Passionberry delivers a real strawberry experience

Fiona and Jason McIntyre are increasing sales of their Passionberry Strawberry Cocktail in China and other Asian markets – and they are introducing two new non-alcoholic drinks.

Auckland husband and wife team, Jason and Fiona McIntyre, have quickly gained a reputation for growing and selling some of the best strawberries in New Zealand. Now they are taking their reputation to overseas markets.

The McIntyres presently produce more than 100 tonnes of natural sun-ripened and juicy Passionberry strawberries on their lifestyle black near Silverdale, 30 minutes’ drive from the Auckland city centre. A third of that production is going into a flourishing high-value beverage business.

They have blended one of the lowest calorie cocktails in the world – one serving has 59 calories, less than vodka soda. With a mixture of 50 per cent natural strawberries and 9 per cent pure distilled white spirit – there is no added sugar – the ready-serve Passionberry Strawberry Cocktail is also the most authentic in the world.

The chilled cocktail will soon be joined by two new products, a carbonated strawberry and a Manuka honey non-alcoholic drink, as Passionberry plans to increase its exports to China and other Asian markets. Consumers will be able to trace the source of the Manuka honey through Passionberry’s website.

``Right now, we are focussing on China – there’s huge scaleability over there,’’ says Fiona, who owns Passionberry with her husband Jason. ``We have done a lot of research and the Chinese, and the Asians, have a big appreciation of what we can produce, with our access to beautiful strawberries.

``We can innovate quickly off the back of rich primary resources and adapt to the (packaging) needs and tastes of offshore markets. We will still sell our products in New Zealand but we definitely want to become a more export-oriented business.’’

Passionberry’s portfolio of premium beverage products is being exhibited at a Shanghai trade show in November 2016. The cocktail, which was first produced in 2012, is sold in 725ml glass bottles, while the strawberry and Manuka honey drinks come in 250/330ml single serve bottles.

Over four years the McIntyres have steadily increased production of Passionberry Cocktail, with two-thirds of the production now sold into export markets. Their purpose-built processing and bottling plant on their property has the capacity to increase annual production seven times.

The cocktail has been sold into VIP night clubs, bars and restaurants in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Guangdong Province, and Passionberry is looking to increase sales through high-end grocery outlets. In New Zealand, the cocktail is sold in selected local bars and restaurants and nationwide through retail outlets including Liquor King and Liquorland.

Fiona, formerly a public relations executive, and Jason, an electrical engineer, taught themselves the art of strawberry growing. Combining their sales and marketing and engineering skills, they have developed a successful niche business – with support and advice from Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic (ATEED).

"It’s been an adventure,’’ says Jason. "You can read so much – we also used YouTube and the Internet – and in the end we just grew the strawberries by trial and error. We were able to get our plants performing at their peak and concentrated on quality, not quantity.’’

Jason says the growing and harvesting methods helped produce big, succulent strawberries in the range of 50 grams. The McIntyres won the SKYCITY award for best strawberries in 2015.

"We spray a natural seaweed fertiliser, made in Nelson and rich in 100 nutrients, over the plants, and they are each fed a litre of water every day from a natural spring coming out of our serpentine quarry pit rich in super phosphate.

"The strawberries are picked and hand-graded in the paddock only when they are naturally sun-ripenened,’’ says Jason. "The fruit is hand-graded again in the packing shed, and the quality going into the punnet is 100 per cent. Strawberries picked early in the morning will be delivered to customers in the afternoon.’’

Any fruit that doesn’t look 100 per cent – but still has the taste and texture - is put aside for blending into the Passionberry cocktail.

The McIntyres have established a high yield from their strawberry patch, with two-thirds of their strawberries sold directly to customers through two retail outlets at the nearby Waitoki Village and on the main road just west of New Plymouth. The remaining strawberries are used for the Passionberry cocktail.

In October 2016, the McIntyres are expanding their business by opening a shop and café in Waitoki Village to cater for tourist groups and other visitors. ``It will be the ultimate strawberry destination experience,’’ says Fiona. ``We will have a Kiwi rustic theme and a picnic environment where our guests can taste our fresh strawberries and ice cream – or even treat themselves to a high tea with three-tiered platters of strawberries, chocolate dipping sauce and whipped cream.’’

Four years after starting out, the McIntyres are now joined by a team of 30 people including pickers, plant operators, shop and office managers and a truck driver,  

Fiona says the business would never have reached this stage without the support of ATEED. ``They have been instrumental right from the outset in helping us make valuable connections, through networking events and seminars, and to showcase our product at trade shows.

"Without ATEED, we would not have been exposed to the number of ideas and possibilities we have picked up along the way. We have been introduced to experienced business professionals already operating in the export marketplace.

"We now have a team that can innovate rapidly and deliver quickly to the local and exports markets,’’ says Fiona.

ATEED facilitated New Zealand Trade and Enterprise vouchers for business planning, coaching and financial forecasting under the Regional Business Partner Network programme. ``We have been able to create a bigger strategic outlook with a focus on exporting, not just the domestic market,’’ says Fiona. "From our experience, I believe every start-up should go and see ATEED.’’