Angus Allan: Expanding the herd

By Rebecca Barry Hill

Angus Allan used to cook for the world's richest man. Now the entrepreneurial former chef is poised to take his gourmet yoghurt brand to Europe.

Angus Allan with a yum tub of Russian Fudge yoghurt. Photo / Babiche Martens
Angus Allan with a yum tub of Russian Fudge yoghurt. Photo / Babiche Martens

Angus Allan makes it sound easy. His gourmet yoghurt brand launched in May last year and, in just 10 months, has become the highest earning gourmet yoghurt in New Zealand. Now the Collective Dairy Company is poised to hit shelves in 500 stores in Britain, including ubiquitous British chains Waitrose and Sainsbury's.

Allan says the company has grown by 400 per cent since its launch, and now employs 27 staff. It's the kind of speedy success every small business dreams of. So, has it actually been easy introducing Kiwi yoghurt to the British market?

"No!" laughs Allan, sitting in front of a mountain of products that sound like they're straight out of Willy Wonka's factory: Nommy Choccy, Russian Fudge and Apple Crumble.

"You've got to be completely persistent. If we gave up every time we heard someone say no, we wouldn't have got anywhere."

It's a unique deal in that The Collective has paired up with the British Gu chocolate pudding company.

Gu will manufacture the yoghurt using British milk and the New Zealand recipe and packaging. In other words, it's a Kiwi-designed product made in Britain, and Allan says it will be marketed as such before its launch late this month.

The Collective is not the first Kiwi gourmet yoghurt brand to tackle the European market - rivals Piako have built a factory outside of Norwich with a view to supplying the likes of Harrods. But for a Kiwi brand to sell its wares on this scale, save perhaps New Zealand wineries, they are unrivalled.

It helps that Britain was on the cusp of a gourmet yoghurt trend, with consumers moving away from the perception of yoghurt as a health food and towards the idea of it being a tasty treat. Allan and his business partner, Ofer Shenhav, could be forgiven for thinking that taking their brand offshore would be a doddle.

"The first time we pitched the idea, people were ecstatic, they nearly fell off their chairs," says Allan. "They loved the brand, they were saying this was exactly what was needed in Britain. It was really positive. We thought, 'this will be so easy'."

Instead, they found themselves at the start of a hand-wringing process that involved several tense trips to Britain and back, and a month where they thought the entire deal had fallen over.

Eventually the pair managed to convince the right people their yoghurt had a point of difference, and would appeal to a new generation of consumers, particularly those seeking ready-to-eat treats such as those already available from specialty supermarket chain Waitrose.

"There's a large number of people who don't eat yoghurt, they just think 'ew'," says Allan. "The people that buy ours are often the ones who've hated yoghurt all their life then they taste this and think, 'oh my God, I'm going to eat it all the time'. It's indulgent."

It's also low-fat, he adds, the smooth texture acquired with the addition of lots of culture. The flavour is zingy but not acidic.

"And that's the off-putting thing for many people."

Allan doesn't just credit his business acumen for his success but a lifelong passion for food. In his early 20s he worked as a chef on superyachts that sailed throughout the Mediterranean. He says he was almost fired for being "inexperienced, young and stupid" but eventually wound up working for the world's richest man, Mexican business magnate Carlos Slim. It wasn't the man himself who Allan remembers most but his grandmother, the on-board sous chef, who taught him all about Mexican cooking.

At 26, Allan returned to New Zealand, fired-up to start his own business. Rather than start a Mexican restaurant, he ventured into the world of dips and spreads.

"I had this love of food and wanted to go into the industry but I didn't want to open a cafe or restaurant. I thought, people buy lots of food through supermarkets. So I was cruising around looking at products in supermarkets when I spotted a gap in the market."

Deciding he could do better than the Sanitarium Lisa's range, he launched Naked Organics in 2002, developing the recipes in his mum's kitchen. In the interim he worked as a chef at upmarket Auckland eatery O'Connell Street Bistro. Naked Organics was so successful that in 2007, Sanitarium offered to buy it.

"I'd invested heavily and had to work out if I should cut my losses. I'd borrowed way too much money, I was too young and naive, I could cook but I didn't know how to run a business. I thought, Sanitarium is a big business, what could they teach me?"

So he went to work for them for three years, helping to overhaul the Lisa's range. In the process he says he learned more than he could ever have done working on his own.

It was during this time he and Shenhav talked about combining their skills.

"I was doing soups, he was doing dips, and we were often at loggerheads. But we had a mutual respect."

Shenhav had just sold his successful organic soup and hummus company, Pitango, when he suggested the pair of them go into dairy. Allan knew the corporate life, though beneficial in the short-term, was not for him. In 2009 the former rivals launched the Epicurean Dairy Company, after buying the Canaan cheese company. That Allan knew nothing about making yoghurt didn't faze him; he and Shenhav got on with learning how it's done.

Their research into the New Zealand market found there were few brands specialising in gourmet yoghurt at the time, a food trend that started in Queensland and has since taken hold with brands such as the country's number one-seller, de Winkel, plus Piako, Kapiti, and Puhoi Valley; even everyday brands Yoplait and Fresh 'n Fruity are now selling gourmet, dessert-style ranges.

The company also supplies cafes and restaurants throughout the North Island with their soft cheeses range of haloumi, ricotta, feta and mascarpone, which they eventually hope to take abroad too.

Since launching The Collective they've battled rising milk prices, but Allan says the recession has worked in their favour. Many people are choosing not to eat out as often, and instead buying luxury brands to enjoy at home. (At about $1 a kilo, The Collective's yoghurt is at the more expensive end of the scale.)

As for those other scales, this yoghurt has just 5 per cent fat; the yoghurt itself is sweetened with honey. The compote-style fruit and gooey syrup layered though the product contains sugar; the Russian Fudge is literally made from melted fudge. Not all of Allan's unusual blends are big-sellers - the pomegranate and cherry for instance - the brand's limited edition range allows Allan to experiment with flavours, without over-committing. He is currently working on a recipe containing Nelson figs stewed in balsamic vinegar, and a blackberry option in time for the Rugby World Cup.

"I'm a chef, so Ofer and I are always discussing what we've eaten that week and how we can incorporate this and that. We have a lot of fun with it, and try not take ourselves too seriously."

But the hope is that plenty of others will - on the other side of the world.

- NZ Herald

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