From fleeing to New Zealand as a 12-year-old refugee with his family to becoming a leading importer and distributor of food products in New Zealand, Sam Yip has certainly come a long way.

Mr Yip with a can of Savai’i Popo.

A large part of Mr Yip’s Mellow Foods’ import and distribution business comprises food products originating from the Pacific Islands. “Seventy-five per cent of our business is taro,” Mr Yip told Pacific Periscope.

His company has been importing and distributing the root crop for the past 28 years. “It just that we happened to start out with taro and have stuck with it.”

Beginning with small shipments that were few and far between nearly three decades ago, Mellow Foods now handles as many as three to four containers of taro every week.

Mr Yip’s family fled war-torn Vietnam to build a new life in New Zealand. On arrival here, the family settled in Rotorua, where his parents started a veggie and fruit store.

“I began helping in the store as a young boy,” Mr Yip said. “My parents didn’t quite know English then and it was left to me to communicate with customers while also completing my schooling.”

Being the eldest of three children, he gradually took on more responsibility for the business as it began to grow.

“As a result, I couldn’t go to university. But I have no regrets. The stuff I’ve learned in the business – people skills, managing inventory, running the business hands on, besides the innumerable things I learned just being with my parents from a young age — I would never have picked up at university,” he said.

Mr Yip at his Otahuhu facility.

As the business grew, the family relocated to Auckland later acquiring a sprawling facility in the city’s Otahuhu suburb.

Mellow Foods today has the space and infrastructure to import and store several full refrigerated container loads of product with specific, defined areas for product inspections by Ministry of Primary Industries, cool storage, dry goods warehousing on its premises in Auckland’s Otahuhu suburb.

Mr Yip and Mellow Foods have had a business relationship with Pacific Trade Invest (PTI) New Zealand that goes back at least 15 years. “I really appreciate our long relationship and PTI NZ’s role in promoting Pacific Island products in New Zealand,” Mr Yip said.

This year, PTI NZ facilitated Mellow Foods’ participation in two food and beverage events in Auckland – the Fine Food NZ show and Auckland Food Show in June and July, where the company showcased Samoan coconut cream, palusami and other foodstuff imported from the islands.

Mellow Foods’ distribution footprint covers much of New Zealand, says Ian Furlong, PTI Trade Development Manager, servicing several hundred outlets including big supermarket companies like Progressives (Countdown), Foodstuffs (Pak n Save, New World) and other independent grocery stores.

The market for Taro is concentrated around Pacific Island communities. While Auckland is the main area for its distribution and retail, Mellow Foods also sells in other large urban centres around the country like Wellington, Hawkes Bay and Christchurch – where significant numbers of Pacific Islands populations reside.

Mellow Foods imports taro mainly from Fiji, Samoa and more recently from Tonga.

Is taro restricted exclusively to Pacific Island people? “Asians also eat taro but not nearly as much as island people,” Mr Yip says.

While taro accounts for most of Mellow Food’s business, the company also imports and distributes other dry goods including coconut cream and palusami from Samoa, snack foods from Fiji and Samoa besides canned tuna, mackerel and an assortment of packaged snack foods and beverages from Asia – mainly from Indonesia, Thailand, China.

“Consistency of quality and supply, having to compete with fly-by-night operators and the informal, unorganised sector are the biggest challenges that are faced when dealing with Pacific Island produce exporters,” Mr Yip says.

Mr Yip outside his sprawling facility.

“Fly-by-night operators undervalue goods selling at cut-price rates since they pay less tax or none at all, have little regard for compliance processes and many with no refrigerated storage are forced dump their stuff at any price before it is spoiled,” he adds. “This is a major challenge for businesses like Mellow Foods.”

Mr Furlong says, “Importing fresh produce is a difficult business — packaging, preserving freshness, fumigation and is reliant on suppliers of quality products.”

He believes Mellow Foods is a valuable business for Pacific Island produce exporters because, “Mr Yip likes buying from the islands and likes new products from companies that PTI NZ deals with.

“Buying from long term, well established companies from the Pacific Islands is his preference, especially those that are reliable for quantity and continuity. He also has willingness for new suppliers. They need guidance and support to supply volume and continuity.”

But coming from a difficult background and having spent his early childhood in a developing country that faced great deprivation at the time, Mr Yip’s heart is in the right place. He thoroughly understands the Pacific Islands business environment and the many odds that businesses in the islands face.

“I would like to the best I can to help produce and food products exporters from the islands. I always try to do what I can.”

Recently he spent ten days in Tonga with one of Mellow Foods’ Tongan staff members helping him make taro from his farm export ready for New Zealand and for Mellow Foods to distribute here.

For more information email PTI NZ Trade Development Manager Ian Furlong at ian.f@pacifictradeinvest.co.nz

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