The rowing course on Lake Karapiro and the corporate finance sector are worlds away from the aged care industry.
But the plight of a sick family member pushed Olympic rowing bronze medallist George Bridgewater and his brother Sam to launch a venture beyond their traditional skill-sets.
The brothers and their business partner Maia Royal have founded the Pure Food Co, an enterprise producing fresh, preservative-free, soft and blended meals for people who have issues swallowing and eating.
The idea is close to the Bridgewaters’ hearts – the pair had a frustrating experience watching their stepfather, Mark, struggle with blended food during a serious illness.
“He was ill, and he needed quality nutrition but he was resorting to eating scrambled eggs every night. He really needed a wide and varied diet,” said Sam, a former manager at Lloyds Banking Group.
Adds George: “It was a big shock to our mum as she was thrust into a caregiver role . . . She was spending up to 30 minutes extra just trying to prepare the meals for Mark, which often weren’t great.
“We thought, there has to be a solution, but, unfortunately, when we needed it the most, there was nothing available.”
Consultations with health services clinicians and aged care industry representatives revealed that the family’s experiences were not unique. There are tens of thousands of New Zealanders affected by eating difficulties including stroke patients, people suffering from serious illnesses and a growing number of elderly, Sam said.
The Auckland-based firm’s meals come in flavours such as roast lamb ragu, fish pie and roast chicken – designed to be like normal food, only blended and easily heated. The pouch meals were developed over an 18-month period, in part at the Food Innovation Network’s Food Bowl facility near Auckland Airport.
“Pretty early in the piece we figured out it isn’t as easy as blending the meal,” Sam said.
“One of the key things for us to ensure was that the consistency was really safe. We had to ensure there were no lumps – which can be a choking hazard – and that there was no water splitting out from food.
“So we consulted with dietitians and speech language therapists who are specialists in swallowing difficulties.”
Creating nutritious, yet tasty food is an area of particular interest to George, who is currently in training for the 2016 Rio Games after a long break from rowing.
“As an athlete, I know how important good food is to helping people strive, but it has to taste great too – as much as I try to see food only as fuel,” he said.
The Pure Food Co sells direct through its online store, couriering its meals to their customers’ homes. As many of its clients are unable to drive, the business has put its energy into developing quick dispatch and delivery processes, rather than finding retail stockists.
Although the start-up has been trading from its online store for only a few weeks, it already has a strong base of regular customers.
“We were out there trialling it with people in their homes and they kept wanting more and more. It seemed pretty unfair to show something as an option and then say: ‘Sorry; it’s only a sample’.”
The Pure Food Co is also in talks with aged care facilities about supplying multi-serve portions direct.
Allan Sargeant, chief executive of Ambridge Rose Manor private hospital in east Auckland, is considering ordering from the Pure Food Co. Around 40 per cent of his residents are on soft diets.
“There was a gap in the market that these guys are ready to exploit, and it’s a good thing from my point of view,” Sargeant said.
“A lot of our residents come to us at an end-of-life stage and they need some nutrition to keep them healthy. But blending food is really difficult, we have problems with lumps and you can never accurately tell what their calorie or protein intake is.”
The extensive development and trial period has been financially taxing on The Pure Food Co. In the early stages, received around $20,000 of “lifeblood” funding from Callaghan Innovation.
The new business has fielded inquiries from customers in Australia and the United States, but it is concentrating on the New Zealand market for the time being.
Although Sam and Maia run the day-to-day operations while George, who is based in Cambridge, focuses on his training, the athlete’s competitive spirit is pushing the company forward.
“George is great because he wants the very best, and that’s helped a lot with driving the development,” Sam said.
Unlimited magazine, published by Fairfax Media, is New Zealand’s leading digital business magazine dedicated to entrepreneurs, start-ups, leaders and innovators.