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Food & Drink

From Dragons’ Den to the land of the dragon

26th Mar '16

Helen and Lisa Tse’s Chinese sauces are made in Manchester and sold in China, with help from David Cameron. By Iain Aitch

Company: Sweet Mandarin Trading in: China Sector: Food


Sweet Mandarin 2

Heat of the moment: Gordon Ramsay with Helen Tse MBE and Lisa Tse MBE

So, is selling your sauces into China like selling ice to the Eskimos?
We had a laugh about that. Chinese sauces made in Manchester, sold to China. They really value the Made in Britain brand. It’s extremely well respected and trusted in terms of quality. There have been a number of food scares with Chinese products [such as rat meat masquerading as lamb, cabbage doused in formaldehyde and the infamous 2008 tainted milk powder scandal], so people turned away from them and went for a British brand like ours.

But the recipes originated in the region, didn’t they?
My grandmother used them in the 1940s in Hong Kong. When she came to Britain she took them to her restaurant in Middleton near Manchester, one of the first Chinese restaurants in the area. These sauces have always been in the business and we still use them in our restaurant, also called Sweet Mandarin.

How did the deal happen?
We have cooked for [former British Prime Minister] David Cameron in the past. He took my sister Lisa out for a trade mission to China and helped us to secure a really good deal with Chinese and Hong Kong supermarkets. It is worth £6 million over five years. We haven’t expanded to other areas in Asia yet as we need to fulfil the first orders, so we’re quite busy. If you let people down, you’ll never be talked to again. They’ll drop you. It’s just non-negotiable.

According to government sauces: David Cameron, Chinese prime minister Li Keqiang, Helen Tse MBE and Lisa Tse MBE

Who are your customers in China and Hong Kong?
Although there are 1.3 billion people there, the potential market who can afford our products would probably be just a few million. We’re looking at the new middle class, as there is a growing trend for healthy options, to live better and go for a Western product – especially one made in Great Britain. They really value quality and provenance. Not just our sauces, but things like British meat, whisky and gin.

“With the new middle class, there is a growing trend for healthy options and Western products – especially one made in Great Britain”

Did having a knowledge of local language help?
We are both fluent in Cantonese and all our negotiations were done in that language. In Chinese culture, family and food is central. Deals are always done face to face over dinner, whether it’s a social thing with a family or business. And you can’t replace face to face with emails, Skype and telephone calls really, can you?

Did you hit any problems?
Once your label has a Chinese word on it, the law dictates that the whole thing must be translated into Chinese. Our logo had the Chinese word for “sweet”’ on it so the food and drink authority said we had to translate it all, which we thought would have been costly and detracted from the brand. So we’ve taken out the Chinese symbol and replaced it with a Union Jack.

What advice would you give to anyone looking to export to China?
I think they need to do their research and see if there is an opportunity for their product. You can only do so much relationship-building by other means – ultimately, if you want a good relationship with your buyer and customers, you have to go and see them.

www.sweetmandarin.net

Sweet Mandarin sauces

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