Eat My Lunch founder Lisa King's new business venture just about didn't make it.
After almost eight months of development through the various lockdowns, King's non-alcoholic drinks firm was just a week away from launch when a multitude of issues reared their heads.
Sitting in a small central-Auckland meeting room, King talks of the two weeks leading up to the November 16 launch of AF (Alcohol Free).
"Doing this a second time, your own business, you definitely learn a lot of things from the first one," King tells the Herald. "[But] it doesn't take all of the challenges away.
"We've had huge challenges getting this product made, and actually four weeks ago I didn't think we were going to launch. Everything that could go wrong, went wrong, but I think the second time round you just know how to manage those challenges a little bit better."
The list of challenges was lengthy, says King.
"When we went to trial this at our bottler, the products started 'flocking' ... where all of these particles started gathering and so it looked like it had massive floaties in them, which is really unattractive and unappetising.
"We actually had a pink grapefruit [drink] that we were going to launch too, but because it was pink the floaties were fluoro pink." That was one problem it had solved, as well as challenges getting the bottles from China, and issues with packaging wraps.
Near the start of the year King decided to stop drinking, planting the seed for her new venture.
She found going without alcohol surprisingly hard work - not for lack of willpower, but because of the social pressures. "It was actually quite difficult. Not so much in that I wanted to drink, but that people made it quite hard. If you go out and you say you're not drinking, everyone is kind of like 'Oh, what's wrong? Are you pregnant?' and I thought 'gosh, in this day and age, we all know alcohol is not great for us, it is a carcinogenic - a toxin that we are putting in our bodies - to make people feel judged for not wanting to drink, I just thought that was such an odd view, and it really kind of emphasised in our culture how important drinking is."
King says she struggled to find anything when she was on nights out beyond the usual options - water, juice or ginger beer - so she decided to make her own non-alcoholic spirit. "I felt like I needed something that was a bit more adult and complex and enjoyable and also sociable, because it's not necessarily the liquid, but being part of that occasion."
Formerly a gin and tonic drinker, she says she approached manufacturer and recipe maker Pacific Flavours just before lockdown and asked them to concoct a beverage that tasted just like a G&T — minus the alcohol.
Through lockdown, she worked on developing the product, pulling together a team of brand and advertising specialists who worked on the business over Zoom. The eight-person team didn't meet in person until May.
The business is still in start-up mode, based in King's Sandringham home.
King is the founder of buy-one-give-one social enterprise Eat My Lunch, which she set up with celebrated chef Michael Meredith in 2015. Since then, the organisation has donated 1.6 million lunches to children in need.
Just this week it was awarded the tender for the government's Ka Ora, Ka Ako Healthy School Lunches Programme, the contract will enable the company to provide 3.3 million lunches for children in 2021 and this means the team will need to at least triple in size.
The mother of two comes from a family of entrepreneurs. When her family moved to Auckland from Hong Kong in the early 1980s when she was two years old, her parents opened one of the first Chinese herbal medicine clinics in New Zealand, got involved in racehorses and property, and her mother became a real estate agent.
At age 16, her parents offered to buy her a business, but like most adolescent Kiwis of her generation, climbing the corporate ladder was King's measure of success.
After completing a double degree - a Bachelor of Arts in French and Spanish, and a Bachelor of Commerce in international business and management - King spent 15 years working for large multinationals. She worked for Fonterra straight out of university, and lived in the Philippines working for the dairy giant.
She then went on to work for Unilever in Europe, for Wattie's, PepsiCo and later Cadbury. Her background has always been in food, marketing and sales.
"I never thought that I wanted to have my own business, and it wasn't until Eat My Lunch about five years ago that I decided to go out on my own," says King.
Once she had children, she began questioning her future. "It was at the time when I was marketing chocolate and I would come home and my kids were not allowed to have chocolate, and so [I had] that sense of hypocrisy about why am I happy marketing and selling sugar and fat and unhealthy foods to the New Zealand public, but not allowing my own children to have those foods?
"I've always done charity work outside of my corporate life and I've always had this idea that the best job would be something charitable that also pays me a decent wage and salary."
When she saw an item on Campbell Live, comparing the lunchboxes of children in decile 10 schools to those in decile one, she realised the level of poverty in New Zealand and began her journey to her own business.
"I remember seeing that and feeling something inside me say something has to be done about this, why is no one doing anything; not just the Government, but who else should be responsible for this because we should not have kids going hungry in a country like New Zealand.
"That really stuck for me for a while and I remember talking to a friend about it one night and I was wearing a pair of Toms shoes and I looked at my shoes and I just thought this is such a great effective model, why can't we do it for lunches," she says.
"That night I came up with the name Eat My Lunch, I registered the company the next day and we worked on it for the next seven months and launched in June 2015."
Since then, the company's growth has been fast. It hit its three-year forecast in 12 weeks, giving away more than 2000 lunches a day before lockdown, now has commercial kitchens and physical shop fronts in Auckland and Wellington, and employs more than 40 staff.
The organisation will need upwards of 120 staff shortly for the government's healthy school lunch programme and will shortly begin recruitment.
Covid-19 has hit Eat My Lunch hard, as more people work from home, with fewer workers in town to buy lunch. "First lockdown, we literally went from making thousands of lunches a day to, on our lowest day, 20.
"Our revenue from the corporates buying lunches dropped by over 90 per cent in that week."
Like most businesses during that time, it switched to delivering fresh groceries.
"What we did during that first lockdown, and the second lockdown, was we delivered fresh grocery boxes to the kids' homes, where we gave them the ingredients to make their own lunches for a week. The ability to do that, I think really highlighted our strength as a business in terms of adaptability and to deliver from 77 schools to 2000 kids' homes every week," says King, adding that it was nice to be able to hire people for the deliveries during a challenging period for many.
Towards the end of last year, King recruited a general manager to run day-to-day operations at Eat My Lunch, allowing her to step into the position of chair of the board, focusing on strategy and advisory.
"I feel that Eat My Lunch has really helped me figure out what I want to do longer term. For me, anything I do has to have a social purpose, and it has to have a positive impact."
She teases that she has "a few other ideas in the background" for other ventures, saying she is always stumbling across issues she wants to solve. "Eat My Lunch feels like a springboard - hopefully on to many other things."
At AF, first employee Kristina Teale was also the first employee at Eat My Lunch. And as with Eat My Lunch, King gave some of the venture's initial team members equity in the business.
King sees AF as "fulfilling a massive need" and hopes it will make Kiwis more mindful about their relationship with alcohol. "I think we're at the start of something much bigger, in very similar ways to what we did with Eat My Lunch."
Next year will be about releasing more products, including alternatives to darker spirits to attract the male customer. The product is in more than 150 stores and the focus is on grocery outlets before it looks to bars and restaurants in next year.
"Right now, [the brand] is very female oriented with the gins, and we've got a pink one coming out soon, but we are hoping to bring more and more people into the AF movement that we are trying to create," says King.
"We actually found an extract that we've called After Glow, which kind of gives you a little burn as you are drinking it, so it really feels like you're drinking alcohol or a spirit, so we plan to expand this beyond the gin and tonics to other popular drinks."
King also hopes 2021 will be the year AF launches overseas. She wants the company to have a presence in Britain, the United States, Australia and Asia.
"The Asian market is a huge opportunity. Someone was telling me one in four Asians have a gene which means they can't process alcohol as effectively, and it's markets like that where there is a real culture around socialising, where I think this could work brilliantly."
King says the biggest lesson she has learnt about being in business is to have resilience. "You can't change what's happening, but you can change how you react to that. Being resilient and being creative, and finding different ways of tackling the problem. Over the last five years, that's something we've had to do if not every day, every other day."
Growing up as immigrants, with parents who worked long hours, King says she and her siblings were taught independence, which is where she believes her resilience and business survival instinct comes from.
"My parents definitely taught me the ethics of hard work; that's what I saw constantly with them was that they were always working so hard to try and provide us with a better life."
• Job title: Founder and chair of Eat My Lunch, founder of AF
• Age: 43 years old
• Education: Bachelor of Commerce (international business and management) and a Bachelor of Arts (French and Spanish) from University of Auckland
• Family: Two children: Ella, 13, and Toby, 11
• Lives: Sandringham, Auckland
• Last book you read? Becoming by Michelle Obama
• Last film or TV show you watched? The Boys on Amazon Prime
• Biggest challenge facing sector at present? International supply, expected to continue for the next six months