Dessert-maker goes from farm kitchen to export markets.
Trish Gibson must be one of the country's oldest exporting entrepreneurs. The 74-year-old just might be the gutsiest, too.
A domestic recession and then a global financial crisis threatened to bury her start-up gourmet food company. But Gibson upped the ante and staked everything - including the family farm - on expanding the business.
Country Culinaire's handmade pavlova roulades and sticky date puddings are today stocked in Melbourne shops and will soon be in Sydney and Brisbane stores. A new range of handmade icecream is on the market and she has inked a deal with the Ministry of Science and Innovation to improve production techniques at the Hastings factory she bought last year.
Asked about an exit strategy anytime this decade, the septuagenarian says she is concentrating on increasing market share, revenue and further developing the brand before looking for a buyer.
The prospect of driving an international food business that trades on its handmade, preservative-free credentials does not seem to faze Gibson. It's a long way from the company's farm-kitchen beginnings in October 2000, when Gibson first concocted fare to take to a new farmers' market.
Back then, Hawkes Bay was reeling from the recession-driven closure of two meat works, a big blow to the Gibson beef farm. "It was a different place," she says. "We sort of got down in the doldrums and [farmers' market originator Graeme Avery] came along and could see the potential and he got us going."
Avery brought expertise, money ("We eventually paid him back") and, crucially, an eye for a commercial proposition. When market judges suggested the pavlova roulade had strong commercial potential, Avery pushed Gibson to start a company.
"I never, ever dreamt that I'd be doing this 10 years on," she says. "I was a farmer's wife and just doing a bit of catering."
She used to make the dessert - "It's like a rolled-up pavlova; it's flat and then we put the cream on, then we put in the filling and we roll it up like a sponge roll" - two at a time using a little Kenwood mixer.
In 2002 she bought premises in Hastings. "Right from when I started off, I was on a steady growth upwards, until I hit the recession in 2007-08." Experience suggested the downturn wouldn't last but 2009 was no better, and faults in Country Culinaire's premises were hampering production. Meanwhile, three consecutive droughts drove a dagger into the heart of the farm business.
"We weren't making any headway and we thought [Country Culinaire] had bigger potential, so we sold [most of the farm last year]," Gibson says. Did she fear putting the couple's assets on the line? "No, I'm an optimist and we talked about it."
"[Husband Barrie] was more than happy for me," she says. "I know I've got a good product and everybody likes it; they might not like the price but it's handmade."
So new premises were bought and a new product was devised after Gibson agonised about the waste of egg yolks from pavlova production. Instead of sending the yolks to a local piggery, she decided to make handmade icecream, ordering a churn from Italy and settling on eight flavours including chocolate and chilli, liquorice and black icecream. "I've gone back to the old-fashioned way of how icecream used to be made with egg custard," she says.
Country Culinaire icecream ticked all the boxes in both presentation and flavour. It is rolled into 650ml tubes, allowing diners to cut the dessert into perfect rounds.
The icecream and Gibson's other products are stocked in New World supermarkets, and she has attracted orders from restaurants around the country.
She has also received an offer to stock stores in Australia, a market Gibson had previously tried to crack. A deal with Costco was signed to supply Melbourne and her product will soon be in Sydney and Canberra stores, too.
"I couldn't believe all this happened. A lot of businesses sold when they're just about there and that was the reason I didn't shut the door, because I thought if I can just hang in there and I know I've got a good product and it will all come right."
Her instincts were correct, and now a dollar-for-dollar deal with the Ministry of Science and Innovation will see production methods improved. "I am in expansion mode; you wouldn't believe it."