In a previous life, Kevin and Jenny Flanagan supplied Australia’s biggest supermarkets with containers of freshly chopped fruit sourced from growers Australia-wide.
“We were dealing with a product with such a short shelf life [of] seven or eight days and we wanted to be able to expand the business. We were looking for something new,” Kevin said.
The new opportunity came when they were sourcing dairy-free cheese for their daughter Stacey, who is lactose-intolerant, and the rest of the family to share.
“Nearly all the [dairy-free cheeses] were coming from either Greece or France or elsewhere overseas,” he said. “And I thought why aren’t we making it in Australia for Australians?”
So, around eight years ago, Kevin and Jenny began R&D on a range of dairy-free alternatives to cheese and other milk-based products, which they launched as Dairy-Free Down Under in early 2018.
The company’s headquarters and manufacturing facility is in Carrara, and Stacey has joined the business as the national sales manager.
Jenny said their experience with modifying equipment for fruit processing had been pivotal in their success.
“Dairy and dairy-free cheese use a completely different [production] process,” she said.
“We’ve been pretty good at [doing modifications] because we’ve had 30 years to know how to do that real quick.”
They have also perfected the art of making the non-dairy cheeses melt like their higher-fat dairy equivalents, and for Pizza Hut they developed a cheese especially for their ovens.
With the leading food distributors nearby in Yatala and Tweed Heads, the Gold Coast is a good base logistically.
Zambero and Lord of the Fries are among the restaurants and other venues they supply, while the retail products are available in IGA, Drakes, Foodworks, Coles Local and health food stores.
Around 10 per cent of their sales are international – currently, they export to 13 countries, including Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Malaysia, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.
“We’re just doing some paperwork up for Indonesia at the moment. So, for a little business, we probably don’t do too bad,” Kevin said.
The Singapore distribution was facilitated by the City of Gold Coast.
In September, they joined the City’s stand at the international trade exhibition Food & Hotel Asia (FHA).
“It’s so much easier to get a sale when you’ve got an introduction than trying to go in cold. And they had bites all lined up for us when we got there,” Kevin said.
“We met up with some very big customers over there. But it does take time to get into these countries. It just doesn’t happen overnight.”
In providing dairy-free alternatives, Jenny said that meant achieving like-for-like in “smell, taste, texture, everything”.
At a recent meeting with a restaurant chain in Sydney, Dairy-Free Down Under’s feta “blew them away”.
“They were taking the feta around the whole office … everyone was getting a taste, because they couldn’t believe the taste was better,” Kevin said.
He said the market for dairy-free alternatives is growing rapidly.
He spoken with customers who wanted to use the products in all their dishes to reduce waste, avoid cross-contamination issues and simplify purchasing.
“They don’t want to have five different cheeses, they want to buy the one thing,” he said.
“As long as it tastes good and reacts like normal dairy, you’re in with a good shot.”
Operating on a smaller scale, but no less ambitious, is HerbiDoor – a Burleigh Heads-based food manufacturer and direct-to-consumer meal delivery service.
Started by Amanda and Matt Goss in 2018, HerbiDoor has seen strong demand for its plant-based, ready-to-eat meals, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne.
Each week, their team of six hand-make up to 3000 meals, which are then shipped via refrigerated transport to as far afield as Perth.
HerbiDoor’s origin story is not dissimilar to that of Dairy-Free Down Under. Amanda said it started with Matt becoming vegan.
Big picture thinking from the Gold Coast
“I was already vegan [and] my food was a bit too clean and healthy for him,” she said.
“He wanted to eat the traditional kind of lasagne and things [he] grew up with.
“He thought, there’s got to be something easier than having to make all comfort foods for yourself and a way to make veganism easier.”
The company has carved out a niche for itself in the fast-growing meal delivery sector, with a focus on vegan versions of comfort foods, such as lasagne, tandoori chick’n, enchiladas and brisket.
The hand-made aspect, Amanda said, is a “unique selling point” in the food processing and ready-made meal industries as “a lot of it is pumped out in bulk”.
Customers range from people wanting to eat plant-based meals a few times a week, to older Australians or those on the NDIS who needed help with meal preparation, to those with a lactose intolerance. The enchiladas use Dairy-Free Down Under cheese.
HerbiDoor manufactures its own vegan meats using wholefood ingredients, and recently branched out into food service, selling plant-based chicken and lamb shreds to restaurants.
After twice moving to larger premises due to growth, the company purchased a solar-powered manufacturing facility last year.
Amanda and Matt also completed the Seedlab accelerator program, sponsored by Woolworths, and are about to apply to the Queensland Government’s Manufacturing Hubs Grant Program to upgrade the machinery.
The resulting increase in production capacity will enable HerbiDoor to chase its next goals.
“We want to grow to be Australia’s biggest vegan meal delivery company … and we’d love to supply national retailers with [our products] as well as export,” Amanda said.