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Ask anyone who lives in or near Waitoki, north of Auckland, where the best strawberries in New Zealand come from, and they’ll undoubtedly direct you to the township’s small Passionberry Fields retail store. One look at those big open-top punnets laden with freshly-picked jumbo-sized, super-sweet, sun-ripened strawberries and you’d have to agree. Not surprisingly customers form queues in the weekends.

Passionberry owners Fiona and Jason McIntyre were loading another delivery of fresh strawberries on their truck when I rocked up to their farm just up the road – in late November the season was still ramping up, as was demand for their produce.

The couple chose the rural lifestyle in 2006 after successful careers in the big smoke. Jason had been an electronics engineer servicing Team NZ racing yachts and building Sir Peter Jackson’s personal home cinemas. Fiona’s background was in superyacht event management and she ran a public relations consultancy for nine years. Both had grown up on farms.

“We had no prior experience in growing strawberries but when we married in 2006 and moved to the countryside, strawberry growing presented an opportunity to make a decent living off a small land holding,” explains Fiona. “Although we have 60 acres in total, our families still called it our play-farm.”

After successfully growing strawberries for six years and building a thriving business on the quality of their produce, the couple was keen to explore ways of extracting more value from strawberries. Fiona admits to having had too many martinis during her former entertaining years on board yachts and the duo had been partying and experimenting with strawberries in the blender for some time.

“It wasn’t long until we struck upon the perfect recipe that all our friends loved, and after five years of cocktail parties and everyone telling us we should bottle the stuff, we seriously started considering it,” says Fiona. “The only strawberry cocktail mixers on the market at the time consisted of sugary, syrupy, lolly waters and we quickly identified a gap in the market. Consumers were beginning to demand less sugars and more natural ingredients in their drinks. “So late one night, when all good ideas come to fruition, Jason and I got quite excited dreaming up the possibilities for a unique strawberry cocktail brand. We decided that it was definitely something we wanted to explore further.”
Jason and Fiona had the drive and energy to get things started, so they set about getting the necessary systems in place. They already had the strawberries; all they had to do was build a manufacturing facility on their Waitoki property, devise their own specialist equipment (“because strawberries have an extremely high seed count and no other contractor could manufacture Passionberry for us”) and set up a distribution and sales force.

“That part of it was relatively easy,” says Fiona. “Jason’s electrical engineering skills were extremely handy.
“But the hardest part of the journey so far has been the realisation that New Zealanders are some of the hardest in the world to convince to try something different and to support innovative new Kiwi brands.

“We have had far greater success and a more appreciative response for our product overseas. It soon became apparent to us that you must prove yourself and your product’s success overseas before your product can be adopted on home shores.”

The upshot of all this was that the McIntyres found themselves exporting about 18 months earlier than anticipated.

Exporting early
Passionberry strawberry cocktails launched in January 2013. The first shipment to China sailed on Boxing Day the same year. The importer was hoping to catch Chinese New Year, but hold-ups in market meant the shipment wasn’t released until March – well into the product’s 18-month shelf-life.

Currently they have an agent working for them in Hong Kong, but they are also looking for agents to represent them in Chinese cities known for their strong cocktail culture.
Fiona says getting their first export order from China within the first 12 months of releasing the product onto the market was a major cause for celebration. “Also, negotiating a supply deal to nine of the major resorts in the Cook Islands within the first 18 months was a great success.

“Our bottling factory, which is also available for contract bottling, has also achieved the highest grade of food safety certification with the Ministry of Health. It has been a long but very worthwhile process and investment, with substantial benefits for export trade.”

Fiona and Jason plan to secure more export trade partnerships within the Pacific over the next six months and are working hard to achieve this. Fiji is in their sights and they want to expand their reach into parts of Asia and possibly the US, where there is already interest in the product.
“We want to partner with the right people who can help advance our export trade in the right markets,” explains Fiona. “Everything from validating a potential market to getting people on the ground who can help grow the brand.”

The ultimate goal is to grow Passionberry into an internationally-recognised brand, says Fiona. “Whenever people want to make a strawberry cocktail we want them to think Passionberry.”

The feedback has been extremely positive – people love the fresh strawberry taste, thanks to the 50 percent pure fruit content and the infusion of nine percent pure distilled alcohol which ‘rounds out the flavour’. Passionberry also appeals to an increasingly health-conscious market with its high vitamin C content and low calorie count.
“We want to showcase the best of New Zealand’s fresh natural strawberry produce and offer a genuinely authentic strawberry cocktail drinking experience to people the world over,” says Fiona. “We know we’ve created something truly unique and the game plan for the next five years is to grow the brand in offshore markets where there’s a real cocktail culture.”

Meanwhile, on the home front, Passionberry is pitching its product to the hospitality industry and second tier bars in particular. With a little testing and education, Fiona and Jason are confident that Kiwis won’t be able to resist their cocktails forever.

 

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