A Christchurch fast food maker's mission to reinvent the Kiwi hotdog is a case-in-point of the value of doing your research.
The deep-fried, tomato sauce-smothered takeaway standard is practically a national staple, so you'd be crazy to mess with the formula - right?
Not necessarily so, as it turns out.
The recent launch of Howler Hotdogs into the country's supermarkets is the culmination of years of work by serial business owners Jo and Brent Williamson - a project not made any easier by the Canterbury earthquakes.
When the Williamsons bought Golden Goose Foods in 2008 the firm had a steady trade supplying the traditional fodder of battered sausages, pineapple rings, meat patties and the like to takeaway outlets and events around the South Island.
But there was limited opportunity for expansion, particularly into the North Island, where customers had no reason to look south for a supplier of generic product they could source locally.
So the couple did a bit of lateral thinking. They put the humble hotdog under the microscope and realised it was stuck in the 1980s - fatty, more batter than sausage, and even though it was a Kiwi icon there was no awareness of any brand in the space.
The pair knew they'd spied an opportunity and became "quite passionate" about giving the neglected convenience food a new lease of life, Jo Williamson said.
But then the world literally came crashing down around Cantabrians' ears. Golden Goose's premises in a row of three industrial units was the only one left standing after the earthquakes, and with the destruction of suburban shopping facilities, many of the takeaway businesses the firm supplied disappeared.
"We were pretty much in survival mode for 18 months," Jo Willliamson said.
"Of the 30 years we've been self-employed it's not difficult to say it has been the most challenging. Everything that we've got it's taken to get through it."
Thus, Operation Hotdog wasn't able to gain real traction until last year.
The Williamsons have done their homework. They took on Auckland business incubator The Icehouse because of its expertise in market validation projects and developed a prototype of a frozen hotdog, complete with packaging and branding. Results from the consumer testing may surprise you.
First off, deep fried was out. Customers were definitely looking for a good-tasting sausage with light, crispy batter that could be baked, Golden Goose found.
And it emerged that people were well and truly over cartons of things in their freezers. Once they're opened items can fall out, the products get freezer burn, and the packaging takes up too much space. The answer was a resealable ziplock bag.
The market validation process was time-consuming and required much tweaking of the product and its packaging, but in the end it made life easier, Jo Williamson said.
"Once we'd done the research it was easy because we had all the information about the price point, the number of units people wanted in a pack, so essentially we just built what people were asking for."
The first product is a packet of 21 mini Howler Hotdogs, and Golden Goose is selling it through the Foodstuffs supermarket chain. Distribution is growing quickly, with several new Pak'n Save and New World stores signing up each week.
The product is not available in Countdown supermarkets, although it will hopefully soon be sold in some of Progressive Enterprises' smaller supermarkets, the Fresh Choice and Super Value chains.
Golden Goose was unable to reach a deal with Countdown. "When we worked through their business model with our product, it just doesn't work for us," she said.
She's not ruling it out in the future, but "it certainly doesn't [work] with this product line, which has a reasonably fine margin on it".
Meanwhile, the job of promoting the new brand is in full swing. Golden Goose has hired a public relations company for the first time, and is running in-store tastings which it may extend to other events - for example a food truck at children's sports.
The development of a higher value, branded offering was a strategic move for the firm because it allowed it to have conversations with customers nationwide, Jo Williamson said.
Further product development is in the wind. The Williamsons are keeping their cards close to their chest at this stage but hint at a gourmet range.
After all their trials and tribulations the launch of Howler Hotdogs has been exciting, and the Williamsons are feeling gung ho.
They've done all sorts in the past, including owning two Robert Harris cafe franchises and running B&Bs, and Brent Williamson's first business was a fish and chip shop, so in some ways he's come back to his roots. Jo Williamson started out as a psychiatric nurse, but insists it's not such a stretch from that to what she's doing now.
"To me, it's all about people and behaviour and that's probably what interests me."
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- Sunday Star Times
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