The future for Invercargill-based Back Country Foods and its freeze-dried food for trampers and hunters is bright, as a change of ownership signals expansion plans and a new, enlarged factory.
From fewer than five employees, making less than 500 packet meals a day in 1998, the company, best known for its Back Country Cuisine brand, now employs 21 people and its daily output is up to 7000 meals.
Back Country Foods has been sold to Invercargill-based family business George Wilson Group, by Invest South, a Southland private equity fund 100 per cent owned by Community Trust South.
The Alliance meat company, a pioneer in freeze-dry processing for military and commercial use, founded the operation before it became Back Country Cuisine in 1998.
Back Country Foods general manager John McGrath said when contacted the Invercargill operation was "pretty much operating to capacity".
"This is an exciting time for us, with the George Wilson [Group] looking to build a new factory and expand ... yes, they're committed to staying in Invercargill," McGrath said.
He said Invest South, coupled with earlier private joint-venture partners, had been critical in enabling Back Country to become a leader in the freeze-dried food market.
"Growth has pretty much doubled each year for the past six or seven years," Mr McGrath said, highlighting the 2013 installation of a new freeze drier which had doubled capacity at the time.
Back Country makes a range of about 50 types of breakfast, dinner or dessert meals, plus packets of freeze-dried potato.
While there was "growing competition" in the freeze-dried meals market, Mr McGrath was confident Back Country was a "market leader", citing the recent surge in domestic tramper numbers and also overall gain in international tourists in recent years.
He said Australia had a large share of the Back Country's export market.
George Wilson Group is a long-established Invercargill-based family business with more than 65 years' experience in engineering, farm machinery, and more recently, campervan hire.
Its businesses include Geo W Wilson & Sons, Southland Farm Machinery, Tractor Hire South Ltd and Escape Rentals.
Group director Murray Wilson said Back Country presented a "powerful new opportunity" to diversify its Southland operations by growing an already successful business.
"We're very excited about the potential of Back Country Foods, a strong and profitable business with a high-value brand that is extremely well positioned for growth and expansion into new markets," he said in a statement.
He said the focus would be developing new products and looking for new markets.
Invest South chairman Mark O'Connor said in a statement building "a leading iconic brand" from the heart of Southland was always the investor's vision.
"We've been proud partners in achieving that, supporting Back Country Foods with capital as well as hands-on management and governance expertise."