While we may not have actually launched in the UK just yet (watch this space), as the headline suggests, we were pretty chuffed with this article on The Feed this week:
From Raglan with love: Hunt & Gather kānuka honey debuts in UK
Handmade Tales: For the last six years, Raglan’s Hunt & Gather Bee Co has championed all sorts of rare New Zealand honey. Now the star of the show, an award-winning kānuka honey, is debuting in the UK. In the latest of our Handmade Tales series, Doris Neubauer meets Hannah and Rory O’Brien.
It was by accident that Hunt & Gather Bee Co created kānuka honey for the first time. “We were trying to get some mānuka honey,” says Hannah O’Brien, one-half of the founder-couple. “The people who packed our honey tipped us off. We tasted it, and we were like ‘wow, that’s actually quite delicious. A lot nicer than the taste in mānuka.’ So we bottled the kānuka honey, started to sell it, and it quickly became our most popular product.”
Five years later, the kānuka honey is a favourite amongst New Zealand’s honey lovers and received a gold at the 2020 Outstanding Food Producer Awards and silver at the 2022 London International Honey awards. Applying for the renowned food awards was a strategic decision. “The UK is our first target market for export. At the moment, there is only a market for mānuka, but we want to introduce the international market to a wider variety of New Zealand honey.”
Championing rare New Zealand honey
It has been quite a journey since Hannah and her husband Rory started their business in 2016. Back then, the former dairy farmers had sold their house in Cromwell, invested in 16 beehives and moved on their two-acre section in Te Mata near Raglan.
“We knew we could not compete in the small mānuka honey market. It is also expensive to have your hives on mānuka land, and we just don’t produce enough to be competitive in that market.” Instead, they took the opportunity the accident provided and pivoted: “We like to say that we are championing all sorts of rare New Zealand honey” – including rewarewa honey, and a rata honey for the international market.
The raw honey of Hunt & Gather mainly comes from hives in the Coromandel and the Waikato. “We now have about 200 hives here in the area, probably 200 in the Coromandel and about a 100 down by Te Awamutu.” The split between different areas is intentional as it allows them source from different crops and it is also a safeguard against big weather events.
Growing from 16 to 500 hives did not come overnight. That’s largely Rory’s job. He splits one hive and puts half with a new queen every autumn and spring. “At first, it’s fairly slow but more cost effective. Also, when you buy hives, you risk buying diseases as well. Rory has been really good with disease management.”
The slow increase allowed them to grow the business at a sustainable rate as well. “If you suddenly go from having hundred kilos of honey, and then you buy 500 hives and next year you have a ton, you would not be able to build the brand, sales and distribution.”
Despite having built this solid base over four years, the pandemic hit the small business hard. They lost their markets and shows; the boutique retailers that stock their honey had to shut or reduce their opening hours. Sales went down about 30 percent, whereas the costs remained the same or increased.
“We had really good growth in our online-store and quite good support yet it was still very hard for us.” Especially as they’d both had given up their day-jobs to fully focus on the honey making the year before. “But we knew, if we make it through last year, things would improve.”
In 2021, Hunt and Gather Bee Co. did an equity crowdfunding with PledgeMe to cover the costs of the next steps on their journey. “We had a target to raise $175.000 but we actually sold all our share at $350.000. We were one of the few companies to have their campaign fully subscribed.” Thanks to their new 150 shareholders, the small business developed the export plan and branding.
The couple have pursued a premium branding and positioning with the Special Harvest range, including the kānuka honey, available in high-end department stores in the UK. “We are also looking to have a unique launch and collaborate with restaurants and pastry makers there.
“I am having on-going conversations with Germany, Switzerland, Japan, Singapore and South Korea. I am not sure where these conversations will go, though. It is a long process to get to the point to have your product in the store.”
In the meantime, the couple is busy building capacity on their property. Last summer, they started extracting not only their own honey, but other bee keepers’ honey as well. “We are in the early stages to start honey contribution to a charity called Meat the Need which supplies food banks and other charities with produce for needy families.
For the love of trees
The couple are determined to make Hunt & Gather as sustainable as possible – from using wooden hive-ware (as opposed to the cheaper plastic alternatives) to packing the honey in glass jars with paper labels.
“Our ultimate goal is to really have projects that help the biodiversity of the area. Planting trees is probably the biggest opportunity as the business grows.”
The first steps are already taken: Last year, the couple established a small nursery for flowering natives on their property. Several hundreds of these trees were already planted on properties in the area. “We have a couple of regeneration projects on the go”, Hannah adds, and one can be sure: There is more to come…
Story by Doris Neubauer
See the full article here.