Concerns new food innovation hub may not cater for start-ups

Foodeast has been heralded by local leaders as a game changer for the region's food industry.
Foodeast has been heralded by local leaders as a game changer for the region's food industry. Photo credit: Supplied

By Tom Kitchin of RNZ

A Hawke's Bay entrepreneur fears a new food innovation hub will keep small players out of the market.

Foodeast, which will be in Hastings, has been heralded by local leaders as a game changer for the region's food industry.

The hub aims to attract new businesses so they can test and develop ideas.

But some worry it would be too geared towards the big names and will not have space for start-ups to make food.

It is due to open in 2022 and is predicted to bring 500 full-time jobs to the region.

It would cost about $18 million, including $12m from the Provincial Growth Fund.

But local food producer James Crow feared the current model had too many barriers to entry for new food makers.

Crow is behind brands such as Little Island Coconut Creamery and Nice Blocks.

He believed the hub would be an "expensive, glorified" building for the larger food brands, and there would be no room for start-ups to trial making food.

"What it looks like you'll be able to do is go and have a chat to a myriad of consultants, which are important, but they can't actually make anything there," he told RNZ.

"So you get tonnes of advice and they send you away with a whole big business plan, you'd have to borrow a lot of money or find another facility around the country where you can just make some of your product legally.

"Otherwise you'll just have to do keep doing what people to, which is they just knock it out in their kitchen and hope for the best and sell it locally and see if it works and there should be a better solution than that."

The plans for Foodeast include three food processing tenancies, a show kitchen with room for an audience of about 100 people, and a cafe.

Crow said the show kitchen was good, but he was concerned it would not have a proper commercial kitchen for the small start-ups.

Instead they would have to use other facilities around the country, such as Food Pilot in Palmerston North, or Food Bowl in Auckland. That will take the focus away from the bay.

But Doug Speedy, managing director of Parkers Beverage Company, another Hawke's Bay food company, said there was space to try out new things in the hub and for local companies to help.

He did not believe new producers in the region had huge demand for kitchen space.

"From what I know about it, there's plenty of space, there's tenancies available, no-one's being locked out of it and I think it's very inclusive, so if punters did want a space to do something, they'll help you do it."

The Foodeast project manager, Lee Neville, wouldn't speak to RNZ but sent through a statement.

Under the Provincial Growth Fund contracts, funding recipients must get approval from the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment before making any media statements or press releases.

Neville said a feasibility report found there was already enough capacity in the region and plenty of the kind of kitchens start-ups might need.

Rather than copy existing facilities, Neville said the Foodeast team would ensure that someone who might need a commercial kitchen could be matched up to a facility like that in the region.

He insisted that start-ups were a big part of the overall picture, as that was where bigger enterprises start from.