All NZ juice paying off for family business
Keeping their product pure and unadulterated is paying dividends for small North Canterbry fruit juice company Mill Orchard, with loyal customers throughout New Zealand and export markets developing in Malaysia, the Pacific, Dubai and Australia.
"It's pretty challenging - we're just a family business up against the big boys," said co-owner Nick White.
"There're three major juice players in New Zealand; you've got Frucor which owns a huge raft of brands, Coke and Charlie's, both of which are now owned by the Japanese. We're just a scale on the tail of a minnow."
Nick, his wife, Carey, brother William and William's wife, Gay, started making juice as a way to use up excess fruit from their former export and local apple operation and it's long since become their main product.
William, who also has a wood-turning business, designed, built or adapted most of their machinery, including their first press and filler for the 3-litre bottles they started out with.
"We'd pop four bottles on to it manually and fill up and it was a counterweight sort of system and when it was full it would tip over and shut the flow of juice off so you had to be sitting there and getting the bottles on and off and had to screw the top on by hand," Nick White said.
"At the end of the day, you'd be ruined."
On a good day they could produce 1300 bottles which were originally sold under the Raeward Fresh brand. When demand grew, the Mill Orchard brand was launched.
Trained as as beauty therapist, Carey White changed careers and was soon visiting retail outlets up and down the country. "I had to learn everything the hard way, just do it and get out on the road. I had to go and visit the grocery managers and learn the politics of the supermarket."
From one product, apple juice in 3-litre bottles, Mill Orchard's range has grown to 36, a variety of real juice blends in a range of sizes.
Their point of difference from the big players is there's only locally squeezed juice in their bottles while other juices on New Zealand retail shelves use imported concentrate.
"That's major," said Carey White. "It's quite surprising. At the tastings we've done in supermarkets and trade shows and food shows, people go, 'I don't like apple juice.' We go, 'Do you like apples?'
"They go, 'Yes.' We say, 'All it is, is crushed apple with a little bit of vitamin C.' They look at you dubiously but when they do try, it's, 'Oh, wow it really does taste like apples."
"This is what it's supposed to taste like, not this artificial flavour business from concentrate juices, it is natural."
Nick White admits using only New Zealand grown crushed fruit for their juice does present challenges.
"A little while ago we were sitting on 1000 tonnes of apples that we needed to get through Christmas so the logistics of doing it are a lot harder, whereas if you've got drums of thick concentrate that are six to one, you don't need many drums and you can make a huge vat of juice - it's real easy."
As the business has grown, so too has the plant needed to make juice and William White's inventive side has helped make that happen. While he's at work turning wood - including a line of handles for coffins - his mind is likely to wander to solving juice machinery problems.
"It's really amazing how the brain works when you're doing something totally different because you've got to think outside the square and when you're thinking in the square you just can't get out."
That attitude helped when the business needed a new bottle washer and filler.
"We could go and buy a new one out of the States or Europe and it was going to cost a good million dollars and we didn't have that sort of cash sitting around so we picked one up from China but it needed quite a bit of work."
Thanks to his tinkering and modifications the new machine is now in action - at a cost of about $100,000.
A central principle of Mill Orchard's philosophy is to use exclusively New Zealand-grown fruit as well as packaging - bottles, caps, labels and boxes. The juice is pasteurised so preservatives don't have to be added.
"We believe in what we're producing," said Carey White. "... how can you believe in something that's not good quality?"