Based in Whangarei, the concept of a producer cooperative was sparked when manager Robin Nitschke first tasted tamarillo relish on a panini at Kings Garden Café in Silverdale 10 years ago. Nitschke chatted to the team about his unique products and new stockists.
What is your company background, how did you start the business?
“My wife and I bought a 10-acre lifestyle block in Whangarei and decided to plant tamarillo trees to make tamarillo relish, jams, jellies, sauces, and later vinegar dressing. Initially, we sold these products in local stores then weekly at three farmers markets in Northland, which we have been doing for the past seven years. During that time we have spoken to thousands of customers and built up a huge clientele of regular purchasers. Our experience from selling these products confirmed that they are keenly sought after. Referrals are commonplace, and many of our customers travel large distances to get to the markets to purchase our products. All our validations for our products have been by way of feedback from these customers, i.e. we ask what they like and why, and what they don’t like and why.”
“It was when Auckland retailers wanted to stock our products that we realised that we had come to a crossroads – either continue as a successful cottage industry or upscale and commercialise our business. But to do that we would need to restructure our industry to ensure we can have consistent access to large volumes of tamarillo. I was the chairman of the Tamarillo Growers Association at the time, an organisation that encompasses 95 percent of all tamarillo growers in New Zealand. The prime objective of that organisation is to promote tamarillos to the New Zealand consumer and increase the efficiency of its growers by a collaboration of information, research, and association with other like-minded industries. With eight different merchants trying to sell tamarillo into a niche market it quickly became apparent to me that the major retailers were playing one merchant off against the other to drive down growers’ prices. It was for this reason that three years ago I collaborated with four other large growers and we formed the Tamarillo Cooperative which sells all its produce through just one merchant. This has seen growers’ prices lift substantially, but the real benefits of the Cooperative are at the end of the supply chain with the production of value-added high-end tamarillo products such as Tamarillo Relish and Tamarillo Vinaigrette Dressing, as growers supplying tamarillos for these products receive substantially more than they would if they were sold as fresh fruit.”
What are the current product range and variants and how do these products stand out in the market?
“All of our products are gluten-free, dairy-free and have no artificial preservatives or colour.”
“Due to the small size of the tamarillo industry, very few tamarillo products find their way onto retailers’ shelves. It was with this in mind that we built a commercial kitchen in our orchard and began to make and sell tamarillo products. As demand and sales rapidly increased, we contracted an Auckland-based food manufacturer to produce our products. Although we produce and sell a large number of tamarillo products at the farmer’s markets, there are two products that have become the favourites for our customers; Tamarillo Relish and Tamarillo Vinaigrette Dressing. “
“Our Tamarillo Relish is unique because as growers we know which variety produces the best relish and we have developed a technique designed to extract only the sweetest pulp from the tamarillo fruit. For the production of our Tamarillo Vinegar Dressing, we had to design a unique infusion technique which is not available in New Zealand.”
Has there been any recent company news?
“We launched our products into the retail markets in September of 2015 and since then have won a number of major food awards for our relish. We have also been exporting our vinaigrette and Tamarillo Pulp to the United States for the last 18 months, and last year we won the prestigious SOFI Best Salad Dressing Award.”
What are the plans for the business moving forward, is there any expansion on the horizon?
“In New Zealand, the experience Heather and I had of tasting our first Tamarillo Relish at the Kings Cafes in Silverdale 10 years ago indicated to me the appropriate distribution channels for our products. As a speciality product that many have or probably never will taste on their own accord, having our products ranging in food service seemed like a logical move as it offers customers a taste of our product that they would probably have never had, so we decided to focus on the foodservice industry. However, our products are also available in numerous specialty food shops throughout the North Island and of course from our online shop.”
“In addition, Muffin Break has been using our Fruit Preserve on their muffins throughout their 45 outlets, and My Food Bag now includes our relish and vinaigrette in their recipes. We intend to build on these initiatives to create a greater awareness of our delicious but as yet relatively unknown products.”
“Internationally, 18 months ago we entered into a joint manufacturing arrangement with a huge specialty food manufacturer and retailer in the States. They now produce and sell our Tamarillo pulp and vinaigrette throughout their retail outlets in the United States and in Canada. Last year we won the very prestigious SOFI Best Salad Dressing Award. After two exploratory success trips to the Melbourne Fine Foods Shows and the very enthusiastic response to our products, with assistance from NZTE, we will be launching in Australia this year. We also have a wholesaler in Finland who is currently setting up distribution channels for our vinaigrette throughout Scandinavia.”
Where are your products currently available to buy, and are you looking at or wanting to expand your availability? If so, where would you like to see the product situated?
“Selected specialty retail outlets throughout Nth Island, shortly in Farro Fresh and also available from the four major Food Service Companies. My Food Bag is now including our relish and vinaigrette in their bags throughout NZ, and Muffin Break has been using our jam throughout their 45 stores. Once the awareness increases from these initiatives, we would look at having our products ranging in selected supermarkets again.”
“However, with sales increasing in the States for our vinaigrette, and real interest from Europe and Australia our aim is to build on this and establish and develop a distribution network overseas.”