Heilala Vanilla is hardly a typical company. It has its roots in a Tongan plantation, its headquarters in Tauranga and a market for its fragrant products among the world’s most discerning chefs and retailers.
But while its vanilla’s aroma carries with it a romantic hint of the tropics, Heilala has had to overcome the typical nuts-and-bolts challenges of any fledgling business.
A few years ago, Heilala’s challenge was to find more to do with the beans than merely harvest them and sell them on. It wanted to turn them into high-value products that could be marketed to foodies around the world.
But, as a family operation, it had little scope for research and development (R&D). Unlike large-scale food producers, it couldn’t call on an in-house team of food technologists to devise the processes and protocols it needed.
The business had begun when John Ross, a retired dairy farmer, began doing aid work in Tonga and established a vanilla plantation as a cash crop in the village he was helping. His daughter and son-in-law Jennifer and Garth Boggiss became involved and – as former avocado growers – also saw the potential of a product that can fetch prices as heady as its fragrance: as much as $500 per kilogram.
After carefully planting and tending the plants on the island of Vava’u, a supply of beans was established, with villagers employed in the initial processing during which the beans are dipped in hot water, cooled, slowly dried then finally graded.
In Tauranga, Jennifer and Garth Boggiss pondered what might be done with the vanilla. “We started thinking, we’ve actually got to develop a product range here,” says Jennifer. “We’re never going to get anywhere fast just selling vanilla pods because then you’re just like a commodity product.”
It’s worth noting at this point that this is clearly a family with a strong entrepreneurial streak, most famously exhibited by Boggiss’s brother Geoff Ross, who made his name as the man behind 42 Below vodka. Talking to Boggiss, a former accountant who these days looks after Heilala’s marketing, it’s pretty obvious that the company was never going to pass up the opportunity to develop products with its vanilla.
But it was starting from scratch in terms of technology. In the venture’s early days, product experiments were done in the Boggiss kitchen in Tauranga. They couldn’t contemplate having an in-house food technology team. “For a small company to do food tech work, it’s very expensive,” Boggiss says. “Sometimes you don’t get anywhere because you can’t afford to make that investment.”
But then the couple got talking to a local food technologist working for giant kiwifruit marketer Zespri. Helpfully, she knew that Massey University could sometimes do food technology work for small companies more affordably than would otherwise be possible. She recommended an approach to Associate Professor Marie Wong at the university’s Albany campus.
Sure enough, an opportunity was identified for a student to work on a Heilala project as part of her honours-year programme in 2007, establishing a relationship that continues today.