New Zealand has been well known for a long time for the quality of our food products, but there’s a number of New Zealand food startups now moving us into what will be the future of New Zealand’s food production.
Amino Mantra is New Zealand’s first sustainable, ‘top 11 allergens’ friendly food startup.
“Our goal is to make eating plant based easy through providing healthy wholefood options for educated consumers,” says co-founder Pritesh Kajaria.
“We differ from our competitors by having a fully sustainable model focused on allergen-friendly products — free from gluten, dairy, soy, tree nuts, peanuts, pea protein isolates, sesame, mustard, egg, shellfish, lupin and sulphites — as well as organic ingredients, zero-waste packaging and know how to process the ingredients in the right way to make them gut health friendly. Most importantly, our products are wholefoods not fake meat.”
Pritesh, a trained chef, founded Amino Mantra with Trang Duong-Kajaria, a food scientist and his wife. I asked Pritesh what triggered his insight there was an opportunity in plant-based food.
“When we had our daughter 4 years ago, we transitioned from a mainly meat and seafood diet to a wholefood plant-based diet. As a household with allergies, we understand the struggle that other families go through to source and feed clean food products.
“We decided to transition to a wholefood plant-based diet because we were looking to create a better and more sustainable future for our daughter. We also found that most ‘allergen-free’ food is full of glues and fillers — we found that our bodies were having trouble processing this food.
“We could not find any plant-based products in NZ supermarkets that were made with clean ingredients, minimal processed and designed to be allergen-friendly — we didn’t want ‘fake meat’, we just wanted high quality meat-free food.”
From there, Pritesh and Trang started forming the idea that this could be a business.
“We spent 18 months researching gut health, allergens, plant-based nutrition and sustainable packaging. We refined the process, taste and texture over that time, developing the recipes at home.
“We also started trying to work through how we could sustainably package our products. We have high moisture products and moisture is the enemy of compostable products — so we had to work out how we could ensure the packaging was sustainable while also making sure the packaging wouldn’t break down before it was in the hands of customers.
“To test our products, we began a pilot with 4 or 5 local cafes. It got our product into the hands of customers, and we could get feedback on taste and texture.
“We launched our products in October 2018 at 2 farmers’ markets in Auckland and received an overwhelmingly positive response. Starting from 2 farmers’ markets, we are now in close to 30 retailers North Island-wide, and we’ve just picked up our first South Island retailer.”
I asked Pritesh what challenges they’ve faced on their journey so far.
“We’ve discovered that cold-chain logistics infrastructure in New Zealand is fragile and only few players are catering to the demand. Bigger volumes mean bigger profit margins, these freight companies are reluctant to take a small food start-up on board. We had a hard time finding the right partner to ensure that we could send our products to our retail partners on time and at the right temperature.
“As a small start-up, we’ve also been pushed around on the supermarket shelves by bigger food companies. Our products often end up on the bottom shelf corners where it doesn’t get customer eyeballs. We don’t have a massive marketing budget or profit margins to push back. So, we decided that we will do it our way — build relationships with individual store-buyers, share our story with them, make them feel connected to the Amino Mantra brand through us.
“Covid-19 was the biggest challenge for us. Our organic fresh produce is from New Zealand, but we rely on sourcing dry organic ingredients from their native regions, which are mostly overseas. Covid-19 broke the supply chains world-wide — container delays, exporting countries facing food and health crises, lack of skilled workers servicing the logistics pipeline, etc. All these factors resulted in skyrocketing prices or unavailability of key ingredients. We have had to discontinue 2 product variants due to these factors.
“We always had supermarkets and retailers paying us late, sometimes 60 days overdue. Covid-19 challenges have just exacerbated this late-payment issue to a point where we had to say no to supply certain stores and renegotiate payment terms to ensure that we are in financially good health.
“And finally, we’ve had some real challenges around the reliability of courier services. During the first lockdown in April 2020, every small business went online to reach their customers directly. With such unprecedented pressure on already weak courier and postal infrastructure, the entire network crashed. Overnight parcels that used to take less than 24 hours were being delivered after a week. Our time & temperature-sensitive products which could last 48 hours in transit due to innovative parcel-packaging, but they could not survive weeklong delays.
“We ended up losing $2000 within a fortnight in refunds or replacement products. Despite lifting of the alert-levels, courier networks never really recovered back to normal standards and we kept bleeding money in refunds over delivery delays throughout 2020 until January 2021. We tried all the major courier networks — NZ Couriers, Courier Post, Post Haste — and then decided that online store wasn’t making financial sense for shipping chilled products. We have shut our online store until we can find an efficient courier partner ideally with chilled freight capability to ship directly to customers.”
I asked Pritesh what three key things they’ve focused on to grow.
Says Pritesh, “We are now focusing to grow our existing portfolio of products sourcing the ingredients that are locally available, futureproofing ourselves against another supply-chain disaster.
“We are heavily investing in growing our brand equity — to build trust about Amino Mantra’s ethos and products that we make.
“And we are aiming to reach more customers by entering premium supermarkets North Island-wide.”
It’s pretty clear that innovation is in Amino Mantra’s DNA. I asked Pritesh how he and Trang keep that embedded in who they are as a company.
“As a company, we believe that key to being innovative is listening to what our customers want and anticipating their needs. We are constantly seeking to improve ourselves through our customer-feedback and learning from the mistakes that we make.
“For us personally, growth-mindset is particularly important. We positively challenge each other’s ideas, keep on top of new research and developments in the plant-based food and nutrition sector. We also stay up to date with innovations in sustainable packaging and world-wide supply chains to see how we can use these advances to set Amino Mantra apart from other food startups.”
I asked what advice Pritesh would give to someone looking to build their own startup.
“To create a start-up, a founder needs to wear many hats. Our advice is to keep doing the tasks that you are great at and outsource the tasks that you are not good at. Founders must swallow their pride to understand their strengths and weaknesses — it is important for the start-up’s survival,” says Pritesh.
“Build a product that people need and are willing to pay for. There might be similar products but you need to find your niche. And we’ve found that giving our products a personal touch has really helped us differentiate our product from the rest.
“Test your products on people who are not your friends or family. Grow thick skin to accept brutal and honest feedback. In the long run, paying customers will always have criticisms for your product. Learn to accept customer feedback and build relationships with them.
“Learn holistically the full supply chain journey of your ingredients. This knowledge will help you to adapt to any crises in the supply network. It will also help you to build a brand that shows the transparency and traceability of its products — more and more customers are starting to value this.
“And importantly — know your numbers. Raw material prices, logistics and overhead costs are always fluctuating. It’s a life or death situation if your selling price does not leave enough room for you to cover those costs and pay yourself as a founder.”
I asked Pritesh what’s next for Amino Mantra.
“We are looking to enter premium New World stores and independent retailers this year, and select Countdown stores next year. We did a lot of research before Covid last year for healthy snacks — not sugary sweets — for kids, ready to eat meals and adding more flavours to plant patties’ range.
“As we scale up, we are looking to have a set of investors who can understand our values and help us grow. We’ve had a number of approaches but they didn’t align with where we’re wanting to focus.
“But we think there’s some huge potential for New Zealand in the future food space. We’re working on some research projects to improve shelf life, and have a number of things we’re looking to commercialise and market those plans over the next few years.”