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The project giving food businesses a hand up in West Auckland

From left: Food entrepreneurs Bert Jang, Carmel Davidovitch, Yvette Brooks, Davide Caprara and Ina Simpson. Photo/Supplied by Panuku.

A business incubator for food entrepreneurs in West Auckland is changing lives.

Auckland cake maker Bert Jang was about five when he first baked a cake, the recipe courtesy of Sesame Street – “I put in the flour, sugar, egg”. He stirred it once. It wasn’t the finest cake but it was the start of a passion for food and the journey to his Pasifika cake shop business, Sweet & Me.

Jang is one of five people whose business is being nurtured under The Kitchen Project, a 26-week Panuku programme in Henderson that supports food entrepreneurs with everything they need to know about running a successful commercial food business.

Jang, a chef by trade for 12 years, only started dabbling in cake making as a hobby five months ago, learning from Youtube videos. After posting pictures of his cakes on social media, he began to get requests for orders.

His cakes are infused with the flavours he grew up with in Fiji, where he was born, and he uses ingredients like Koko Samoa, Heilala Vanilla and pineapple to name just a few. One of his signature cakes is Noqu Viti, a rich combination of coconut, caramel, Fiji rum and cream cheese. “I try to have an island take on it because I feel like Pacific cuisine is not on the map yet and I’m hoping to do that with these cakes.”

Bert Jang.

Cakes were a rare treat for Jang growing up – he has six brothers and they never had birthday cakes, but his parents would buy ingredients with any spare change they had, to help him develop his cooking skills. He says this is why he dedicates part of his time in the kitchen to bake cakes that are priced lower for families who are having a rough time.

“When you pass on in this world, who’s going to remember you? It’s the nice things that you do on this earth on a daily basis that make you a better person, so that’s one way of me giving back.”

He says he hopes to be one of the most well-known ‘cakers’ in Auckland and open a brick-and-mortar store. Learning the ins and outs of business has been gruelling, but extremely valuable, says Jang.

“Coming to The Kitchen Project and learning and being mentored, it’s amazing. I wouldn’t have started a website without them.”

Yvette Brooks.
Salsa slinger Yvette Brooks is also one of the entrepreneurs in the programme. She and her husband make fresh Mexican salsa and corn chips as the Red Hot Kiwi Company, selling them at the Oratia and Te Atatu markets. When a scout from The Kitchen Project stopped by and told them about the programme, she jumped at the chance.

Brooks’ venture started when she came back to New Zealand after spending 16 years in the US: “There was no good salsa and no good chips here”. But it was a meal at a Mexican restaurant that planted the seed of an idea.

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“My niece came out to visit us when we were back in the States many years ago and we went on a big road trip to San Diego. The restaurant, in Little Mexico, was bright and shiny and sizzly and colourful, and the food just came alive [with the salsa], and I went, ‘oh God’, that was the spark.”

When she and her husband started making the salsa seriously two years ago, the same niece, Danielle, came around to visit. “I was up to my eyeballs in chillies and tomatoes, and she said she was so proud of me because I was working full-time [on the business].” Shortly after her visit, Danielle was diagnosed with cancer and died in 2017, at age 26.

“Her words were always, ‘Do what you love’ and I do what I love. She’s with me everyday pushing me through.”

With a “burning in her gut”, she applied to the programme and says it has been an extraordinary opportunity. She’s had offers to stock her products and is growing her network of contacts. Her ultimate goal is to be a wholesale supplier.

“When I go places, I like the idea of my salsa being used by that chef, or that restaurant, they’d say, ‘‘we need some salsa, let’s get it from them.’”

She prides her salsas on their freshness, locally-sourced ingredients and sustainability.

“When you open the lid, you get this beautiful aroma and you can see what’s in it. It tastes like it was just cut and picked and made, and it is. It’s that fresh. More often that not, it’s been just hours in the jar before you get to try it.”

Red Hot Kiwi Company salsas.

Her next steps are to connect with coriander growers in Henderson and she is currently working on how to give her products a longer shelf life without the use of preservatives.

She says the people at The Kitchen Project are invested in their success. “There’s so much goodwill and good intention, and that is what is propelling you forward.”

Connie Clarkson, the programme’s operation manager, says when applications opened, they looked for people who had a strong desire to succeed.

“We look for something in the back of their eyes that says, if I don’t do this, I’ll die a little bit. And this is what we’ve found in these five people that have joined us, their thirst for success in their product is quite palpable and their food tastes great – that also helps.”

The other entrepreneurs selected include Ina Simpson, of Rukau Hut, who makes traditional Pacific Island food; Carmel Davidovitch of Carmela, who makes traditional Israeli bread and baked goods; and relish and jam maker Davide Caprara of Luna Pura.

The pilot project is a cross-council collaboration between Henderson Massey Local Board, ATEED, Healthy Families and Panuku. Inspired by La Cocina in San Francisco – one of the most successful kitchen incubators in the US – its aim is to "enhance Auckland’s foodscape by supporting the development of food and beverage with a focus on culture, healthy food and sustainable business practices".

Mentors and experts who have lent their time to the project include Sophie Gilmour from the restaurant Bird on a Wire; Simon Wickham, chief executive of The Trusts which operates numerous bottle stores in west Auckland; and Line Hart of Line’s Knackebrod crackerbread.

Line’s is a success story from a similar programme, says Clarkson. “She took her business from selling a few packets to now being in Farro stores.”

Clarkson says it’s been a hell of a ride so far, and they are extremely proud of where the businesses have got to. “It's the first thing I've really been involved in that literally changes lives and I cannot tell you what a good feeling that is.”