Words: Annie Studholme
Images: Annie Atudholme & Georgina Skinner
A Christchurch mum with a passion for raw food and an entrepreneurial spirit is behind the Nutmylk Company, a new business producing a nutritious, flavourful, hand-pressed, 100 per cent organic alternative to dairy milk, made using nuts.
WHEN FIONA PARISH GETS an idea, there’s seemingly no stopping her. She just gets on and runs with it at the speed of light, and before you know it she has developed a product name, and created the logo and branding, leaving the logistics to evolve organically. While it’s not your usual business start-up scenario, it’s the way she rolls and it hasn’t let her down yet.
Fiona is the brains behind the Nutmylk Co., one of the few commercial businesses nationwide producing raw nut ‘mylks’ from soaking, blending and hand-pressing almond, hazel and cashew nuts. Launched last year, she started off producing a paltry nine 750 ml bottles a week. Now that’s increased to almost 300, and sales are continuing to sprout with her nutmylks widely available in supermarkets, specialised stores and cafes throughout Christchurch, as well as further afield in Motueka and Queenstown.
“It all happened so quickly. It’s been amazing just how much it has grown in such a short space of time. The growth has been primarily driven by demand which to me means that I am doing the right thing and that people like it,” she explains.
Fiona is a raw food devotee and had long been looking for a healthy alternative to milk that was high in minerals and nutrients. She first got a taste for raw almond milk while living in Hong Kong, where her husband Kevin Parish was working for New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE) as the trade commissioner. Having studied raw food and nutrition through New York’s Institute for Integrative Nutrition’s distance learning programme, she knew the value of nuts and their milks to a raw food diet plan and was disappointed by what was readily available in the supermarkets.
Raw, organic, preservative-free nut milks were available in Hong Kong, so while there, Fiona learned how to make her own. She found a class where she could learn the ins and outs of the entire process from sourcing the finest quality organic nuts, through to activating them through soaking, blending them finely to a pulp and hand-pressing. Essentially the method has remained the same, but over time Fiona’s developed her own unique recipes with a few tweaks here and there.
Upon her return to Christchurch she found herself making homemade nutmylks for family and friends using organic almonds imported from California, water, pink Himalayan salt and vanilla extract, along with a multitude of other flavours. People loved it, and to her surprise she couldn’t find anyone else producing it locally. “I was making it for myself and thought I should do this commercially, but I was sure someone else would be doing it here. In Hong Kong there was even one company that did home delivery, but in New Zealand there
didn’t seem to be anything.”
Fiona could see a giant gap in the market, but with five children, ranging in age from five to 24, and Kevin away a lot, she thought she was busy enough. Despite trying to talk herself out of it many times, Fiona’s entrepreneurial side swung into action and before long she had the name, logo and branding all sorted. “The name just came to me; I didn’t spend too much time on it,” she laughs. “I’m one of those people who have to have something to work towards. I have to see what the product is going to look like which is why the name, logo and brand were so important, otherwise I was just making mylk!”
While most would be daunted by the prospect of setting up their own business, for Fiona it was a case of returning to what she knew. This was not her first foodie rodeo. Roll back the clock several years, and she had done it all before with Three Bears Food, a little company she started making porridge, muesli and oat-based baking mixes, which was later sold to a woman in Cromwell. That, coupled with a Bachelor of Commerce degree, and at the flick of a switch she literally had all the necessary skills and expertise across all aspects of the business from sales and marketing, to hygiene and food safety requirements on tap.
In spite of that though, the Nutmylk Co. did not officially get off the ground until she got an approach from Fresh Choice Merivale saying they wanted to stock the product. And with that, the Nutmylk Co. was born.
Fiona started small, producing just nine 750ml glass bottles of almond mylk solely for Fresh Choice Merivale. It was an instant success with every bottle sold within a matter of days. Tastings followed, and once word got out, orders started filtering in from other stores across the city.
Initially it was a one-woman operation with Fiona doing everything herself from processing and bottling, right through to labelling from a rented commercial kitchen. Back then she was lucky if she could push out 15 bottles an hour. Whereas nowadays, with the help of her sister and a good friend, and her newly retrofitted garage-come-commercial kitchen, the production process runs like a well-oiled machine. “Now that it’s made here and at night, it fits into my schedule beautifully. It’s flexible enough that, other than prep work and the nights we are processing, the rest of the time is spent working on the business and that’s as much or as little as I want to put into it when I’m not with my children,” says Fiona. It remains very much demand driven. Everything is made to order with Fiona and her team processing mylk on Monday and Thursday nights ready for next-day delivery.
Having started with just original almond, vanilla and cinnamon nutmylk, Fiona’s range has now diversified to include hazelnut and cacao and cashew nut, as well as a barista blend especially for cafes, with many new flavours and products waiting in the wings.
Every bottle of hand-made, rich, creamy goodness comes from only the best natural ingredients with no added sugar, preservatives or additives, and any additional sweetness comes from medjool dates or J. Friend and Co.’s single source honey. It also boasts much higher nut concentrate than boxed preservative-laden milk alternatives. Delicious as a stand-alone drink, nutmylks can also be used in baking, smoothies, soups, or over your favourite muesli. And better yet, they even stand up to the steam wand stretching to create the microfilm essential for a proper latte.
However, there is a drawback to all this goodness. Being raw and unpasteurised means that Nutmylk’s shelf-life is limited to a maximum of seven days, but that’s one thing Fiona is simply not prepared to compromise. “I like the fact that it is as close to a food source as nature intended. There are ways to extend its shelf-life, but I don’t want to tamper with it by putting it into plastic or adding additives or preservatives. My main reason for creating it was so that people had an alternative to soy as a non-dairy option and were able to enjoy a milky coffee without sacrificing their health.” It was that way of thinking that also led her to use recyclable 750 mls glass bottles, rather than plastic. “It is more expensive to produce that way but for me, going glass was important,” says Fiona.
While the Nutmylk Company’s whirlwind success has taken many by surprise, the fact it’s a new product that no one else is producing locally, has Fiona excited about its future. “I am always thinking of new ideas. There are so many options in terms of new flavours and products, but for now I’m happy to let the product guide me.”
People often give her a hard time for not having a structured business plan, but Fiona’s not worried saying “it’s evolving as it goes”. Now the real food movement is gaining ground and almond milk is quickly overtaking soy as ‘the’ healthy alternative to cow’s milk to drink these days, she’s convinced cafes will be a big growth area in the future. “Most of the stores in the city (Christchurch) that I want to have it in now stock it, but I would like to see it in more cafes. I think in time more and more cafes will seek it out,” she says.
Fiona wants to see it sold further afield, but not if it means sacrificing its quality. For her, its integrity relies on it staying 100 per cent natural. “It’s (the business) grown organically and I like that. We have the capacity to produce much more. We can deliver South Island-wide and as far as Palmerston North overnight, but any further than that and it becomes a challenge.”