Leelands Lamb for Niche Markets

March 2015

Sue and Bill French have begun selling their own lamb direct to niche markets

Leelands sells aged, export quality Southland lamb year-round and direct to hospitality, internet and retail customers throughout New Zealand, capturing added value for their lamb.

The French family are all foodies. Bill has a farming background, but Sue hails from Auckland and was formerly a school dental therapist. She now runs a mobile coffee business as well. Their daughter Kate owns the very successful Invercargill café The Batch, which has won Cafe of the Year wards, most recently in 2013. There she sells Leelands Lamb in a lamb burger.

Sue says their family loves to eat and talk. “That’s what we do.”

Frustrated with the level of lamb returns, Bill and Sue French talked for many years about selling direct to the customer. In 2007 they decided to follow their dreams and hit the streets with a chilly bin full of Leelands’ finest cuts. They named their business after their first farm which was in the lee of the Takitumu Mountains.

Bill knew there was a great deal more potential in export lamb carcasses than was being realised at the time, and so they positioned their product at the top of the market to capture the maximum value.

Leelands’ lamb is all further processed to add value, and they sell a wide range of cuts, which customers can choose themselves.

Mediterranean Market in Queenstown was the first customer to come on board and they continue to support Bill and Sue.

They deliberately chose to grow slowly and now work alongside chefs throughout the country. Most of their product is sold in the Wellington and Auckland markets to the hospitality sector – that’s where the most growth and value is.

“There are some very clever chefs around, they are real artists, creating some really interesting dishes. For example one chef is using lamb belly, which is a lower value product, to produce very good quality entrees. You have to take your hat off to a person who has the ability to take a product and turn it into something people will be wowed by,” Sue says.

Bill and Sue have worn out a lot of shoe leather in the past few years as they traverse the country promoting Leelands Lamb. “You never know where the next market is and where the next opportunity is,” Bill says. They feel the biggest opportunity now lies in increasing sales through their website. “You have to get people to your website before they order your products.”

Attending food shows is a major focus for them. This past year they’ve been to five food shows to promote their niche artisan approach to lamb. “Food shows attract discerning customers who appreciate fine cuisine and are prepared to pay for it,” Sue says. “And it’s a good place to answer questions about the best way to cook different cuts and pass on information. We get a real buzz when people come to the food shows to talk to us. They become your friends.”

This avenue is now giving them repeat business and is also where they met one of their new customers, New World Remuera. This is one of a few select retail outlets for Leelands.

Recently they were in a restaurant on Waiheke Island when an English tourist was very complimentary about their lamb. “That really crystallised the whole thing for us, because they were having a very pleasant experience eating our lamb.”

The Frenches farm two blocks of land, one at their home property where they run a mob of early lambing ewes, and they have a finishing block nearby. The early lambs start being processed in late November and are all gone by the end of March. The finishing block lambs are taken through for eight to nine weeks to liveweights of 44kg.

All their lambs are Southland bred crossbred lambs and Bill explains there are three key points about them – traceability, careful animal welfare, and quality pastures.

Leelands lambs are grown on pasture which is cared for with sustainability in mind. They only use natural rock fertilisers and minimise drenching, with soil and animal health at the forefront of their mind. “If they need to be drenched, we will give them a drench. We try and take a holistic view of farming.”

Their lamb is aged naturally in a chiller for five days and then prepared into cuts. “We are trying to emulate the old home-kill product,” Bill says. “We’re getting some really good feedback about the tenderness, quality and sweetness of our meat.”

They highlight the honest nature of their business, including using graphics of Bill’s handshake. “We are honest and up front about what we produce. It’s all about quality, consistency, and reliability – delivering when you say you will, and what you say you will.”