Heilala Vanilla, whose vanilla is grown in Tonga and brought back to the company's Tauranga headquarters for processing.
Food technology was key when the business started over a decade ago, because it didn’t want to just sell vanilla beans and be a commodity producer, said chief executive Jennifer Boggiss. She co-founded the business with her husband Garth, who looks after the technical research and development.
“Back then Garth was experimenting with vanilla extracts and things on the kitchen bench, and bottles of vodka,” said Boggiss.
“But we quickly formed a partnership with Massey University and Dr Marie Wong, and we built up over the years quite a library of vanilla research, so we partnered with them to do our vanilla extract and vanilla paste product development.”
The company also worked with Plant and Food Research around the technical aspects of extractions, developing vanilla powders.
Most of Heilala’s projects are now done in-house because the company has built up the capability, “and in our team of 20 people we’ve got some serious bakers and foodies, so if it doesn’t pass the sniff test with them it doesn’t go any further”.
“We are a very marketing-led, customer focused business, so we’re really driven by what we see in-market and what we learn from customers,” Boggiss said.
Ideas from the marketing, sales and technical team are then reviewed, and a plan drawn up for development and testing. Heilala’s size means it can create new products much quicker than bigger companies.
Last year it launched a new product in the middle of the Covid pandemic, a vanilla extract with seed, which was developed, trialled and launched on the market within six months.
“You have to have quite a few stars align to make that happen, both in terms of internal teams working on it and from a commercialisation perspective,” she said.
Another advantage is the small number of products it can create – vanilla is quite a niche industry. The alcohol used in vanilla extraction also solved some problems around shelf-life that other foods posed.
“We are really focused on vanilla, because that’s what we grow, our purpose for being is empowering vanilla-growing communities in Tonga,” said Boggiss.
Its vanilla paste is a unique product, and its most awarded and biggest seller.
“A lot of other pastes when we did our paste development, they’re very high in sugar so that’s their first ingredient, whereas with ours it’s one of the last, so that’s quite a unique formulation.”
Heilala developed an alcohol-free vanilla for the halal market, in the United Kingdom, Europe, South East Asia and the Middle East. It also created a range of six flavoured extracts mainly for the US market, including peppermint, berry, and coffee.
Some products haven’t seen the light of day, but Boggiss doesn't see them as failures.
“It’s just part of the process. If you’re not innovating and researching products it feels like a really stagnant business, which is not where we want to be.”
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Written by Melanie Carroll