From farmers market to supermarket - the FoodStarter journey


Ananda vegan sausage FoodStarter winner FoodSouth

30 November 2020

From farmers market to supermarket – winning FoodStarter is a lifechanging journey

Entries for the 2020 FoodStarter competition are open NOW! Enter here

FoodStarter is a competition that guarantees your product will be placed on all New World shelves… for small, innovative startup food and beverage companies, this is the holy grail! A guaranteed pathway to market with scale-up, production, branding and business support to help get you there.

The prize package is lifechanging, so we sat down with Fernando Guitierrez, of Ananda Simply Wholefoods who won the 2019 FoodStarter competition and Tracey Sheehy, the FoodSouth Business Development Manager who worked alongside Ananda to take their vegan sausage from farmers market to supermarket.

“Winning FoodStarter was lifechanging.” Fernando goes on to offer sage advice for anyone contemplating entering in 2020. “Be committed, because winning is the easy part. Nothing will be the same again, everything changes and there are many challenges, so you have to be prepared for that. It’s hard work. We underestimated how hard it would be, but we are really happy with the product about to hit New World shelves.”

And he should be happy – Ananda’s vegan sausage has an incredible mouth feel and taste says Tracey. The Italian-style sausage created by Fernando and wife Maria Lopez, packs a flavour punch with a hint of chilli, fennel and a complex spice understory. It’s an incredible product that you buy pre-cooked ready to BBQ, toss through pasta, onto a pizza or to enhance any vegan meal. “The bite and texture of this vegan sausage really does feel and taste like you’re eating meat – it’s a wonderful product,” Tracey adds.

It’s been a steep learning curve in the year since he won the competition – there’s been failed trials, successful trials, the sourcing of appropriate contract manufactures, securing 3rd party logistics companies, branding, packaging and many hours perfecting his product. Add in a new baby, a house move, significant investment and a covid lockdown and Fernando is feeling the pressure when we talk – but while he is open about the challenges, he absolutely validates the process. “If you are ready to scale up and this is something you want to do, this is a great step forward.”

Layer after layer

Tracey likens the challenges of getting a new product to market to that of peeling an onion. “There is layer after layer of challenges and hurdles to overcome. And when you find a solution to one issue, more often than not, there’s another one which appears.”

For Ananda, the absolute innovation of his product meant there was not one contract manufacturer that could undertake the entire production process.

“The manufacturers who could form and cook the sausages did not have appropriate mixers for dry ingredients (typical meat sausages are mixed entirely differently).

“The biggest piece of advice I can give to anyone starting a food scale-up journey is be clear about what you are prepared to compromise on and know what your hard and fast core product value propositions are. Because there will be compromises, so having your end point in mind is valuable.

“For Ananda, having sustainable packaging was important, but we had to do a whole analysis on this factoring in cost, food safety, shelf stability, security of supply and ability of available machinery to package into this.”

Another major decision point was whether the product would be fresh or frozen. This is where the insights and expertise of the Foodstuffs category management team were invaluable. By providing real market data on consumer behaviour, the FoodSouth team were able then to add in the true cost of production, manufacturing capability and then consider in supply chain logistics and storage capacity to make recommendation to Ananda on how to best get their product to market.

“There is always a balance between what is desirable, what the customer wants, what the competition is doing and what is practical and that’s a huge part of our role in helping a business make decisions.”

Fernando knew going into this that his sausages were not like any other – his ingredients and methods were unconventional for a traditional product like a sausage. He needed to find a way to take what was a very manual process and turn it into a commercially viable one. This has been achieved and currently each batch produces 180kgs versus the 40kgs he used to make.

Another challenge many small businesses face on the journey to market is having the ability to commit to the minimum quantities a contract manufacturer requires to produce the product. This is where FoodSouth again comes into its own. “We provide the facilities to do small-scale manufacturing, to help confirm demand. We also do the technical work so when the client goes to a contract manufacturer, the scale-up is much more seamless – it’s a plug and play type scenario. We do the research and development and the trials. We ensure the formulation (recipe if you like) and process is scaled up to suit that particular manufacture’s equipment. We know what our client wants to achieve, and we work hard to deliver that. Across the New Zealand Food Innovation Network we have access to hundreds of different pieces of equipment and many leading technical and engineering experts and this breadth and depth of knowledge provides a unique service to our clients.”

We mentioned the lack of mixers suitable to mix Ananda’s dry product earlier – after trials with a first production moved to another manufacturer. They did not have the mixers, but has the space for Fernando to take the FoodSouth mixer into the premises. After validating the entire process in this facility – Ferando invested into his own mixer and has moved it onsite – alongside the peeler needed.

Tracey takes us on a small side journey to explain getting the sausages into said environmentally friendly packs. “Because there were so many unknows around the manufacturing of this unique product we did not know what size pack we would need until quite late into the process.” What diameter would the plant-based casing be once filled? How would the selected machine form them so they could withstand the cooking process without bursting? What weight would this translate to? What size sausage would the customer want? Which then begs the question – what size box is needed? What is the cost, storage and supply chain logistics associated with each of these decisions?

“This is a good example of the onion – remove one layer, and then you have the next layer there to navigate. It’s a process and I always tell clients starting out that you know what you don’t know, but you also don’t know what you don’t know!”

Innovation is a large part of FoodStarter and taking a product to market which is unique is difficult – if it was easy, someone would have already done it! It will be technically challenging. For Ananda, FoodSouth provided the technical expertise, made connections to the industry experts required each step of the way, validated the process, undertook trials and did technical reviews each step of the way. They worked with Strategy – the branding company developing the packaging and brand to ensure all information on the product was complaint. The collaboration with Foodstuffs South Island ensured they were on the right track every step of the way and the pathway into the distribution centre was as simple as possible. The Ministry of Awesome sat across the process, holding Fernando’s hand and providing the business connections to enable him to commercialise his vegan sausage.

“I’ve seen a whole new world where we have explored different suppliers, casings and techniques from all over the world, but everyone involved has helped me every step of the way.

Our life has changed since winning FoodStarter – be prepared, it’s a hard and stressful journey but it’s worth it,” concludes Fernando.

Learn more about FoodStarter here.