FOOD – Top Kiwi chef relishes his Good Food Boost experience.

11 Apr 2017

Michael Van de Elzen has spent 27 years and counting earning his living by serving up great food. He tells SBN how mentoring the winners of our Food Boost competition was an opportunity for fresh thinking.

There’s something about the food business that generates total dedication. We see that each year with the entrants to our Good Food Boost competition. For the most part they are ordinary people. But they all have an extraordinary dedication to their idea of good food, and how best to share it.

The competition gives the four winning companies the chance to be mentored for six months by some of the top foodies in the country. We choose those mentors for the same sense of fanaticism about food, combined with the business savvy to make good ideas into great businesses. Getting everybody together in the same room is the fun part.

“You actually learn a lot about your own business and what you are doing yourself,” says Michael. “The people you are with are a wealth of knowledge.”

He first got involved with the Good Food Boost three years ago. His philosophy and recent new business venture is ‘Good from scratch’. It’s a great fit with the ethos of SBN’s Good Food Nation.

“It’s all about cooking everything yourself from the word go,” he says. “I am trying to steer people away from heavily processed foods and towards fresh food. Wherever possible we are promoting New Zealand companies and growers. The less we need to bring into the country, and the more we can make here the better it is. If it’s Kiwi owned and operated in New Zealand then I am all for it.”

The toughest nut to crack is still for good food to be competitive on price with its mass produced alternative. Michael’s all too aware that not everybody has the kind of budget where local food can get on the menu every night. But the more local, good food that is produced and demanded, the lower the price can be.

“If I go to my local farmers market I get really excited because I see food that I don’t see in a supermarket,” he says. “I see food that is unique. I see the people standing behind those stalls very proud of what they have achieved. Money is a big aspect in buying food. But sometimes you have just got to trust yourself, think a little bit outside the box and buy something you are not used to buying.”

That’s where many of the products from this year’s Good Food Boost come in. Green Spot Technologies produces high nutrient flour from fermented fruit and vegetable pulp that would otherwise go to waste. Hakanoa Handmade Drinks makes artisan ginger beers and syrups from classic recipes. Judge Bao produces oyster and hoisin sauces made from natural New Zealand ingredients. Mangarara, The Family Farm supplies meat packs from its regenerative agriculture site in Hawkes Bay.

These aren’t products likely to replace anybody’s weekly staples anytime soon. But they all exploit niches in the market and develop innovative approaches that may well spread to other segments of the sector.

“The big challenge is taking on the big processing places, the big international companies that can produce for far less,” explains Michael. “It’s always a challenge, but good food is always going to pay off in the long run.”

Another major aspect of the Good Food Boost mentoring is providing the confidence for folks to go all out for their dreams. It’s that passion that has provided the biggest motivator for Michael to contribute to the project.

“I think sometimes a little bit of it rubs off on you. So you go home and you’re kind of reinvigorated to maybe restart a project that you may have put to bed a little while ago. Being a chef, you are always looking to start new places and new food interests.”

When it came to talking to the Good Food Boost winners about what they should do next, each case was different.

“Some of them wanted to tap into the social media, intellectual property side. Managing websites and building a brand. Then going forward using that brand to build awareness of what they are selling. Others wanted to open a business. That’s more about working out profit margins and costs. Is it a viable business? Is the location good? Is there enough traffic to fill your seats? Are the overheads too high?

“Then we had other companies that said: ‘We have this great product, but we have no idea what to do with it’. So then it was ‘well, it is a great product, this is where we think you can use it and who you should go and see’.”

Alongside Michael in the mentoring team were Kim Evans, founder of premium café and bakery Little & Friday, communications guru Martin Yeoman of Assignment, Paul Johnston of Life Health Foods and Pete Russell of online food trading platform Ooooby. This provided the kind of breadth and depth of experience needed.

“All the businesses were equally exciting,” says Michael. “They will all do very well, because they are so passionate about what they do. And that’s why they came to us. They genuinely care about what they do. They are opening their businesses up to criticism. That’s a hard thing to do. They are seeking advice, which a lot of businesses refuse to, which can be their downfall.”

SBN is currently working to take the Good Food Boost to Wellington next year. Look out for it if you are a fledgling food business in need of a boost, or you have a killer good food idea you are ready to take to the next level.

Contact laurie@sustainable.org.nz for more information.

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