It took a decision from the United Nations before Havelock North grower Phil Alison could call his Rockit miniature apples, apples.
Slightly bigger than a golf ball, the New Zealand-grown variety looks and tastes like a normal apple but was too small to fit the UN’s minimum size grade.
However it is precisely the Rockit’s size that Alison sees as its great potential. His business, The Havelock North Fruit Company, is marketing the mini apple to the world as a snack food, and quietly continued exporting the forbidden fruit to Asia and Europe while the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) investigated.
“People have never seen anything like it so they are a bit sceptical about the Rockit at first,” says Alison, who has been growing apples for 30 years.
“But demand has been huge... because as a snack brand you can get children to eat healthy.”
The company paid the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) to plead to the UNECE on its behalf, and finally, after four years of paperwork, in May this year Rockit officially became the world’s smallest apple.
Having succeeded in changing the definition of an apple Alison’s next goal is to transform the way we think about the fruit.
You won’t find Rockit apples in a wooden bin in the produce section. Launched in 2010, the fruit are marketed as a healthy snack on-the-run and come in plastic tubes of three, four or five. The packaging (which will be made of plant-based eco plastic next year) is designed to be stacked at a checkout counter and inside the cup holder of a car or golf trundler.
Originally developed by Crown research organisation Plant and Food Research [PFR], the Havelock North Fruit Company bought the global rights to the Rockit cultivar in 2002. When all his competitors were trying to grow larger apples, Alison saw an opportunity while strolling through his local supermarket.
“It looked to me like confectionary had stolen a huge amount of money out of people that might have traditionally bought a piece of fruit,” he says.
“In my day, prunes used to be in one big bag but now you can get them individually wrapped… It got me thinking.”
Priced at $3.99 for a tube of four apples, Rockit are more expensive than most fruit but each individual apple works out at around the same price as a chocolate bar.
Alison admits the tubes of apples were a hard idea to sell at first.
“I try to convince people that the apples are a snack and they think I’ve got a cabbage on my head,” Alison says.
“But I was adamant I didn’t want to just market them in a bag like all the other apples. I needed something that protected their integrity but also was going to be the point of difference.”
The Havelock North Fruit Company exports Rockit apples to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Italy and the US, and in the UK exclusively through upmarket retailer Marks & Spencer. In New Zealand they are available in the New World supermarkets.
As well as expanding exports Alison’s goal is for the Rockit to be sold in alternative locations such as petrol stations and cafes. A juice bar at Auckland Airport currently sells the fruit, and he is in talks with a major US café chain and a convenience store.
His “biggest frustration” is that demand far exceeds supply. It takes two years for a Rockit tree to produce fruit, and seven years for the trees to reach full capacity.
To speed up expansion, the Havelock North Fruit Company has raised $9 million in capital, including
seed funding from the New Zealand Venture Investment Fund (NZVIF).
Tauranga angel investment group, Entrerprise Angels, contributed more than $4 million in four funding rounds. Havelock North Fruit Company did so well getting international fruit growing licences it also invested in two Rockit orchards, Bill Murphy, executive director of Enterprise Angels, says.
“Selling apples in tubes is quite special. There are others that might try to copy that and we have seen that in Taiwan. But the key to success will be the quality of the Rockit apple.
“If you buy other small apples they are often regular apples that have not grown full size and usually that will affect the taste and quality of the fruit,” he says.
The company produced 3000 cartons of apple tubes in 2013 but this year will produce 24,000 with a goal of 200,000 by 2016. The company hopes to raise another $3 million to meet its targets.
The Havelock North Fruit Company has sold Rockit growing licences to 18 different countries. The company is strictly monitoring overseas sales, by limiting licences to one per country and controlling the quantity. Marketing is also managed in New Zealand to ensure the packaging is consistent globally.
“We need to have Rockit available 12 months of the year, so we need it being produced in the northern hemisphere and the southern hemisphere,” Alison says.
Currently Taiwan is the apple’s largest market, but a trial of the Rockit in the United States this year has been successful (see below). There’s a lot of hard work ahead but Alison takes his inspiration from another Apple founder.
“Steve Jobs once said, ‘People don’t know what they want until you show it to them’. I think it’s a very cool saying.”
Big Apple ambition
US apple distributor Chelan Fresh began a trial of New Zealand-grown Rockit apples in May this year. The company’s director of marketing, Mac Riggan is confident the Rockit will take off Stateside.
“A lot of people really liked it, there’s been a little bit of push back on the price but there are other people that thought it was good value,” Riggan says.
“I think it’s just people getting used to paying a little more money for fruit… It’s kind of like when bottled water came out, you’ve got early adapters and then pretty soon it goes mainstream.”
Buoyed by healthy sales across the US, the company is planting Rockits next spring in Washington State.
“The apple market is healthy in the US. People are embracing new varieties and we are getting more customers for the category,” Riggan says.
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