What's happening in the blueberry FoodTech World

Sunday, June 3, 2018

The Great Saga of 1998 - Iceland!

NABC full page advertisement in the daily newspaper of Iceland called Morgenbladid.  The ad announced the arrival of fresh North American Blueberries to Iceland in 1998.

Remember the great exploration spirit of the NABC back in the 1990s.  We were out to conquer the world.  NABC was one of the original cooperators, and we had an interesting contact at the South Building named Bob Tisch.  He was a former Marine, no nonsense "take the hill" kind of guy.  One day on a visit to his office, he pulled out a map.  "How about Iceland?"  Evidently he had just received a group of Icelanders to the Horticultural and Tropical Products Division offices who were on an educational tour.   They had told Bob that Iceland used to be full of plenty of "wild" blueberries that thrived in the lava flows.   Icelanders love to head to the wilds for a day of picking.   The problem -- he was told -- too many Icelanders and not enough berries to pick!

So, how about Iceland?

Within a few months, Mark Villata and I were on our first NABC trade mission to Iceland.   The concept was that we wanted to explore Europe and Iceland which straddles the Atlantic was a good place to start.  We flew on Icelandic Airlines to Keflavik which is the former US Navy Base outside of the Capital City of Reykjavik.
Postcard from Iceland

I went through my contacts and noticed a Icelanders on the list.   There are only 250,000 Icelanders, so one call to a contact led to another and another and in short we had appointments with both of the major buying groups in Iceland.  Although this is a small country they have a well developed everything -- a unique language, music, opera and malls and stores just like the rest of Scandinavia.  There were two major groups and 11 store brands mainly in the largest city of Reykjavik with 200,000.

This was a big deal for the Icelandic food trade.  Nobody from the outside had ever visited.  The chief buyers from both chains offered to meet together for our convenience.  We were picked up at the airport like a state visit.   We were hosted for Icelandic dinner with the management.   Then spent two days store headquarters, the major dairy, bakery and preserve companies.   We did it all in two days and had the rest to visit the wonders of this wonderful island.  This was before it became a major tourist destination.  Volcanos, Glaciers, Waterfalls, Hot Springs.   We mostly "dined" on famous Icelandic hot dogs served at petrol stops.   Everything was extremely expensive!

Everything is imported except fish and potatoes.
On our final night we splurged and dined at the one and only Indian restaurant!  Lobster curry was the specialty and local aloo gobi (potatoes and cauliflower) were the most expensive as locally produced.

Now back to business.  
  • We introduced fresh blueberries from North America to the companies and facilitated contacts that led to an introduction of blueberries to the market at the start of summer
  • We worked with the local importers to arrange sampling at all of the grocery stores.
  • In advance of the first arrivals -- we worked with an Icelandic designer who happened to be friends with the editor of the largest newspaper called Morgenbladid.  We published the ad above (click to enlarge.)  This announced the arrival of the product.

The initial promotion led to regular shipments of fresh blueberries to Iceland.  I visit whenever I can and each time I marcel at the crowds of shoppers in stores filling up with clamshells of blueberries for the weekend.   This has led also to local production of Icelandic yogurts called skyr using frozen blueberries.   Icelanders also have their own jam and preserve company featuring blueberry jam!

Skyrr is an Icelandic Phenomenon that is spreading all over the world including the USA!  Blueberry is a traditional flavor!

Fresh blueberry imports immediately rose after out initial promotion.  In 1998 shipments of fresh USA blueberries rose to 133,000 kg (293,214 lbs.) That year all shipments were from the USA.  Population of Iceland remains steady at around 350,000 inhabitants.   Shipments have remained about the same in the past decades with limits on air and sea freight the biggest constraint.  Just about everything must be imported.  Air freight is very precious.  You will also see dips due to the a series of economic crisis which have hit this delicate economy.  On the up side, Iceland has become a major tourist destination especially for North Americans and Asians.   The hotel and restaurant capacity has risen greatly as well as airline flights to and from Iceland which include air freight.   Iceland is in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean but commerce tends to connect to Europe.  This has made a logical choice for sourcing blueberries in season from Spain, Morocco.  This channel also is linked to South American sources.    As of May 2018, Iceland has imported more than 500,000 kg of fresh blueberries from a variety of countries with Spain as the main source.  This has to make Iceland one of the top consumers of fresh blueberries in the world -- if not The highest!  

Iceland Matters!  Well, at least it does to me.   This Saga shows what can happen when you dare to explore.   Like the Icelandic explorers like Leif Erickson  -- we must keep this pioneering spirit!

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