Christchurch plant-based ready-made meal manufacturer Berkano is expanding its reach into supermarkets, but the business, co-founded by a then-20-year-old, has come a long way from its initial troubled beginnings.
Britteny Bryan, 24, and her partner Nick Harlow, 27, founded Berkano Foods in 2017 after they tried out a vegan diet and shortly after realised the lack of options on the market.
The pair started the Sockburn company, which has meals in 80 supermarkets and also supplies door-to-door by courier delivery, before fake meats and vegan cheeses were readily available in supermarkets.
Bryan dropped out of university three years into her mechanical engineering degree and the pair pulled all of their savings together, totalling about $20,000, to start the firm.
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They waited about eight months for their Food Control Plan from Christchurch City Council. It was a tough first year for the start-up, Bryan said, and as a result they ended up moving into a storage unit and living out of that for seven months to save money on rent.
"We knew the owner and he wanted to help us out, he felt sorry for us," Bryan told the Herald.
The pair later took over the staff kitchen at the storage unit company and turned it into a commercial kitchen where they initially made the meals. In hindsight, Bryan says if they knew how long the licence would have taken to get approved they would not have quit their jobs so soon.
Harlow comes up with the inspiration for the meals while Bryan takes care of the company's accounts, marketing and customer service.
Bryan says the journey to have product stocked on the shelves of 80 supermarkets, mostly in New World stores throughout the South Island, had been a "tough ride" ahead of it making its grocery debut in October last year. The banks initially refused to help the pair with any capital.
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Berkano has spent the past couple of years increasing its manufacturing volumes to produce enough heat and eat meals to be stocked directly in Foodstuffs South Island distribution centre.
"They have a numbers game and if you don't hit their quota then you can get dropped."
The company is now working towards being stocked into the majority of Foodstuffs stores by the end of this year, and hopes to be stocked in its North Island distribution centre to reduce the cost of freight. It also plans to expand its range of retail products over winter.
Its main business is the ready made meals that are delivered weekly, along with its range of retail products sold in supermarkets including frozen meals, vegan sauces and soups, and it also operates its own cafe in front of its Christchurch factory where it sells vegan gelato and sorbets, sandwiches and filos.
It is not certified vegan by the New Zealand Vegetarian Society.
Three years into operations, Bryan says the business is turning a profit, but all earnings were being reinvested into the company to fuel its expansion.
Berkano, which has seven staff working in its 300sq m factory and adjoined cafe, is forecast to surpass $1 million in revenue next year.
"We reinvest all of our profit back into the company to expand it. We don't even pay ourselves a wage, we just pay ourselves for what it costs to live basically.
"We could draw ourselves a wage if we wanted to but we see it far more wise to reinvest."
Bryan says Harlow and herself work "well over 100 hours" per week on the business and had been doing so since day one - but she would not have it any other way as she has found running her own business extremely fulfilling.
"We will probably be working 100 hours a week for another three years, but that's just what you have to do to make a successful company," she says.
Berkano plans to increase its online sales this year as that is where it makes the most profit. It makes less than half of what each meal is sold for through supermarkets.
There were no other New Zealand vegan ready-made meal manufacturers which supplied goods to supermarkets other than Berkano, currently, but Bryan says she expects this to change as the plant based market continues to expand in New Zealand.
Bryan had little work experience when she started the firm with her boyfriend. She previously worked as a receptionist for a cold refrigerator storage company and prior to that worked a summer job at an aluminum smelter in Invercargill sweeping iron ore shavings off the floor.
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FITNESS - Chilli Chipotle 😊 Made from TVP & legumes, it has a great 'meaty' texture with a mild Mexican taste. Served with our cashew chiptole dressing! . Macro Breakdown: Calories: 403 Cal Protein: 20g Carbs: 60g Fat: 8g Vitamin A: 74% Vitamin C: 32% Calcium: 28% Iron: 17% . . Order below: https://www.berkano.co.nz/…/fitne…/products/chilli-sin-carne
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Her advice to other millennials looking to get into business? Don't take advice from your friends and family.
"That was a big hard lesson [that I learned]. There are so many pessimistic people in your family who just want the best for you, but that's not really the best advice; it's just them being scared themselves because if they were in that position they wouldn't [take the risk].
"None of our friends or family supported my partner and I, in 2017 they thought it was a silly, risky idea as they couldn't understand the plant based market."