Thursday, May 19, 2022

New company delivers vegan-friendly choc milk option

Daniel Williams long dreamed of inventing his own boutique business and the brainstorm for that opportunity popped up when his BMX racing crashed.

Daniel Williams long dreamed of inventing his own boutique business and the brainstorm for that opportunity popped up when his BMX racing crashed. He talked with Annette Scott.

At just 20 years of age, Ashburton business entrepreneur Daniel Williams says the future cannot happen quick enough.

The young businessman last month launched VegiFare, an oat-based chocolate milk and he is eager now to take on the dairy industry.

The idea of developing the non-dairy chocolate milk came when his BMX racing aspirations did not go to plan.

“It didn’t happen, I had a few crashes, things didn’t go to plan and I decided it wasn’t for me,” Williams said.

He wanted to be a business owner and looking back he had set himself up well for the challenge.

As part of his wannabe athlete diet, he almost became a chocolate milk addict.

“I was a huge chocolate milk drinker, but then for health and sport reasons I trialled a vegan lifestyle, for two years I was full-time vegan and had no chocolate milk alternatives,” he said.

Continually on the lookout to make money, Williams’ first business venture was car grooming as a 12-year-old.

“Mum would be running me around all over the town to clean cars. I eventually did get into it full-time for two years,” he said.

With an eye for an opportunity, Williams, at 16 years of age and still attending Ashburton College, set up a motorbike shop from home distributing motorcycles for an Australian company.

This grew to include importing Chinese motocross bikes and parts and gaining stockists rights for several motorcycle clothing brands.

“I had this obsession to go further, there is always a next step,” he said.

That is when the self-confessed “huge chocolate milk drinker” ditched the BMX helmet and once again donned his entrepreneurial hat.

It was time for a bona fide business and one that could keep on growing.

A flashback to his vegan days, his entrepreneurial eye quickly identified a gap in the market that sowed the seed for VegiFare.

In December 2020, just before the covid lockdown, Williams pursued his idea to develop a sustainable non-dairy chocolate milk that would attract a larger audience.

“I wanted to develop a product that would not only appeal to vegans, but one that dairy drinkers will switch over to for the benefits of oats,” he said.

After significant research and securing multi-national investors through Angel-Investor, his business plan quickly gained traction.

“Lockdown gave me plenty of time to get on with it and by May 2021 I was full-time in my new business project,” he said.

Securing his Otago-grown oat supply from Harraways, Williams attempted to create his own mix, working for three months trialling recipes.

“Then it got to a tricky part, so I engaged a specialist food technician in Auckland,” he said.

“What we have got now is a product that is low in fat, carbs and sugar, and high in dietary fibres compared to other milk options.

“It is all New Zealand-made and made with almost all natural products.

“I wanted to design the product to taste like dairy, and it does, you can’t tell it’s oat milk but it’s got all the benefits of oats.”

The first batch rolled off the production line at the end of March.

Auckland is currently the only place with a manufacturer that can both produce and bottle the milk.

Plans are afoot to change that, with Williams aiming to keep the whole business Canterbury-local, including growing the oats.

“We are exploring options with local farmers to see if they can grow suitable oats here in Canterbury and we are hopeful that can happen, especially once we get the manufacturing plant up and running here,” he said.

“The target is to get traction in this first six months as we progress plans for our own specifically designed plant to do plant-based drinks, as well as other beverages.

“There’s limited opportunity in NZ for that at the moment, with oat milk really just taking off.”

Currently the VegiFare chocolate milk is oat flour-based, with the milk ultra-heat treated at 142.5degC, preserving it without adding preservatives.

“Almost everything is natural in it, no added oils, which can be common in oat milk, I’m just working on the product being as healthy as possible,” he said.

While dairy-free VegiFare is not gluten-free and it is not organic, but down the track that is a possibility.

Production initially at 600 litres over two days, will ramp up to 30,000l/day as manufacture capacity enables in the plan for the Christchurch-based purpose-built manufacturing plant scheduled to be operational mid-2023, pending the global challenges to get the machinery to NZ.

Meanwhile, manufacture will remain smaller-scale out of Auckland with everything else, including storage, label design and printing and distribution done in Williams’ hometown Ashburton.

“We want to look at bottling in a biodegradable vessel; it’s not ideal in plastic but we will change that,” he said.

In the meantime, securing stockists is the priority.

“Just getting it on the retail shelves is a lengthy process and it’s a bigger challenge in the covid climate,” he said.

Cafés and convenient stores are the initial target.

“We haven’t got the volume yet to get into supermarkets, but that is in the plan once we have the ability to increase production,” he said.

“I have this obsession to always go further, I came into this not knowing much at all but I have met so many interesting people willing to share a lot of knowledge and I have learnt so much, even getting the label sorted was complicated.”

The next challenge is already in the pipeline with work under way to develop a coffee flavour.

Marketing is focused on promoting a sustainable product that everyone can consume.

“That’s why we were specific on getting a dairy taste, but with all the health benefits of oats,” he said.

“The feedback has been positive and encouraging. I am fully focused 24/7 to grow as big as possible while still making sure we are producing a top-quality sustainable product that is appealing to a larger audience as we secure stockists and markets.”

VegiFare is currently capital raising for its development activities to increase production volume now the product is proven.

“Due to the lack of manufacturing infrastructure in NZ, right now we are limited to small scale, which means the retail price of our 250ml bottles at between $4.60 to $5.30, depending on stockists, is quite high but once we get the new plant operational and volumes up we expect to reduce this to $3.50 next year,” he said.

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