Finding and harvesting sea cucumbers takes some effort. These bottom-feeding creatures – affectionately dubbed the “janitors of the ocean” by Popular Science – aren’t the prettiest fish in the sea. But they are increasingly among the most coveted, and well worth the sea-scraping exploration.
The founders of Mellish Island, a San Dimas, California-based processor of sea cucumbers, recognized the desirability of these echinoderms upon the company’s founding in 2010. But recognizing the interest in sea cucumbers from health-conscious Chinese consumers couldn’t have predicted how successful the business would grow to be.
The first four years featured steady but restrained growth. In 2010, Mellish Island opened branch offices in Harbin, Changchun and Shenyang, setting the stage for an exporting model that leveraged the company’s Southern California location with the Chinese market’s taste for the flavorless but nourishing sea cucumbers. The following year, Mellish Island set up a processing factory in the U.S., secured FDA lab testing and certification, and received an export license for its original packaging of the sea cucumber.
“Mellish Island harvested the fresh seafood for production in the U.S., packaged the products and sent them back to the China market,” said Henan Li, the project manager at the Sacramento MBDA Export Center who has worked with Mellish Island for more than two years. “They were initially working with trade shows and business leads; we were helping them to identify the marketing strategy and growing exposure of the brand through our networking events in the U.S. and China.”
The next two years saw Mellish Island open franchises in Chinese supermarkets, expand its San Dimas facility, fine-tune its distribution strategy, and – perhaps most importantly – initiate its first U.S. tour. Already established as the largest wild sea cucumber handling and processing facility in North America, Mellish Island leaders decided that it was time to grow more rapidly.
“Mellish Island hosts tourists’ groups with the idea of showing them its Nature Product Showcase,” Li said. “The idea [we had at MBDA] was to connect with Chinese tourist groups … and allow tourists to see and listen to lectures on how Mellish Island harvests sea cucumbers and processes them. There’s a nice showroom for tourists to see how the sea cucumbers are made, from fresh to processed. It’s a very unique value for tourists. More and more [tourist] agencies are coming to visit the factory.”
The Natural Product Showcase welcomed select U.S. food and beverage manufacturers to Mellish Island’s 5,000 square-foot observation hall and 3,000 square-foot product showcase and tasting room. Sellers who came to the San Dimas facility were then able to market their products to Chinese inbound tourist groups, who could purchase products directly from the factory and then export to China. With the MBDA Export Center’s support, Mellish Island offered recommendations on sales and packaging strategies, market analysis (including real-time surveys from consumers), and finally, the proper distribution channels to follow Mellish Island’s lead in becoming a successful U.S.-based exporter to China.
“We actually recruited 10-to-12 companies who showed interest in participating in the project and were interested in exporting to China,” Li said. “This is a good pipeline without leaving the U.S. and making that initial contact. We will continue to push this whole project and help Mellish Island to find more suppliers in the future.”
The next step for Mellish Island in growing its business-to-consumer exporting model is to expand beyond manufacturing and position itself as more of a distributor. Mellish Island currently has 17 flagship destination stores, plus 100 smaller retail shops spread throughout China. And perhaps most importantly, it has found the right formula for bridging the gap between American food and beverage manufacturers and the health-crazed Chinese market – all thanks to the bottom-dwelling sea cucumber.
“We are blessed to have connected with the Sacramento MBDA Export Center,” said TJ Wu, Mellish Island’s Chief Operating Officer. “Starting from the trade mission to China and establishing our Natural Product Showcase, they have been a tremendous help. They provided assistance on business development, marketing, practical knowledge of small business landscape, and everything in between. Our success is due to the efforts and hard work by the Sacramento MBDA Export Center.”