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Inside Auckland's FoodBowl

Andy Kenworthy peeks inside Auckland's FoodBowl innovation centre for insights.

Auckland FoodBowlFood and beverage makes up more than half of our exports and we export four times the amount of food as Japan. And for all the talk about being too reliant on a commodity economy, you have to admit it's too much of a monster to stop now. Andy Kenworthy peeks inside Auckland's FoodBowl innovation centre for insights.

The Thunderbirds-esque look of the new $18.1 million FoodBowl food innovation facility fits its location out near Auckland Airport, its ethos and its potential. The building’s four prominently numbered bays look every inch as though they are ready to launch us into a rocket-powered future, and in terms of New Zealand’s economy, they might do just that.

The first of its kind in New Zealand, FoodBowl gives established companies, startups, chefs and wannabe food entrepreneurs access to state of the art food and beverage equipment. Here they can test ideas, refine procedures and hone existing production processes in a low-cost, low-risk, supportive environment that complies with the highest national and international quality and hygiene standards.

Auckland FoodBowl companiesIf that doesn’t sound so revolutionary, think about this: how many people do you know who might lend you, say, a biscuit factory for the afternoon to test your idea for Chunky Chip Hokey Pokey Snaps? And would you know what to do with it if they did?

Before FoodBowl, anybody outside of a large existing food firm wanting to do something in food and beverage had to pretty much go straight from their kitchen benchtop to the factory floor. This meant a huge increase in risk, since going for scale in food and beverages is not just about multiplying the ingredients and getting bigger pots and pans. The chemistry changes in larger containers, along with the costings and capacity, not to mention the all-important taste and consistency.

The original FoodBowl concept was dreamed up by Ray Winger, Professor of Food Technology at Massey University’s Institute of Food, Nutrition and Human Health, and Ross McCallum who set up Kapiti Fine Foods back in 1984 before selling it on to Fonterra. They spotted that New Zealand’s green and pleasant land grows some of the finest food ingredients known to humanity, and we have a well-established record of success in everything from milk powder to celebrity chefs. But the opportunity to add a great deal more value to this mix could turbocharge the whole economy. In addition, there is a particular need to look at ways of creating long-lasting stable foods that can take their unique Kiwi flavours to distant overseas markets.

It comes across as a perfect opportunity to back the drive for a high-tech knowledge economy, while at the same time upping the output of our raw foods cash machine. So why did it take so long? Stuart Walker was involved in the early stages between 2002 and 2004 and now, the best part of a decade later, has taken up the role of acting chief executive officer.

“It was originally mooted that businesses should fund this, but they would want to run it to create shareholder value, and you would get the problem of who is in the club and who is not, and whether that would be open access,” he explains.

“It was never going to work on that model in practice. It wasn’t until we got a National government with a different emphasis on export-led growth, so it wasn’t until 2008 when we effectively got this across the line.”

The Steriflow retort is like a giant pressure cooker The V blender is the most effective way to combine powders The high- pressure processing unit can extend a product’s shelf life with minimal degradation of quality Neale Tate (centre), an engineer at The FoodBowl, using an Armfield carbonator unit with Nick Sheerer and David Hawk from Cool As Soda, which is developing a range of soda drinks Acting CEO Stuart Walker (left) was involved in the concept from the early stages, while chairman Tony Nowell has a wealth of experience in both the food industry and technology

And now it stands, 2,000m2 of concrete and brushed steel glory. The setup inside is based around four separate innovation suites and seven processing rooms. Each surgically clean space comes with its own secure entrance that includes the necessary hygiene protocols and equipment. Upstairs in each suite there is an office space and combined meeting room/ staff room and viewing area overlooking your individual mini factory floor. Combined with one large communal high-tech conference space off the facility’s main entrance, there’s everything you need to impress investors or just show your mum you are serious about your new business.

The equipment clients get in their space and the other processing rooms they have access to depends on what they want to do. The basics include equipment for extrusion and milling/ blending, filling equipment to handle bulk bags or retail packs for both extruded product and powdered blends; UHT/aseptic filling line and other equipment for beverage development and production; equipment for filling cans, retort pouches, stand-up pouches, pottles and jars; general purpose food processing; and the capacity to bake biscuits, health bars and novelty items if you get bored.

There are also some seriously big-ticket items that you are unlikely to see even in full-scale factories in New Zealand, let alone in smaller outfits. These include a high pressure processing unit, a V blender, a top of the line freeze dryer, and a large microwave thawing unit. These open up the possibility for even well-established firms to look at ways of improving the production of long-running products, and test-drive state of the art equipment without putting millions of dollars worth of investment on a salesman’s word.

For example, high-pressure processing can take the shelf life of products such as hummus from something like three months to a year or more, opening up export possibilities in Australia and Asia. Effectively a form of cold pasteurisation, the method uses extremely high pressure to eliminate food-borne micro-organisms and pathogens without the use of high temperatures or additives. This is particularly useful for foods that are sensitive to heat and results in minimal loss of product quality, flavour and nutrition. Another advantage is that pressure can be distributed uniformly throughout the product no matter what its shape or size, avoiding the inevitable temperature variations you get when heat is used.

The V blender mixes powders effectively by rotating the chamber, halving and recombining the mix. It is particularly good for sensitive materials such as vitamins, and the vessel can also be gas-flushed with nitrogen so as to minimise any degradation due to oxidation during the mixing process. It is typically used in pharmaceutical production.

And the freeze dryer works twice as fast to lower temperatures than nearly anything in commercial operation in this country, meaning firms can find out if the resulting investment is worth the increased production speed.

The way that the many technologies on hand interact can also be instrumental to the development of an idea. For example, one client recently said they were set on a process of hot-filling their beverage to its containers for hygiene reasons, but FoodBowl’s closed systems allowed it more carefully controlled cold-fill options. The result? The product went from a very limited choice of packaging to a much wider range, with a potentially radical increase in its appeal.

As Walker points out: “The format you put your product in greatly affects the success of the product. If you put it in the wrong-sized packaging your price point could be wrong. You could have a drink that tastes fantastic, but if the bottle look and feel is wrong then your target market may reject it.”

Materials delivery and storage is handled by FoodBowl staff through a main concourse running between the suites. This cuts down the chances of contamination, as well as saving handling time and the cost of separate freezer and refrigeration rooms.

It works at all scales, serving everyone from chefs wanting to work on secret recipes in the commercial kitchen, to incredibly complex food production processes for fairly large sample runs of hundreds if not thousands of items a day. Prices range from $400 a day for the use of a large commercial kitchen, with costs increasing as you take up more space and use more equipment for more time. FoodBowl’s own resident food technician from Massey University can advise to an extent on processing, but the FoodBowl team recommends clients use their own external consultants to establish how to get the best results from what’s on offer.

“We don’t do the work for you,” says Walker. “We are just a catalyst and a conduit.”

This hands-off approach keeps FoodBowl’s staff overheads down and avoids any confusion about FoodBowl folks getting their sticky fingers into any IP that gets cooked up there.

“This place runs on commercial confidentiality,” he confirms. “The clients’ IP and know-how remain strictly theirs. This facility has not been set up to make a corporate profit, our success will be entirely measured on the success of our clients. We have to get to a break-even, but we will be measured in the economic value of the exports we generate. And that benefits all of us.”

A valuable part of this process is that preparing to use FoodBowl gives people a chance to pull their socks up and get organised around their idea. The costs are not ludicrous, but they are enough to ensure that you want to think about what you are going to do carefully beforehand, as you would if you were in a band and had booked some studio time. And the facility is running regular clinics and workshops to give people a taste of what’s on offer without them having to book space themselves.

Once there you can analyse raw materials, packaging costs, time factors, labour costs and get an idea on how things will scale. Then you have to do your evaluation on the costs of taking it to market, your marketing costs, retailer margins, any taxes and, particularly if you are going overseas, your export costs.

There’s an inevitable training emphasis here too, as the industry looks to facilities like FoodBowl to train up its people in the latest techniques, as well as all the skills that go into managing an entrepreneurial business.

David Hawk, owner operator of Auckland’s Suite bar, wanted to enhance his company’s offering of top quality local beverages at the bar and corporate events. After a small batch produced on domestic type soda siphons generated a lot of interest at last year’s Taste of New Zealand event, the team was unsure how to go to the next level.

“We didn’t have the funds for a huge bottling plant, but then I got Stuart Walker’s card,” he says. “There were a huge range of challenges: testing bottles without buying thousands of them, getting the CO2 fizz right for our local natural ingredients, and meeting all the compliance criteria, which are tight, and rightly so. We now have a product bottled, labelled and almost ready to go, which we could export anywhere with just a few changes. I don’t think we could have done it without them.”

Says Walker: “The bigger companies may have some of this in house, but the smaller companies don’t. If we are going to grow New Zealand’s food capability we have to look at increasing the capabilities of the people running these companies, so by default we are probably going to end up being an industry training organisation in disguise.”

So far the smaller, more nimble operators are the first to start using the space, while the big corporates sort out the paperwork for putting their R&D work into the mix.

“The big players are genuinely scoping projects now, and we will see them in here for two to three days a month for up to 24 months, which is really quite exciting,” Walker says.

“There have already been some absolutely brilliant concepts that have come through, incredibly exciting. One of the best parts of my job is the sheer brilliance of the ideas that are coming through and the fact that we can genuinely help them. These are not just whacko ideas, they are really good concepts.

“But I think it’s about niche not scale. You are not going to be competing with the big beverage companies like Coke and Pepsi. That is sheer scale, you have seen the best in the world take them on, even Richard Branson, and he’s come off second best.

“There’s an old saying in marketing: hit them where they ain’t. Create your own niche. These guys are big and they will defend their patch vigorously. Innovation is your biggest weapon. They don’t know what to defend themselves against if it is something new. We have seen that again and again in the food and beverage business: create something new, create your own category, get big success.”

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