While running the food education business Kitchen Coach, Ashley began seeing the everyday struggles parents were facing when it came to feeding their children healthy and nutritional foods. Trying to develop a healthy recipe for butter on behalf of not only herself, but also her clients, she cracked the code and the first product for Phyto foods was born. In today's episode we speak with Ashley and Phyto co-founder Matt about the difficulties of mimicking butter, and it's elusiveness in the dairy alternative space. We also speak about the process the pair have gone through when it comes to running blind taste tests in the times of COVID, the existing gaps they've observed when it comes to cold chain logistics in the Australian market, and how they navigate difficult decisions as they arise in the early stages of their startup.
Butter. We've all used it, most of us love it. But when it comes to dairy alternatives we seem to be limited for choice, with margarine being the mainstream option.
Matt: 'It's such a heavily used ingredient, people don't even realise how much they use it.'
Ashley: 'But the flavour's hard to mimic'
Yet despite the lack of good alternatives, people have a desire to make the switch, with a lot of Ashley's Kitchen Coach clients wanting a healthier option to feed their families.
Ashley: '60-70% of humans on Earth are dairy intolerant'
Ashley: 'The biggest education piece that our brand wants to bring forward is that people don't realise this. They don't know how to recognise the symptoms and the signs that their bodies are giving them.'
Ashley's love for food, and the success of her own personal health journey, led her to her passion for good quality, nutritional food, with the same passion and values being the foundation of the Phyto Food brand.
Ashley: 'It's about helping people become empowered through knowledge.'
So where does the business sit now in terms of product development and scaling?
Matt: 'We kicked off the business in July, and at the moment we're only with retailers in SE Queensland, but we're looking at options on the national level.'
Matt: 'We still feel quite young and small, but with our background in the Kitchen Coach business, we're confident we can move quite quickly towards the targets we want to hit with the butter and Phyto itself.'
The pair have done a lot of internal taste testing, going so far as to incorporate a call to action on their packaging to receive feedback from current consumers - a choice similar to the one we made at Bite Society when it came to designing the look of our product.
Matt: 'Whilst there's a call to action there, we've only had a handful of people come through with feedback.'
Whether that means it needs to be clearer, or whether there's something actively stopping people from reaching out, Matt says needs to be more researched.
Matt: 'There's plans to do some more face-to-face tasting for the retailers, but due to the nature of this year we haven't really had the chance to do that just yet.'
As a solution, Ashley and Matt have resorted to doing taste testings from their homes, often giving samples to friends so that they can do blind taste tests for their families.
Ashley: 'It's one step removed from me at least, and so far everyone from all ages have loved it and even have trouble telling the difference between dairy butter and Phyto plant butter.'
We also spoke about the formulation of the product and the challenges they've had to face when it comes to compromising with retailers.
Ashley: 'There's this whole other world of learning behind the scenes that you do not get exposed to in any way, shape or form until you become a food manufacturer.'
Ashley: 'I can't believe how much of the food product itself is driven by the drives and demands of the retail world.'
One of the main challenges in this realm being shelf life - most retailers resorting to the use of preservatives and additives, something that goes against Ashley's values and the mission of the Phyto brand.
Another challenge has been with logistics, and the transportation of their product due to it's sensitivity to temperature.
Matt: 'What we've discovered is that cold logistics is still quite niche, and costs associated with that are quite high.'
How are they navigating the challenge?
Matt: 'What we've done is focussed on the local area first, looking at local distribution, decentralising the business in a sense.'
Ashley: 'And there's a huge opportunity in this space. So if anyone is inclined and what's to go down the startup path for cold logistics in Australia - I would highly recommend it and we'd be your first customer.'
The main issue?
Ashley: 'In order to ship to another city, or out of your local zone, you need to ship by the pallet load and that's great if you have a distributor. But if you don't, and you're just a small business that wants to get your product out, it completely changes things.'
To have this interconnectivity would also open up a huge realm for health food products.
Ashley: 'You don't need to put preservatives into a product, if you know for sure it will be maintained at a certain temperature from the company to the customer.'
Since Ashley developed the initial product in her kitchen, I also wanted to delve deeper into her thoughts on working with a co-packer, and what manufacturing route they will take when it comes to scaling.
Ashley: 'Again, it comes back to preserving the quality of the product.'
Ashley: 'We still have some research to do in that space. It is going to be possible - it's just going to need some more testing and some more time to understand the tweaks we need to make.'
Matt: 'We did consider the co-packer side of things, but because it's a unique product in both the process as well as ingredient mix there's no one out there currently making it. But it will be something we look at when we are expanding.'
It's a reminder that there is no easy answer, or quick fix, and that starting a business is challenging, with difficult decisions that need to be made. What's their framework?
Ashley: 'It's a tough question. I think because my main goal has been health, I just ask myself 'Look if I was buying this off the shelf and I knew exactly what was in it, and how it was made, would I still be willing to eat it?' And if I have to say no to any of that, then I'm not doing it for my product.'
Matt: 'There are little compromises you need to make, but you need to make sure you're really clear on where you aren't and are willing to do that, and that's a big thing we've found.'
A lot of people may also argue on price point, with dairy options in some places being so cheap, the idea of paying more for a plant-based butter potentially deterring consumers.
Matt: 'We know for this product to be successful we need to sit somewhere side by side at a price point so that the consumer will consider us - even if we are a little bit more expensive.'
Matt: 'We do have a target price point for once we're at scale, but even now we sit competitively with premium butter.'
Doing something a little bit different, we also asked Matt and Ashley to share about their routines, and the value of exercise and how their navigating a work-life balance from home.
Matt: 'We recognise it's for the greater good. Time invested now is so powerful for the future.'
Next steps for the business? Expanding distribution and scaling production.
Ashley: 'And then broadening the range, which I'm working on in the kitchen.'
Matt: 'By early-2021 we hope to be available Australia-wide.'
If you'd like to stay up to date with Matt and Ashley's journey, you can head to phyto.kitchen or check them out on Instagram @phyto.kitchen.
We hope you enjoyed this week's episode, have a great day and remember to #biteforwhatsright!