Tommy Roff, founder of Fresh As, talks freeze-drying 300kg of produce per day, supplying Whittaker's with its product and distribution enquiries from Kazakhstan.
What does your business do?
Fresh As started about 15 years ago. We're a food service brand and for about five years, it was just me and my two Labradors and maybe two phone calls a week. We're based in Henderson and all of the freeze-drying is done there. We supply our product to restaurants, cafes, cereal manufacturers and cake bakers and we also sell our retail product in New World supermarkets and boutique stores.
What was the motivation for starting the business?
My background is fruit and veg and I originally started it as I wanted to find a way to extend the life of certain herbs that were seasonal, and that's really where it started. I started by freeze-drying herbs and then it mushroomed from there.
Somebody had shown me some freeze-dry product, previously, and I didn't think much about it at the time but one morning put one and one together and decided to do it. We went to market with a product which nobody knew what to do with it.
Freeze-dry in general, then, was very foreign. Freeze-dry herbs was our first retail product and then we started freeze-drying fruit and we'd have people visit us every week saying they loved it but didn't know what to do with it, and so it took years for people to start to appreciate it.
How big is your team?
I have 20 people, most of my staff are in processing and packing. We have very few people in management, it's just me and two other people.
How much product do you sell?
We have the capacity to freeze-dry three tonnes of produce per day - fresh weight, and that gives us about 300 kilograms of product a day. We're not at full capacity now but we're probably selling somewhere between 150 to 250 kilos per day.
What companies do you supply product to?
We supply half a dozen cereal manufacturers, cake bakers and Whittaker's for three of their chocolates - black Doris plum, brae burn apple and passionfruit, but retail has been the big mover for us, we've been doing it for five years or so but it has really gained momentum in the last 18 to 24 months.
I thought we weren't a retail product. We had a few retailers ask us to do retail and said, 'Yeah, I'll do it but it won't sell though' so I was quite surprised when it did.
How much of a focus is export for Fresh As?
We used to do 60 per cent export, 40 per cent local but in the last 12 months it has swung the other way. This financial year we've done 70 per cent local and 30 per cent export.
We send a lot to Australia, quite a bit in the UK, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the US, Canada, a German distributor talking about coming on, we get enquiries from all around the world, it's quite interesting. We didn't start supplying them, but we had a boutique store like Farro Fresh in Kazakhstan enquiring, which made me realise that there is a place for our products in every country of the world.
What's different about Fresh As and its product offering?
Most freeze-dry companies around the world market their product as a snack but we don't. We market ourself as an ingredient. A snack you can just eat but we try to show people what they can do with it, which makes it a lot more approachable to a lot more people. Freeze-dry is pretty expensive as a snack. Would I buy it as a snack? Maybe not but as an ingredient for a desert it's quite cost-effective.
What are your currently focused on?
We starting to do ready-made desert mixes. We've already done a panacotta mix and I think that will make Fresh As more mainstream. We provide product to create something but the panacotta mix is a lot easier to make - you just add milk and cream. We do food shows all the time and the product tends to create more questions than answers so I'm trying to create product now that creates a solution.
What's the biggest obstacle you've had to overcome to run Fresh As?
Cash-flow. Freeze-dry machinery is expensive, we have five, and each machine is $1.6 million to $1.7 million, and then there's stock. Most products we buy are seasonal so I have to buy in season I have to buy what I need for the year. I get investors approaching me all the time and I'm tempted but I don't bite because the busier we get the less money we have as we have more money in stock and machinery.
Your expanding into retail in Australia, tell me about that?
Predominantly, we started as a food service company, supplying restaurants. Australia is my biggest client in terms of food service but we'd never really done much in the retail sphere, mainly because I thought my product was too edgy for retail.
I started selling in New Zealand and retail here has taken off, so that suddenly made me think it could work there. Australia is great because they're just like us and its close. We find we've got less competition over in this part of the world. We do retail in the US and UK and we have a lot more competition there.
How do you decide on new products to freeze-dry?
We freeze-dry anything from herbs, fruit and vegetables, gin & tonic, balsamic vinegar, soy sauce, pretty much everything there is. A lot of our market is the fining dining restaurants. From a restaurant point of view, it offers restaurants a product that has intense flavour but also some textual component to it. Say, you might have a desert, and everything is soft and panacotta but add in so crunchy freeze-dry fruits. Our best chefs use our product in conjunction with fresh. They don't generally use it to substitute for out of season, they use it to compliment fresh.
How has your business changed over the years?
We've had acceptance which has been really good, we've gone from people not knowing our product. We were close to giving up until a chef in Australia, he loved our stuff, Ben Shoebridge from Attica Restaurant in Melbourne, told me to come to Australia and show it to restaurants there and they liked it and caught on first. Once Australia came on board, New Zealand followed. Australia was the making of the business, if I hadn't started selling there, then I wouldn't be here today.
What advice do you give to others thinking about starting their own business?
If you have a good idea and you're pig-headily determined about it and don't give up it's impossible to fail.