International interest in avo oil
An idea to make a value-added product from reject avocados is now keeping a Te Puna factory busy with plenty of orders, and international interest is growing by the day.
Grove Avocado Oil is the biggest commercial producer of avocado oil in New Zealand, and is thought to be the largest manufacturer in Australasia.
Back in 2000 there was no market for avocado oil – basically because no one in New Zealand was producing the product. Essentially, Grove created a market.
Avocado oil is now a category in its own right and stands on supermarket shelves alongside other oils such as olive, sunflower, canola, rice bran and coconut oils. Extra virgin pure avocado oil has a bright green lustre; and its alluring colour alone suggests vitality, pureness and well-being.
Seventeen years ago a resourceful group of Bay of Plenty avocado growers thought there was surely untapped value in the tonnes and tonnes of reject avocados being dumped after each harvest. Yes, the fruit had defects visually, but it was also perfect for human consumption. The almost sinful waste of product compelled the growers to research the making of commercially viable oil.
At the beginning those growers had a clear vision but there were rocks along the pathway to success.
FIRST TO MARKET
Derek Masters is the chief operating officer for DMS Progrowers, which has sites in Te Puke and Te Puna. He acts as general manager for Grove’s permanent staff.
“At the time, no one was producing avocado oil in New Zealand – we were the first.”
The current shareholding of Grove Avocado Oil still has some founding grower members, and Grove is supported by DMS Progrowers’ management and administration team; and its production plant on the DMS Te Puna site.
“At that time there were tag 1 and tag 2 avocados sold for export and local market but there were some very good
process grade, so they collectively thought let’s make an oil out of it,” he says.
Grove has no formal connection with growers; the relationship is with the 10 packhouses who supply the reject fruit, from a geographical area north of Waihi to Te Puke south.
Derek explains the reason avocados are sourced this way is because those packhouses need to grade fruit for export and the domestic markets and demonstrate clear quality compliance systems.
“Packhouses check their growers’ spray programmes compliance, monitor and approve orcharding practices. For us, it means we can be sure the fruit received for processing has been grown to strict regimes.” “When the avocados come in we know there are no spray residues and nothing nasty on the fruit, even though we strip the skin, stone and pulp out to make the oil.
“It’s a food safety perspective that helps us comply with SGS Food Compliance Accreditation, and allows us to export around the world because many of our customers want to see that certificate.
“This is important for us, as opposed to going down the road, seeing avocados on the ground and saying ‘hey, can we have those’ because we don’t know anything about how they’ve been grown.”
Avocados are biennial bearing fruit, every second year there’s not enough process grade avocados to supply sales demand – whereas in the following year, there is an excess.
Excess years allow Grove to produce enough oil to cover through the lean years, but as consumers around the world become more aware of its health benefits, the demand is rapidly increasing.
Packhouses must first maximise export returns for their growers, then the local market, and what’s left over is process grade. Because customers want fruit that is free of imperfections, any defects are unacceptable at the retail level.
This ‘wastage’ is pure green gold for Grove and its developing customer following.
“On a large growing season like the one we’ve just had, the defect rate was quite high. But on a low growing season, the same defect might just be acceptable for the local market because there is such a shortage,” says Derek.
High-profile New Zealand chef Michael Van de Elzen officially teamed up with Grove last month in a national media campaign.
Michael Van de Elzen, known for the popular television series Kiwi Living, Family Recipes and The Food Truck, has now become the exclusive New Zealand brand ambassador for Grove Avocado Oil.
He has used Grove’s oil as one of his ‘secret ingredients’ for many years, says a media release.
“I’ve been a huge fan of avocado oil for years,” he admits. “I love its health properties and the fact the flavour works so well with a wide variety of dishes.
Grove Avocado Oil is the best on the market because of its colour, taste and quality, plus they’re bloody good people too so it’s a pleasure to be working with the team.”
Derek says Michael began using Grove’s oil when he first opened his renowned Mt Eden restaurant, Molten, in 2004.
“He has several recipes he’s always sworn by and one of his secret ingredients is Grove Avocado Oil,” says Derek.
“He’s featured Grove in some of his cookbooks. We asked if he was interested in becoming our official brand ambassador and we’re delighted to announce the new partnership.”
Michael has created special recipes to showcase Grove’s range of oils, as well as hosting tasting events and promoting Grove’s oils in national media, says Derek.
Back in the early production days the big hurdles involved technology. Getting the plant, equipment and processes to achieve maximum oil extraction and yield took a while to get right. Other factors such as storing and conditioning of the avocados were only perfected after some research.
“It’s not a matter of just picking avocados out of a bin and pressing them into oil,” he explains.
The fruit requires a conditioning process for ripening because freshly picked avocados leave the packhouse green and hard.
Following arrival from different locations, the fruit is held in DMS Te Puna coolstores. A controlled curing method allows the fruit to then arrive at Grove’s processing plant preripened and ready to maximise the oil yield.
Avocados are fine in coolstores for more than a week but not for months, however once the oil is made it can keep for at least three years.
Oil is removed from the fleshy pulp which is minced up and cold pressed. The waste of skin, stone, and left over pulp is disposed off site.
Waste pulp makes a slurry which is then pumped into tanks used as stock feed on dairy farms. The farmers like this waste because of its high ‘good fat’ content.
ROCKING AT RETAIL
Globally, avocados are enjoying a growing reputation for being a super fruit in terms of nutrient content and health benefits. This has a natural flow-on effect for avocado oil. New Zealand’s clean, green image is one thing but being known for integrity is also critical. That means if a Kiwi company says its product is coldpressed extra virgin, then it will be extra virgin, says Derek.
“Globally, avocados are enjoying a growing reputation for being a super fruit in terms of nutrient content and health benefits.”
Grove’s oil is available in New Zealand through major food chains and selected boutique stores; and in Australia through corporates such as Woolworths, Coles and Aldi. It is exported to Russia, Sweden, Asia, North America and Saudi Arabia.
It’s the fast uptake of online sales that is currently intriguing the Grove team.
“What we’re seeing now around the world is the increasing volumes of online sales – it’s very strong in Asia now. There’s a definite drift from ‘retail-to-customer’ sales to ‘online-tocustomer’ sales.”
HUMBLE TO HUGE
Derek says since Grove’s beginnings, sales growth has improved every year, however in the last three years sales have really taken off.
Creating customers started from humble beginnings with the original shareholders selling their new oil at farmers’ markets and local stores.
Over the formative years, Grove worked smart and became proactively involved with hospitality stakeholders. Chefs and restaurants are more aware of its visual and practical uses as a vibrant and intense green-hued oil which is perfect for dipping breads. Having a high smoke point makes it excellent for cooking, and people enjoy the oil’s strong and notable flavour.
The extremely fine pulp of avocado is what gives the oil is stunning vibrancy.
Many foodies and health conscious people have recognised that avocado oil has a special place in cooking which other oils cannot replicate.
Grove avocado oils are rich in minerals and antioxidants such as Vitamins A, B-6, C,D, E, zinc, folate, potassium and Omega 3 and 6 essential fatty acids. It is cholesterol free and contains plant sterols that reduce cholesterol absorption. It’s lower in saturated fats than most other oils.
A 5ml serve of avocado oil provides the equivalent of 10% of the recommended dietary intake of Vitamin E. Avocado oil is high in mono-unsaturated fats – 72% whereas olive oil has 66.8%.
Grove’s oil is one of the healthiest culinary oils available on the market today, says Derek.
EXCLUSIVE AND EXPENSIVE
By any standards, Grove’s product is not cheap. Even though it’s an expensive brand, chefs and consumers are showing a commanding uptake of the oil. Price is not an issue for those who demand a pure and natural quality product.
Other competitors have a range of refined oil but Grove won’t go there, says Derek.
“When we talk to our distributors around the world they’re really struggling with this concept of refined. Consumers mistakenly perceive this to mean refined products are of a better quality.
“When we have this discussion with marketers they don’t know what ‘refined’ really means. Refined avocado oil doesn’t have a strong green colour, and most of the nutrients have been stripped out. We don’t refine because we sell only avocado extra-virgin pure oil – which is only ever the first pressing of the fruit.”
Many customers ask for reassurance that the Grove product is actually cold-pressed and not refined through the company’s Facebook page and through the email portal on its website.
“Our oil is expensive; it’s not the cheapest in the store, but if you want quality you pay for it. Our competitors have a better retail price for the same volume of oil but that’s their business,” says Derek.
The Australian contracts were hard won and must be continually nurtured.
“It’s taken years to achieve and it’s always competitive,” says Derek.
“We meet with Coles and Woolworths every six months to demonstrate our promotional programmes going forward and what we’re doing as a company to support the brand.
“We have our own brand ambassadors in Australia to promote our products, and work with celebrity chefs, such as Bridget Davies.”
Some of Grove’s export customers purchase bulk oil for pharmaceutical-type end products, such as soap and beauty products.
Research has shown that avocado oil is the closest oil to the natural oil of human skin, and soap manufacturers have picked up on that.
INFUSIONS OF INTEREST
Grove has infused the oil with different flavours in response to customers’ feedback. Infused olive oils for have been available for years, and followers asked why they couldn’t have the same – they didn’t want to buy olive oil but they still wanted the added flavours for their dishes, dipping and other culinary creations.
The infusions have been streamlined into four types: lime and garlic infusions are stocked at retail level, whereas the chilli and lemon pepper infusions are quite strong and so are only sold through a limited number of boutique outlets or online.
“Our online sales portal is quite new and that’s been driven by people emailing in or contact through our Facebook page saying, ‘I’ve seen your chilli infusion, but I can’t get it anywhere locally, can you send me a box?’ We’ve streamlined this because demand has grown, and we needed a way for people to buy online,” explains Derek.
As a company, the management and shareholders face some important questions now and in the near future.
One stable and ongoing foundation of the business has always been the team of dedicated employees. During the processing season DMS staff are called upon to help and they love returning to Grove for production stints.
“We have a good team of people who have been here for many years across all functions; sales, admin, production, quality and compliance, and bottling. It’s a family-orientated culture because they know that even though I’m not at the plant every day, the team can be relied upon to run the business.”
Although avocado growers in the Bay of Plenty have no commercial relationship with Grove, they do like knowing that right at their back door in Te Puna there’s a company processing reject avocados into world-class quality oil, says Derek.
“When we go to the Katikati Avocado Show or food shows, many people come up to us and say ‘I’m an avocado grower, you probably got some of my fruit going through your plant into oil.’”
Derek explains that Grove does a unique thing to say thank you to growers. It produces a specially-crafted batch of ‘loyalty oil’ which is provided to the supplying packhouses, and this is passed on to growers as a gift of thanks and acknowledgment.”
Strategically the future holds more interesting challenges for Grove’s shareholders. Key decisions will need to be made as the appetite for avocado oil builds in momentum and monetary value.
“A 5ml serve of avocado oil provides the equivalent of 10% of the recommended dietary intake of Vitamin E.”