Venison products win award

Hunting enthusiast and Gathered Game co-founder Chris Thorn. Photo: Catie Allen Photography
Hunting enthusiast and Gathered Game co-founder Chris Thorn. Photo: Catie Allen Photography
When Chris Thorn headed to Europe on his OE in his teens, he fell in love - with meat.

Despite not being a butcher, he has turned that passion into a business that has received national recognition.

Based in the small northern Southland town of Lumsden, Mr Thorn and his wife, Sally, run a small factory, churning out wild venison salami that is dispatched throughout the country.

Recently, their business, Gathered Game, won the artisan award for its premium wild venison salami and deer sticks in the New Zealand Food Awards.

The awards, supported by Massey University, marked their 30th anniversary celebrating creative innovations from New Zealand's artisanal and large-scale food and beverage manufacturers.

Spring Sheep Milk Company won the Massey University Supreme Award with its vanilla-flavoured probiotic sheep milk powder, while Otago Locusts won The FoodBowl Novel Food or Beverage Award.

Originally from Auckland, Mr Thorn grew up in the city and was always interested in hunting but was not allowed a gun. So he learned how to shoot with a bow and arrow and was placed third in the world bow hunting championships, competing in the under-18 category, in Australia.

Chris Thorn, Gathered Game products. Photo: Jodie Rainsford
Chris Thorn, Gathered Game products. Photo: Jodie Rainsford

His parents realised that city life was not really for their son and decided to send him to private board in Wanaka, where he spent his latter secondary school years at Mount Aspiring College.

The move was ''like a breath of fresh air'', he recalled, and he still had friendships forged during his time there.

Some of those friends taught him how to hunt ''the big hills'' and the move south ignited his passion for hunting.

He headed to Europe when he was 18 and was impressed with the high-quality cured meats available.

On his return, he was keen to find a good salami that was made in New Zealand, using New Zealand meat, but it proved difficult.

He was working in Queenstown, driving jet-boats for Shotover Jet, and ''playing around'' making salami. It got to the point where his friends told him that it tasted ''pretty good'' and suggested he do something about it. So he decided to give it a crack and start a business.

A ''tiny'' simple four-room factory was built in Lumsden several years ago and, having no experience in the meat industry, he said he was grateful to get good advice from people who had.

His meat was all sourced from Callum Hughes, from Fare Game, in Invercargill, and it was all fully traceable.

Every salami bought had a code that linked to the website to say when and where the deer was shot. Mr Thorn wanted customers to know that it was meat from ''legitimate'' wild animals.

Gathered Game salami was now being sold around the country and its main markets were bigger cities. It was also popular with tourists.

The business was shipping about 50kg a week and that figure would double by Christmas. The business had recently been growing by 40%-50% a month.

Recognition at the New Zealand Food Awards legitimised the cost of the product, he said; it mean that people who knew their stuff said it was a good product.

Conscious of not wanting to overpromise and undersupply, the couple were staggering their outlets at the moment.

It was a team effort and Mr Thorn joked his wife was ''head of HR''. Mrs Thorn did everything to do with customers, including shipping orders and talking to them, along with paperwork and accounts. Mr Thorn was responsible for making and packaging the salami.

His brother David, a business consultant, had given advice and also encouraged them to enter the awards.

Lumsden was a great place to be. It was on the main artery, easy to get meat in and out, and land was cheap to build the factory.

The local bakery probably sold more of their salami than anywhere else around the country ''because the people themselves love our product'', he said.

Come Christmas, the factory would be operating at capacity. The idea was that as soon as they hit the 100kg mark, they would employ someone to help with packaging and processing.

The next stage, which was not far away, was to increase the size of the factory so there could be two people doing his job. They originally thought that stage would be ''years and years away'', but the business had ''just taken off''.

Wild venison was an ''awesome meat'' and Mr Thorn wanted to spread the word to ensure more people were aware of that.

There were plans to diversify into other products and meats. ''It's not about salami, it's just about wild meat done properly. Not cheap and cheerful,'' he said.

Being so busy meant there was little time for him to hunt and, unfortunately, his hunting dog had recently broken its leg.

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