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Every day at 6 a.m., the employees of King Cole Ducks Ltd. gather 10,000 duck eggs—all by hand. They are fragile, these orbs, and after 28 days in an incubator they crack open to produce fuzzy yellow ducklings. They, in turn, grow into white, big-bottomed Pekin ducks for King Cole, which has become Canada’s largest duck producer.
Photo: King Cole Ducks
In its 60 years, King Cole, near Newmarket, Ont., has grown into a bustling international concern, spreading its tasty treats beyond Canadian borders into Europe and the Orient. Duck meat is a niche market, to be sure, especially in Canada, but the company has adapted to tickle all sorts of palates.
Jim Murby founded the family firm in 1951 when he went looking for duck for his dinner at a local farmer’s market and found none. Duck isn’t the poultry of choice at a Canadian Christmas dinner. So Murby decided to raise them himself to fill what he thought would be a local need.
It’s local no more. Now the family’s third generation is selling duck to the United States, South Korea, Mexico, Tahiti and Japan. This year, its duck du jour dish is spiedini, or duck on a stick. It’s proven popular in the Italian community and it gives duck newbies just enough of a taste to decide whether they want more.
“Our customer base is quite specific still,” says Patti Thompson, director of sales and a Murby granddaughter. “Beyond that, it’s an interesting protein for a lot of chefs to experiment with, so we’re seeing duck become more mainstream.” Sales have grown to about $25 million a year.
King Cole Ducks has been clever at finding markets at home, chasing the Asian markets in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, and transplanted Europeans who are familiar with the bird.
SARS put a damper on poultry sales everywhere in 2003. But when the dust settled, Thompson said the family realized they didn’t want to put all of their eggs in one basket. “We needed to expand,” she said. “We went knocking on doors. Our industry is fairly small, so there weren‘t a whole lot of other farms. Everybody had their areas and markets that they were selling into.”
So King Cole decided to expand into the United States. At the same time, it began selling more processed foods, which also opened doors, Thompson said. It helped that Canadian agriculture products have a good reputation worldwide, Thompson said. “It makes it easier for us to knock on a door when people know that we’re from Canada.”
Because duck has traditionally been a niche market, King Cole focused on markets that would appreciate not only their product but their focus on the environment and the way they raise their birds. The ducks run free in large barns, they are grain-fed, they are not injected with antibiotics or growth hormones, and the company advocates zero waste—feathers are sold for clothing, and nestings create compost.
The grocery chain Sprouts Farmers Market opened their doors to King Cole Ducks, even though the United States ranks fifth on the list of worldwide duck producers, while Canada is hardly on the radar at 27th, according to a 2006 Statistics Canada report.
The little company penetrated the U.S. market mainly on its own, knocking on doors with a handful of sales people. In addition, the Ontario Food Exports program of the agriculture ministry set up food shows and brought U.S. retailers to Canada to have a look at the product. “They’ve been very helpful in establishing new customer bases for us,” Thompson says.
They also use brokers in the United States, selling to large distributors that, in turn, sell to smaller distributors. Today, King Cole sells to Safeway and Publix supermarket chains, and is the duck supplier to the P.F. Chang’s China Bistro chain of American-Chinese restaurants, which has 204 locations south of the border. King Cole created a special Middle Eastern duck recipe for P.F. Chang’s—another way the company adapts to suit a customer.
The company has 150 employees on 14 farms spread over 1,200 acres in Ontario’s York Region. It has its own feather-processing plant, water treatment facility, Asian-style food processing plant, an onsite federal inspection facility and a product development plant. The company works with chefs to target the latest dining trends.
King Cole also sells to the cruise industry. “Often, when we chat with people, they say they had it on a cruise, and that’s the beginning of good things,” Thompson said. On the international scene, Canada trails far behind world leaders in duck production, notably China, which is far out in front. Indeed, six of the top nine world duck producers are from Asia.
This hasn’t stopped King Cole from selling in the continent, working its contacts, benefiting from word of mouth, and from Canadian government export help. Currently King Cole is developing a Korean product.
Its connection to one broker was serendipitous. A Japanese buyer drove past the farm one day, saw the sign and stepped on the brakes. The company has worked with the man for years since, making connections with Japanese retailers. King Cole sells its smoked duck breast, boneless breasts and whole ducks to the nation. “It’s very competitive,” Thompson says.