Nelson woman turns Kiwi Kai passion into tasty business
Kiwi Kai is a Nelson business making waves in the processed seafood industry, turning beautiful New Zealand seafood into delicious fare.
Reni Wereta-Gargiulo is the owner, business manager, recipe designer and is in charge of production in her small commercial kitchen at home; in other words a one-woman-business-dynamo.
Christmas before last we bought some of her canapes for our staff Christmas lunch and I have been keeping an eye on this quality producer since then.
But it is one product that motivated me to finally meet the woman and find out more about her – whitebait pies!
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We bought ours at Guytons and were really impressed with the quality, from the crispy pastry to the whitebait and egg filling they are a perfect lunch treat with a nice fresh salad.
For someone to be able to produce such beautiful food there has to be a back-story and Wereta-Gargiulo's is one with a real food and hospitality focus.
She has a diverse background in marketing, promotion, business administration and tourism. Added to that are the entrepreneurial skills she inherited from ancestors on her mother's side and her Maori values and heritage on her father's side, forming a strong foundation that drives her passion for business.
Both lineages also have a love for seafood.
"I was around food a lot and it is quite natural for us as Maori to give manaaki (everything about hospitality in one word) with guests, you care for them from the time they walk in the door until they leave and part of that for me is making sure I give them healthy food.
"At home I grew up with wonderful food, mum is Scottish-Irish and introduced dad to vegetables like asparagus, eggplant and other foods he had never seen before then dad would cook a lot on the weekends making things like Maori breads and cooking mutton birds (he was banished to the back yard to cook those)and crayfish."
Growing up in Dunedin her father would ask her girlfriends if they would like some ice-cream and he would send them to the freezer to get the treat "but it was full of fish heads, eels and crayfish, it generated a few screams from young girls."
Wereta-Gargiulo has worked in the tourism sector since she was 18, in places like Milford Sound and in the hotel industry in Queenstown for several years in the 1980s, before becoming a mother and moving to Nelson.
She loved making food for family, friends and guests. It grew into a passion and she learned how to make her father's marinated raw fish and other traditional Maori foods.
"I had a marinated seafood stall at the very first Kai Fest at Whakatu Marae in about 2008 and the marinated fish sold really well."
That stall led to her doing some catering at the marae where she produced healthy food for events ranging from 50 people to 300 and for local and international delegations to the marae.
During this time the Kiwi Kai business was born.
"It was a bit of a gamble but I didn't really care, I knew I had beautiful food and it would sell, all I had to do was to get people to try it."
The focus of Kiwi Kai products is on healthy food options, "except maybe the pies but they are delicious" Wereta-Gargiulo says with her usual beaming smile.
She uses fresh, seasonal ingredients every day that is locally-sourced where possible.
"We are trying to introduce people to marinated raw fish as much as possible because it is such a healthy and delicious food option," she says.
Other products like seafood pates have no added preservatives "which can be a wee bit of an issue in places like supermarkets because the shelf life is only 10 days rather than weeks like similar products they have."
Kiwi Kai also has a range of products that reflect Wereta-Gargiulo's heritage, flavours like spicy mussel soup and creamed paua keeps that traditional link to her Maori culture.
Her oyster and kina shots are a lovely way to introduce people to really tasty raw and marinated New Zealand seafood.
"They are really popular at the markets, I see people walk along, glance at my stall, do a double-take and either run away or come over with smiles lighting up their faces."
Wereta-Gargiulo is also strong on sustainability, something else she credits to her Maori heritage. "We grew up only catching enough food to eat and dad caught fresh seafood as we needed it, there was never any waste.
"Respect for the resource is a strong part of Maori culture, kaitiakitanga (sustainability) is very important to Kiwi Kai."
She is currently developing a new sustainability document for the business.
She only uses sustainable fish species, refuses to use palm sugar in any of her recipes and only uses organic eggs. Pacific oysters are sourced from the Okiwi Bay area and have a wonderfully rich flavour making it beautiful in pies, a better depth of flavour, she says, compared to Bluff oysters.
So what about the thing that really grabbed my attention, whitebait pies?
The whitebait is sourced from Cascade in Fiordland, one of the original commercial whitebait suppliers that provides "beautifully clean and consistent" fish.
"I sort of just fell into making pies, because I try and have very little waste and want to extract as much value as I can from every piece of fish when I had little bit of seafood left over or some stock left over I needed to find a use for it so thought I would try using them in a pie and people loved them."
Kiwi Kai won the New Zealand Farmers Market Best from the Water Award in 2016 with its oyster and snapper pie that has a coconut cream sauce.
"When we started selling them at the market someone asked if we had a vegetarian pie and I told them no, we are Maori and we do seafood, but I now do have a vegetarian pie with shitake mushroom, ginger, leeks and watercress spiced up with Asian flavours."
As with many small, successful businesses the success can be a problem, growth is hard to manage so Kiwi Kai doesn't advertise. Wereta-Gargiulo has had an app developed by a local company so you can pre-order food for lunch on Thursday and Friday from your mobile phone for delivery and if you want to find her at the market the app will take you right to her stall.
The app works for both Apple and Android and includes things like an electronic loyalty card, get 10 ticks and get $10 off your next purchase.
There are some exciting things in the pipeline at Kiwi Kai and you will always find Wereta-Gargiulo at the Saturday market or her products in several outlets around Nelson, including her whitebait pies at Westmeat in Richmond.
Find out more and get the app at www.kiwikainz.com