Shipping nightmares and consumer ignorance haven't deterred Kiwi entrepreneur Jens Hack, who's barrelling onwards and upwards with DeWandelaar.
Poor old Lockwood Smith, struggling to find a decent Kiwi drop over in London...
Meanwhile, over in the Netherlands, expat Aucklander Jens Hack has been struggling with the same thing for years – and in November, he launched DeWandelaar, a boutique food/wine store in Amsterdam, along with another fellow Kiwi working there in the wine industry. Despite some teething problems, they've been able to pivot quickly like any good tech startup and refine their vision to meet the market.
Hack landed in Amsterdam in 2001 but has been dreaming of starting a New Zealand-focused company since moving to London in 1997 and realising how little was known about our country. Return visits every couple of years highlighted for him how the countryside was suffering in places. "I would hate to see it bought up by corporations eager to plan billboards within the scenery. I liked the idea of supporting local initiatives that create jobs and supporting them by importing their produce."
Hack, who usually tries to bring New Zealand wines when he's invited to dinner, figured wine was a good way to get sales going and support the development of other parts of the business, such as travel (his biggest passion, which he hopes to incorporate into the DeWandelaar biz soon).
Riding high on positive feedback from the international cultural Embassy Festival in Den Haag, he found a former French wine shop in a "relatively cheap" location in Amsterdam's Oud Zuid neighbourhood.
"It's a bit like the Remuera shops in Auckland," he explains. "The Oud Zuid has the highest concentration of millionaires in The Netherlands."
A a good keen DIY type, he designed the entire DeWandelaar concept himself, inspired by a train station in Otaki ("the journey element is an important theme") and built it with help from friends. Happily, the red corrugated aesthetic happened to tie in well with the existing awning outside. Upstairs are general everyday wines, while higher-end offerings are found down below.
They started off by importing award-winning artisan cuisine products from around New Zealand including Jenny's Chutney, Moutere Gold preserves, Airborne Honey, Just Figs and various wines.
There was a massive setback, however, when instead of consolidating multiple orders onto pallets, their distribution company shipped each order on separate pallets.
"The worst example was a 1960s Air New Zealand bag from TradeMe that cost $50 - I asked my sister in Auckland to take it to the distribution company to add it to the top of a pallet. It was sent on its own pallet."
On top of that, about 20 percent of their artisan products arrived broken and mouldy.
"I had to drive a truck to the port of Rotterdam to unload it myself as the costs to transport the pallets to Amsterdam was much higher. The Dutch guys at the distribution center were completely gobsmacked at what came out of the container," he says.
Most items became too expensive to sell at a profit by the time they arrived after shipping, tariffs and taxes - an expensive lesson.
Targeting the upper end of the market was a deliberate choice; New Zealand products are expensive to import so a premium image and brand is crucial. But aside from the odd aficionado, very few people in Amsterdam know about quality New Zealand wine, or indeed, anything about the country in general.
"Many have been trained to believe that New Zealand wine is cheap. The current marketing focus locally and from New Zealand seems to be on importing bulk, cheap wine, inventing local brands that don't exist in New Zealand, and selling this at a price equal to the cheapest 'true' New Zealand brands and then slashing the price regularly to drive sales," he says.
"A wine in the Aldi supermarket called Spy Mountain Sauvignon Blanc goes for around €4-5, the Whales Tail Sauvignon Blanc at a chain sells at €11.95, but is slashed to €6 every second month."
A lot of people are confused by the idea of a New Zealand shop with multiple, premium brands, according to Hack. Case in point, the person who said: "I didn't know NZ did all this, I thought they only exported lamb meat and was where the Hobbit was filmed." Oh dear.
"The worst is when a customer walks into the shop, forms the impression 'too expensive' and walks out. They'll never come back."
Two months in, it became clear they needed to tweak the DeWandelaar model if it was to be sustainable. DeWandelaar tightened its focus to wine, a shift Hack says is showing more promise – they're supplying wines to some top Amsterdam restaurants and getting mentions in local media (and are about to start selling online).
But he says it's clear New Zealand wine needs a lot more work in this market.
"We will be adding South African wine to the range as it is able to hit the price point that customers demand while retaining the quality level that we want to offer."
DeWandelaar is named for Alfred Hamish Reed, who was known in New Zealand as The Happy Wanderer. "The brand was designed to be able to wander into other countries (e.g. Australia, South Africa) instead of tying to New Zealand," Hack says.
He believes it's next to impossible to import and profit off many New Zealand brands as they have been locked down by Dutch importers who offer very small margins.
In the meantime, DeWandelaar is offering private dinners in its wine cellar, which he says are profitable and a great way to linger over quality New Zealand vino.
"We have converts - tonight I'm preparing New Zealand mussels, kumara and lamb for a group of eight Frenchmen, one of whom we converted into a New Zealand wine lover."
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