From her Wellington kitchen, Justine Muollo developed the recipe for a high protein, low carbohydrate, high fibre biscuit seven years ago that diabetics, gym bunnies and coeliacs could enjoy.
She now manufactures at least 100,000 units a week of the baked product, called The Protein Cookie, at a Ngauranga factory.
The one-woman healthy biscuit business turns over more than $2 million a year, exporting to four countries with a new factory recently established in Italy to meet demand from the European market.
Muollo, who grew up in Island Bay, first entered the baked goods market with the Biscotti Spoon, a three dimensional spoon she developed in the late 1990s to serve with coffee. It won "best grocery product on the market world wide" at the 2002 global food professionals awards Sial D'Or in Paris.
"My forte is development, I love it. I developed a Christmas pudding flavoured spoon that [United Kingdom supermarket] Waitrose snapped up. The six pack I developed for them sold about 30,000 units in the Christmas of 2002."
However, she hit tough times when a designer she had contracted to build a manufacturing machine did not deliver what she'd hoped. She refused to pay. It wound up in the High Court at Auckland and she eventually won in the Court of Appeal, but after the stress she took a year off. During that time she created The Protein Cookie.
"I saw a gap in the market. Wheat and gluten-free products were on the rise and so was diabetes.
"There were a few wheat and gluten-free products on the market and I thought, wouldn't it be great if they were protein fortified and low carbohydrate? A lot of people are getting sick of protein bars and shakes."
It took around 40 baking runs to get each flavour perfect. "I just experiment, test bake, taste test, do moisture checks, shelf-life checks. It's hard work but I absolutely love it."
Muollo said she had not had any help from outside investors to grow the business, which used packaging machines she bought from Spain for around $250,000. The large ovens used in the factory are $180,000 each.
"It's just been myself all the way. I've had to learn as I went, I didn't have anybody to help me out."
The Protein Cookie is sold in supermarkets and health food stores nationwide. Private labelling was proving lucrative, baking and packaging her products with another company's brand name. She previously supplied Starbucks with individually-wrapped biscuits she custom-developed for the coffee chain and produces biscuits for supplement brand PeakFuel, and makes Australian slimming business BodyTrim's cookies sold in Coles and Woolworths.
She is looking for a new Wellington factory, with a desire to keep production in New Zealand. She has just returned from a six-month stint in Europe where she is establishing a factory in Italy specifically to service the European market and cut down on freight costs.
"I'm always looking at what is on the market, what the trends are, what consumers are wanting. The food industry and manufacturing food is very, very hard - you've always got to be on the ball. My passion is food and baking and I also like to have a bit of a challenge."
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