Tiny food company beats giant rivals to scoop several cuisine awards.
Tasty Pot is a new Auckland-based company whose success is based on a simple premise: fresh vegetable gourmet meals that can be bought off supermarket shelves.
Since June the company has managed to get its wares - meals that take four minutes to heat and are beautifully presented in clear plastic containers - into New World and Progressive supermarket chains, fancy food outlets Nosh and Farro, and a handful of other stores.
In November the little upstart competed against its mammoth rivals at the New Zealand Food Awards and won three prizes, including the Supreme Award. It was the cuisine equivalent of David beating Goliath as previous winners included Tegel, Tip Top, Watties, Sealord, Hubbard Foods and the New Zealand Dairy Board.
The company now produces more than 600 pots a day at its Penrose factory and has the capacity to triple output as demand grows.
"What we're good at is good, honest food," says Andrew Vivian, who founded the company with his wife, Natalie, in April.
That honesty is evinced in its presentation. The meals are hand-packed and the ingredients - most of them locally sourced - are layered so buyers can see exactly what goes into each pot.
Its runaway success is built partly on growing public concern about diet and the need to eat healthier food. Of the six products, which will include different seasonal offerings, three are vegan recipes and three are gluten-free, the latter a growth market in the food sector.
But mostly, Tasty Pot's success is based on the fact that its meals taste great. As food award critic Ray McVinnie noted: "We couldn't make better or fresher ourselves - high-quality raw ingredients combined with minimal processing made the Tasty Pots a colourful, healthy, great tasting and convenient meal solution."
Impressing judges is one thing; persuading teenage children to eat the meals is quite another. I gave the pot of greens and Asian noodles - served cold for want of a microwave - and the pot of couscous salad to a 14-year-old boy.
His verdict: "The coucous was the highlight with its sweet citrus dressing to hold it together. The veges weren't anything to miss, either, with a large variety of items and just the right amount as not to overpower the couscous."
Both Vivians are passionate cooks, an ardour honed in France and Britain. In London Andrew cut his commercial teeth selling fruit smoothies for independent company Innocent Drinks, eventually bought by Coke "for an obscene amount of money".
Its "non-corporate" approach of "doing business ethically and having fun" shaped his business strategy, particularly in Innocent's dealings with supermarket chains Sainsbury's, Summerfield and Tesco.
Natalie was acquiring more marketing-focused skills at Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy, where she was brand manager for the wines portfolio. "She got subjected to all these Michelin-star restaurants through this luxury goods company and I was getting exposure from a supermarket, fast-moving consumer goods perspective," says Andrew.
They returned home after having children, and the absence of fresh convenience meal options such as those available in Britain presented a market opportunity the Vivians were keen to exploit.
"We got together with a few chefs, developing a shortlist of eight to 10 recipes," says Andrew. Help from Cuisine magazine food editor Lauraine Jacobs was a big plus, he says. But the awards for convenience meal, overall award for innovation and the Supreme Award were a surprise.
"But it really illustrates a trend in consumer thinking away from these big companies, whose new product development is driven in part by production efficiencies," he says. "We pack everything by hand. To get that layered look you have to do it yourself, there are no machines that can do that."
New recipes will be unveiled this year and are likely to include a meat dish. June is targeted as the point in which the operation will break even. Not bad for one year in business.
Tasty Pots is a purely domestic operation as its products only have an eight-to-10 day shelf life. But the Vivians say there is plenty of scope to further grow the business in New Zealand. Its facilities can produce up to 2000 pots a day when running at full capacity, Andrew says.
"The nicest thing isn't the number of stores we're in, it's the feedback we're getting from consumers," he says. "That is the gauge of success."