Turning liquids into powders, reinventing coconut, producing drinkable honey and making money out of fish livers. Paul Little goes inside the top secret facility transforming the way we eat.

Every time we go into a food store, a plethora of new waters, juices, health bars, ready and not-so-ready meals and other hitherto undreamed of ­delights confront us.

Many will have got there with some help from The FoodBowl, part of the Food ­Innovation Network.

The brainchild of Ray Winger, a former Massey University professor of food technology, it was opened in 2011 in a gleaming purpose-built edifice in the industrial heart of Mangere, a site chosen partly because many of Auckland's food producers are near.

The aim was to increase the ­value of the food sector by encouraging companies with significant export potential to develop and commercialise new products.

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The Government got behind it - Callaghan Innovation eventually put up most of the money. It provides 70 per cent of the annual running costs and Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development makes up the balance.

Before it got to that point, though, the Government insisted it be a ­national facility, so FoodBowl is part of the Food Innovation Network, along with four other regional outlets, each with a different focus.

Food Waikato, for instance is home to a giant spray drier that turns liquids into powders. ­Fonterra has one, but it is used full-time. The facility in Hamilton has let goat and sheep milk farmers cater for the growing demand for powdered ­versions of their milk. Between them, those two products are now being exported to 17 ­countries.

At The FoodBowl, clients access food-processing facilities - and ­expertise - they could ­otherwise not afford and that bridge the gap between a commercial kitchen and a multimillion-dollar plant.

Development Manager Angus Brown and Client Solutions Manager Alasdair Baxter. Brown was a client who liked The FoodBowl so much he joined the company. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Development Manager Angus Brown and Client Solutions Manager Alasdair Baxter. Brown was a client who liked The FoodBowl so much he joined the company. Photo / Brett Phibbs

You may well have a killer quince chutney recipe, but that doesn't mean FoodBowl is going to take you global. "We're very selective about who we deal with now," says client solutions manager Alasdair Baxter, who came to FoodBowl a couple of years ago when he was mortgage-free and looking for a ­lifestyle change after working in food sales.

"We want to be dealing with companies that are doing something innovative that will make a difference, or they are biggish companies getting into a new field."

Wannabe FoodBowlers have to answer a series of questions that separate the curds from the whey, so to speak. They get points in categories such as innovativeness, use of native ingredients, export focus and use of new technologies. Many are enthusiastic at an initial meeting but never send back the forms.

Nevertheless, says business ­ manager Angus Brown, "we're booked out three months ahead".

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Brown was an early FoodBowl client who liked it so much he joined the company in 2012.

"We could have more people and do more projects," says Baxter.

"We could run a double shift where you're working all night as well, but it's getting the funding to do that and people willing to work through the night."

Alexandra Allan, Chief Executive at New Zealand Food Innovation Network. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Alexandra Allan, Chief Executive at New Zealand Food Innovation Network. Photo / Brett Phibbs

That said, customers range in size from small start-ups to the likes of ­Fonterra, whose product development teams might not have ­access to their companies' over-committed equipment.

"Every run is subsidised by the Government to a certain extent," says Baxter.

"But all companies pay to use the facility. And the fees are the same no matter the size."

For companies that do make the cut, the emphasis is on food processing and production.

"We specialise in the making," says Brown. "There is a bunch of independent food technologists or formulators who can do the initial concept development, then when you want to make ­thousands, come to us."

The advantage is that instead of investing millions in a plant for a product that may not work, you can spend a few thousand at FoodBowl.

Nice Blocks apple and mango ice block. Photo / Sourced
Nice Blocks apple and mango ice block. Photo / Sourced

Take Nice Blocks, makers of the popular dairy-free frozen treats.

"They had left-over coconut cream and wanted to do a drinking milk," says Brown. "They used our line to do proof of concept, and once they developed that intellectual property they went very quickly on to a contract manufacturer."

"[Fishing com­pany] Sanford wanted to use some of their waste to produce added-high-value ingredients such as fish oils. It was about doing a lot of really smelly stuff, digesting fish livers."

The work is done in four main production rooms, which to the untrained eye look more like A-list medical laboratories than anything to do with food. Each has hero technology that cannot be moved, complemented by other portable ­machinery, so things can be reconfigured to suit various needs.

Inevitably, clients are in competition, which creates special requirements. "All the rooms are independent of each other," says Brown.

"We've had two of the biggest ­manuka honey companies using us on the same day, and they were both fine with it. Whereas if you go to a food gala they won't sit next to each other at the same table."

Clients get passwords and use separate entrances and entirely separate facilities, right down to changing rooms, break rooms and offices, so their paths never cross. It's like a French farce but with food manufacturers, not mistresses.

 Preeti Lukasser and Meg Li with a Retort Stabiliser in one of the research units. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Preeti Lukasser and Meg Li with a Retort Stabiliser in one of the research units. Photo / Brett Phibbs

"We have one company here today who don't want anyone to know they're here until they've launched," says Baxter. "The benefit of using us is that we're confidential. And companies keep all the IP.

"With universities, they like to capture some of that, but with us people can just come in here then move away without that risk."

Or having to share their profits.

No less important is the networking, as in the case of honey ­producer Comvita. "They wanted to add value to their honey in new ways," says Baxter.

"They decided they wanted to do drinks. We were able to help them not only with the trials and getting commercialised but also connect them with the contract manufacturers who are available, and the packaging companies."

They know where to go for ­export expertise, R&D funding, advice on regulatory requirements.

Brown calls FoodBowl the ­Tinder of the food industry. One recent hook-up was between Purefoods and numerous FoodBowl contacts.

Clients get passwords and use separate entrances It's like a French farce but with food manufacturers, not mistresses.

That company was the brainchild of Sam Bridgewater, inspired by his stepfather's illness to develop tasty, nutritious ­pureed food suitable for people who couldn't eat regular food.

"Where you might spend a day to find the right person for something, a chat to one of their staff might get you there in an hour. So that's ­added value, plus there are networking events," says Bridgewater.

His business has grown quickly. "We started as one of the smaller customers and now we're at much larger quantities. We are serving close to 25,000 meals a month. We've managed to get hospital contracts, aged-care contracts, we serve people in their own homes."

Purefoods is about to move into its own premises, but still using FoodBowl's equipment in terms of new product development.

York Spencer developed his Manukee manuka honey drinks through FoodBowl, from Thailand, where he was based. He wanted to make the cultish honey in an easy to access and consume format.

"The main benefit of working with FoodBowl was an ability to develop a product in a small-­volume, lower risk environment," says ­Spencer. "You can adapt and improve to a stage where you can put it in front of consumers without having to produce 50,000 units."

He stayed in Thailand for much of the process, but Spencer would fly to New Zealand for trial runs.

"A New Zealand presence was needed to break into the Chinese market," says Baxter, "because the Chinese need something to be sold in New Zealand before they'll accept it." Manukee drinks are ­already being sold in New Zealand, Japan and South Korea.

Rebekah Hay from Hakanoa Ginger Beer. Photo / Greg Bowker
Rebekah Hay from Hakanoa Ginger Beer. Photo / Greg Bowker
I

nnovation is about experiment, which means trial and error.

Artisanal fizz purveyor Hakanoa Ginger Beer's relationship with FoodBowl had both, according to co-owner Rebekah Hay, who signed up in the facility's - and her company's - early days.

"We went in as newbies. And it was to start with very confusing," says Hay. She thinks beginners need more basic help than she got at the time.

She would also like the fee structure to be means-tested, with ­perhaps "some form of funding ­that you pay back when you're making a profit".

But Hay says two good results from the FoodBowl experience were being brought into contact with an engineer who was an ­experienced brewer, and the ­networking: "One of the most ­valuable things was that ­Angus put us in touch with some Fiji plantation people and we've just bought 6000kg of ginger from them."

Although involvement with ­production ceased around five years ago, she also recently took part in FoodBowl's Good FoodBoost mentoring programme. "I love it. You're getting advice from people who've done it, like Martin York, the guru behind Whittaker's - one hour with him was gold."

From these ­experiences, it would appear ­variety is the spice of food.

And ­although no one is yet turning sow's ears into artisan pork pockets, chances are when they do, they may have had some help from The FoodBowl.