:::

The Fruit Hunters of “Our Table”: A Bridge Between Farmers and Consumers

Although its prices are among the highest in the industry, Our Table’s strict selection standards and comprehensive after-sales service have kept it consistently popular.

Although its prices are among the highest in the industry, Our Table’s strict selection standards and comprehensive after-sales service have kept it consistently popular.
 

The fruit marketing company “Our Table,” which is now in its seventh year, operates only online. It has been running smoothly since its inception, and not only does it enjoy good word of mouth among consumers, it has been widely recognized in the industry as a force to be reckoned with, capable of selling fruit that other vendors find too challenging.

 

Fruit, like tea, depends heavily on word of mouth for marketing. Genuinely good products are often bought up by regular customers who understand their quality long before they get to the open market. But when you visit the website of Our Table (also known as Chih Kuo Tang) at www.ourtable.com.tw, you find a “dream team” of the finest fruit producers in Taiwan gathered there.

Although there are countless other e-commerce platforms specializing in the sale of agricultural products or fruit, and these outstanding farmers with their many loyal customers already can’t produce fruit fast enough to keep up with demand, all of them are willing to keep their highest-quality fruit for Our Table. One can’t help but be curious: What is so special about this small company of only four people?

Riding the e-commerce wave

It’s not easy to schedule an interview with Marco Syu, the founder of Our Table. Syu, whose profession is to market fruit, is like a “fruit hunter,” spending one-third of his time visiting various production areas.

Syu, who is still in his thirties, declares, “There is no fruit that I don’t enjoy eating.” His life has been in­extric­ably linked with fruit since he graduated and entered the workforce. First he sold fruit juice at a stand in the Feng Chia University night market. With more than 100 pieces of fruit passing through his hands ­every day, he developed the ability to tell delicious fruit from bad just by the exterior appearance, without even tasting it. Next he went to work at Red on Tree, a well-known fruit preserves brand, where he worked to develop the business, visiting production areas and getting to know farmers. Later, thanks to a family connection, he came to the Tai­chung Fruit and Vege­table Wholesale Market, where he spent a year and a half. Besides learning about fruit production and marketing, he was able to pick the brains of many highly accomplished people in the fruit trade.

At the age of 28, Syu started his business with capital of NT$300,000, and began making progress by marketing through social media and Google Forms. Today, annual revenues at Our Table are in eight figures, and the company has stable cooperative relationships with more than 100 farmers.

Partnerships with farmers

The expertise that Syu accumulated in his various past jobs proved to be highly beneficial when he started his own business.

As we interview Syu, he takes out some “Emperor” guavas and “Rosada” cherry tomatoes that he is preparing to ship out that day, and teaches us how to identify the highest-quality fruit. “Guavas must not be too green in color; if they are too green it means they are still unripe. The skin should be bumpy, with ‘dewdrops,’ and the flesh should be thick and firm, with a light Chinese plum flavor.” As for Rosada tomatoes (about which most people only know that they are super sweet), Syu explains: “The more prominent the sepals around the stem, the better the quality. The skin should be thin, so that you barely notice it when you eat the tomato. The taste should be sweet but slightly astringent, with a sweet aftertaste from each bite.” His fluent use of specialist terminology reveals that he is by no means an outsider who only wanted to start an e-commerce business because it was the trendy thing to do. Syu’s extensive expertise is the key factor that has persuaded many first-rate farmers to partner with him.

Even though it is common in today’s consumer market to hear the notion of “supporting small farmers,” as a dealer Syu believes that distributors and farmers should be equal business partners rather than being in an unequal relationship of supporter and supported. In particular, over time Syu has come to know many outstanding producers, and he admires how they use their consummate skills to wrest annual incomes of more than NT$1 million from high-risk operations that are subject to the vagaries of the weather and of nature, thus overturning the stereotypical view of farming as a harsh, low-paying profession.
 

Marco Syu (left), who invariably goes and visits farmers during each production season, sees these farmers as partners who grow together with his business.

Marco Syu (left), who invariably goes and visits farmers during each production season, sees these farmers as partners who grow together with his business.
 

The responsibilities of a dealer

Many consumers who are not familiar with the process of transporting and marketing agricultural produce tend to regard the distributors who act as middlemen as “parasites.” But people who think that way are ignoring the fact that there are numerous steps between farm and table and that it is rational to have a professional division of labor once an industry reaches a certain scale.

However, after founding his business and becoming a distributor, Syu tried to carve out a different path for himself. “For consumers I provide honest, transparent information about fruit production, for farmers I do all I can to promote and sell their produce, and I enable the company to grow stably and revenues to climb so that my employees will have a future.” These have been Syu’s intentions since the very beginning, and he has never changed tack. “I think this is the optimal approach for all involved,” he says.

As a bridge between farmers and consumers, Syu and his staff not only must spend a lot of time in production areas searching for outstanding farmers, but their biggest challenges consist in maintaining the highest possible quality and dependably getting fruit into consumers’ hands. How they handle these issues determines whether or not the firm can operate on a sound footing. Therefore, circumstances permitting, Syu requests that farmers first send their products to the company in Taichung, where employees tirelessly screen them to select the best fruit, which is then packaged and shipped to customers.

Supplying consumers with safe, toxin-free products is a basic requirement. But it is not enough for Our Table to simply say that products are safe; samples of the fruit that goes on sale are sent for testing every year, so that such claims are backed up with scientific evidence. At the same time, Our Table is famous for its excellent after-sales service, giving customers their money back if the quality of their fruit is not up to snuff. They do not try to persuade people with argu­ments not related to quality or to play the sympathy card, but instead rely on the market mechanism, pragmatically ensur­ing that each link in the chain is handled properly. “Only in this way can the industrial value chain function,” Syu ­concludes.

Our Table 2.0

Now in its seventh year, Our Table has been quietly evolving toward a 2.0 version. Syu’s mindset, which in the past inclined toward working with veteran farmers, has gradually changed. “If we want this enterprise to carry on for another ten or 20 years, then we have to form alliances with younger farmers,” he avers. In particular, young farmers are easier to communicate with, are more innov­ative, and are more willing to cooperate with fruit grading systems. These qualities are a good fit for Our Table’s development orientation.

The Our Table team, which spends a great deal of each year, rain or shine, in production areas, has steadily accumulated a comprehensive hands-on knowledge of Taiwan’s fruit industry. Because of this, in recent years Our Table has been putting out an online magazine that introduces farmers, provides information on production areas, and even offers tips on the uses of fruit on the dining table. They have tried using fruit on toast, in dacquoises and other desserts, and in processed products. All these ingenious ideas are offered in hopes that fruit can become an even more important item in our daily lives.