From Tibetan yak cheese to Uruguayan steaks in three clicks

By Mike Peters(China Daily)
Updated: 2017-03-17 08:09:21

Uruguayan Tomahawk steaks are among the recent imported items on offer by GroupMall.[Photo provided to China Daily]

Gianmarco Meli grew up in Sicily, he says, "but I did a student exchange in Sweden and I loved the experience of living abroad."

So he didn't think twice when he was offered an internship with a food-importing business in China three years ago.

That experience had two results: It connected him with importers and suppliers, and he also heard from many friends who struggled to find consistent quality in imported foods they liked at a good price.

So he found a partner with a background in IT, and pitched their idea for a food-buying platform in a competition run by Silicon Valley venture capitalists. The idea was to make group buys on specialty items: There would be a quota for shares to be purchased, then GroupMall would buy in bulk, divide the goods, and ship everything from steaks to organic brown rice to the shareholders.

The plan captured the judges' interest, and GroupMall was born. Successfully launched in co-working space in Shanghai, the company is weaning itself off its start-up capital, preparing its own office space-and this month, branching out to Beijing.

Besides group buying, GroupMall offers about a half-dozen "hot deals" to its followers each week. Recent items included Uruguayan Tomahawk steaks, coconut water and chips, blueshell mussels, gluten-free snacks, grain-fed beef prime rib and grass-fed beef cuberoll.

While imported items are most in demand, Meli also looks for quality, hard-to-find foods from within China. He's connected with Tibetan growers of black truffles as well as Dutchman Marc de Ruiter, whose Shanxi-based Yellow Valley Cheese company produces organic, fair-trade Gouda in several flavors.

Gianmarco Meli from Italy enjoys his life in China with a food business. [Photo provided to China Daily]

"A guy from eastern China who lived in Tibet for eight years has been very eager to share the culture and food," Meli says. He arranges air shipments as often as daily in peak season-dairy products as well as truffles.

"We can get yak cheese and yogurt all year, but fresh milk only for about nine months-May to January. In the winter it's just too cold for the animals to produce enough milk," he says.

Meli is working with another guy in Shanghai who is making his own cheese, and hopes that leads to a new feature on GroupMall: organic cheese-making classes.

In an online endorsement, customer K, who regularly buys sausages, lamb, beef, cheese from GroupMall, writes that "products arrive frozen and well-packaged in polystyrene boxes at home on weekends or at the office during weekdays."

Ease of ordering is important, says Meli, adding that the goal is for customers to get what they want in just three clicks at www.groupmallchina.com.

Sourcing some goodies can be more complicated at his end-such as organizing a recent shipment of live lobsters from Canada, or coping with regulations to import something that has not been imported before.

Customers, meanwhile, are naturally concerned with food safety.

Meli likes to find organic products that are local and fresh, noting that produce begins to lose nutritional value from the day it's harvested.

But he says simply relying on "organic" products is not a perfect answer, and he looks for balance.

"In some ways, certified organic products can be less eco-friendly," he says. They consume a lot of water and other resources-and in areas where air pollution is a problem, rain water can contain toxic elements that may not be so good for us."

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