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Making a go of 'green' foods

BUYING the cheapest product is a hallmark of the Chinese consumer (except for nouveau riches flashy spenders), so convincing people to pay a lot more for organic food that doesn't look different is a big challenge for "green" entrepreneurs. Yao Minji reports.

Twenty years ago, David Chan left his Shanghai hometown when he was only three years old and moved to California, the Golden State that's famous for being on the cutting edge of "green" ideas and healthy living.

Today, Chan is back in Shanghai with his partners and they're playing to launch a small eco-friendly food business. He's back at a good time, when China has been rocked by tainted food scandals and food safety is on everyone's mind. But will thrifty Chinese change their buying habits?

Chan, who wants to keep details under wraps, has been networking and chatting with market researchers, suppliers, eco-friendly business owners and business coaches.

His idea is risky, challenging and very appealing.

"It is attractive because this is an unexplored and under-developed market, with lots of potential and a large population, especially for young entrepreneurs with small businesses," Chan tells Shanghai Daily.

"But it is challenging because we need to change the well-established consumption habits of Chinese people of always picking the cheapest. We want to convince them to buy goods that are much more expensive, with value that doesn't show up on the surface."

The Chinese government, if not yet the people, is determined to put the environment high on the agenda. A key part of the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) is to accelerate resource conservation and promote environmentally friendly and sustainable businesses. The government has initiated various preferential policies, including some for green start-ups.

At the same time, many Chinese and foreign entrepreneurs like Chan are drawn to the vast China market with their innovative ideas in eco-friendly fields.

Many of them see organic and healthy food-related business as a good starting point, considering public unease about food safety because of scandal after scandal over food deliberately (sometimes carelessly) contaminated for profit.

"There are definitely many health-conscious people living in Shanghai, and the high level of pressure from working in Shanghai often encourages people to pay particularly close attention to what they eat," says Paul Bergman, a New York native and owner of The Freshary.

Opened last September, The Freshary sells organic vegan baked foods and ice cream in its two stores - one in the Tian Zi Fang area and the other on Julu Road. Bergman says they are the first and only certified organic bakery and ice creamery in China.

Their popular goods include pumpkin spice muffins, white sesame pretzels, brownies with roasted peanuts and vanilla ice cream.

Only a few years ago, it was very difficult to find organic vegetables in Shanghai, not to mention products made with organic ingredients. With the increase in health-awareness, organic and "natural" food sections have been essential in many supermarkets.

"It is definitely a lot easier and cheaper to get organic food in Shanghai now. When I first got here 12 years ago, it was almost impossible. Most locals had never even heard of it and they showed such shock and confusion when I asked them where to buy organic food," says Nancy Jennings, a business consultant who travels between Shanghai and New York.

"Now, it is basically everywhere, although the quality and certification vary."

She adds that her Chinese neighbors started purchasing organic food and imported milk in the recent years, soon after the melamine-tainted milk scandal in 2008. They also helped Jennings find a few online services delivering organic food directly from local farms.

Organic foods will continue to become more available and with more variety as consumers continue to demand healthier, safer and more environmentally sustainable choices, says Bergman.

The 31-year-old expatriate first arrived to Shanghai to study Chinese language in 2000, before going to work for a global food company. He got the idea of The Freshary with his partners, all food lovers, when he returned to the city in 2007.

"We chose to be organic because organic food production is more caring and respectful of our earth and the people who create the foods we plant, harvest, craft and eat," he says.

Bergman adds that they have also chosen to become vegan (eating no animal products, including eggs and dairy) to show that "it is possible to create wholesome products that taste great, are highly nutritious, are low in calories and fat, and are made only from seeds, nuts, leaves and plant extracts."

They source the ingredients from around China and around the world: organic pumpkin and blueberries from Shandong Province, organic strawberries, raspberries and blackberries from Jiangxi Province, organic soybeans from Heilongjiang Province, organic dark chocolate made from select organic Tanzanian cocoa beans, and organic vanilla made from select organic Madagascar vanilla beans.

He says the business is starting slowly, but is growing as The Freshary is found by more people who are interested in more wholesome and earth-friendly products.

He is highly optimistic about his store and the future market, and plans to develop more varieties of organic products in the near future.


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