learn about their quality and certification and how they love every aspect of this business. Continue through to the moment of consumption, maybe in several locations – each prestigious or surprising, depending on the brand story. Don't spend a fortune. Find local film students with a passion for sustainability, or a new film company.

Befriend a TV chef or several. The higher up the scale of TV chef they can get, the better. If I were them, I'd invest some time in getting to the top of the tree.  A few mentions in a book, TV show or online series can often kick-start a brand. Approach any Michelin-starred Canadian restaurant to make sure that Northern Divine becomes the caviar of choice for these top chefs in their restaurants.  If your brand is talked about in these places, soon the next tier of restaurants and clientele will be talking, too.

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Interviews have been edited and condensed.

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