The FoodBowl aims to increase the value of manufactured food and beverage exports, reports Graham Skellern.

Sam Bridgewater couldn't bear watching his stepfather - who had cancer in the jaw - struggle to eat ordinary food. He reckoned there had to be an easier and better way to maintain a normal healthy diet.

For nearly two years he and his business partners, older brother and Olympic rower George Bridgewater and Maia Royal, researched texture modified or soft food and developed their innovative product.

They talked to clinicians, dentists, District Health Boards, food scientists, chefs and consumers, and found a market niche for people with eating difficulties.

The three partners launched The Pure Food Co on to the market last October and first concentrated on supplying nutritionally fortified meals in plastic pouches to people living at home, including elderly and children with difficulties. The company then moved on and began supplying rest homes and hospitals.

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"Tens of thousands of people in New Zealand have eating difficulties," says Sam Bridgewater, a former corporate banker.

"For people who have had a stroke, are suffering from Parkinson's or dementia, have a broken jaw, have no teeth, eating becomes a stressful part of the day.

"We decided to provide a real food solution that keeps people well nourished," he says.

"The meals include proteins, vegetables, carbohydrates and sauces, and we reduced the plate size and increased the vital nutrition to ensure every mouthful is a winner."

Bridgewater and Royal first worked at their kitchen bench in Grey Lynn, and then operated out of Massey University's Albany campus.

"We got our friends and our grandparents to taste our food, and we took it to consumers at Mercy Hospice," Bridgewater says.

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23 Feb, 2015 9:00am
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The Pure Food Co received Callaghan Innovation R&D Getting Started and R&D Project grants, organised by Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (Ateed).

The new business reached the stage of refining manufacturing processes and completing pre-production runs at The FoodBowl processing plant, which funded by Callaghan Innovation and Ateed.

"The FoodBowl has all the right equipment and technical expertise, and the staff and consultants there helped us develop the right packaging and best practice in food safety and risk management (HACCP)," says Bridgewater. "We will stay there and make plans to increase production."

The Pure Food Co is now completing two-day production runs at The FoodBowl every three weeks and is supplying its nutritious meals to aged care facilities and homes throughout the country. "We have a very healthy pipeline of interest, including from overseas," says Bridgewater.

The meals are supplied chilled and have a six week shelf life. Customers can choose their own meals or be sent a chef-selected set menu that provides a balance and varied diet.

They can choose, for example, hoki fish pie with leek and potato, cooked in a bechamel sauce and hints of lemon, nutmeg and bay leaf; or roast lamb with potato, parsnip and carrot sauteed with thyme, and braised purple cabbage.

The fresh beetroot is cooked with a touch of balsamic and the green beans are flash cooked with a hint of lemon.

The menus will be refreshed every six months in line with seasonal ingredients, and each meal costs $7.50.

The Pure Food Co is one of more than 100 companies, small and big, that have used the state-of-the-art FoodBowl (Te Ipu Kai), now into its fourth year of operating, for testing and producing new products.

Earlier this month The FoodBowl - assisted by Ateed - hosted two open days, attracting about 700 people representing more than 300 companies from around the country

"The awareness is definitely out there - from start-up food and beverage companies to product development technologists working in larger businesses," says Angus Brown, The FoodBowl's business development manager.

Companies can be matched with suppliers ... They can share information which speeds up research and development.

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"Lots of companies approached us with projects over those two days. There is a drive to utilise traditional waste streams and turn them into value added byproducts, and newer technologies to remove preservatives from food products. The big transformation is to go all natural," he says.

Up to 30 food and beverage companies are presently using The FoodBowl - part of the New Zealand Food Innovation Network - at any one time. They have access to a hands-on, world class manufacturing pilot plant that provides effective, low risk product development facilities.

The businesses have the choice of hiring and working confidentially in seven processing halls for: High pressure processing (HPP); General processing and retorting; UHT/Aseptic hot and cold beverage filling, Twin screw extrusion milling and grinding; Freeze drying; Product development kitchen; Microwave thawing.

The FoodBowl holds extensive Food Safety and Risk Management plans, and the advantage for the clients is that they can prove the commercial viability of their new products before moving on and buying their own expensive equipment or committing to large volumes with contract manufacturers.

The FoodBowl's latest open days attracted about 700 people and new research and development projects.
The FoodBowl's latest open days attracted about 700 people and new research and development projects.

ANZCO Foods has created the FoodPlus programme and utilised The FoodBowl to develop new and innovative uses for the parts of the red meat carcase that currently generate less value.

Fishing company Sanford has established an extensive research and development programme, extracting premium quality fish oils such as Omega 3, protein and marine calcium and turning them into high-value and nutritious food supplements and additives from previously under-utilised raw materials.

Tomette, the French food company which won three categories at the 2013 New Zealand Food Awards, developed a new range of soups using the facilities at The FoodBowl.

Kokako was able to extend the shelf life of its Cold Brew Coffee from two to six weeks, and thus increase its market reach, after trialling the high pressure processing (HPP) and nitrogen gas flushing systems at The FoodBowl.

Fresh to Go used the HPP technology to increase the shelf life of its salads and healthy snacks and the company supplies the supermarket delis of Pak 'n Save and New World.

Apollo Apples developed a single-pressed premium juice for overseas markets from the process grade apples that couldn't be exported.

Since its opening, The FoodBowl has added new equipment to meet client demand and allow them to complete larger and advanced projects more efficiently. "It's important to do rapid prototyping and get the new products to the market in a cost efficient and timely manner," says Brown.

The FoodBowl invested in an Apex labelling machine that can apply up to 120 adhesive labels in a minute, instead of the previous 10-20 labels per minute. A sachet packer can handle liquids and powders on the same production line, and separators and centrifuges were introduced for oil extraction and separation projects.

The FoodBowl's mission is to increase the value of manufactured food and beverage exports. It is supporting growth and development of New Zealand food and beverage businesses, of all sizes, by providing facilities and expertise needed to develop new products and processes from a concept to commercial success.

Because of this, The NZ Food Innovation Network including The FoodBowl has developed strong industry connections and in the process accumulated plenty of information. The network is now eliminating its own "bottleneck" by launching an online platform The FoodPortal which will connect the whole industry and go live in June. It will be the most comprehensive online directory for the industry. "It means companies can be matched with suppliers, whether it's research expertise or packaging specialist. "They can share information which speeds up research and development," says Brown.