Establishing a new business comes with many challenges, but add in the fact there is no blueprint for the idea and the journey becomes even tougher. Rachael Porter meets the producer of PECK to find out more.
After more than four years of research and planning – and considerable investment – Matt Havers is about to launch his new business venture.
The 30-year-old is producing an egg-based protein shake – believed to be the first of its kind – at his family’s Suffolk-based farm.
Matt has just taken delivery of two containers, fitted out with processing and packing equipment, at the 80-hectare (200-acre) pig and poultry unit, near Eye. And production of PECK is about to begin.
Matt says: “It’s a relief, particularly as sales are set to begin in local stores later this month.”
It’s also a relief for what is already a considerable queue of potential customers, who’ve been patiently waiting for PECK to officially launch. And some of these are big customers and include US companies who are looking at the possibility of licensing to produce and sell Matt’s protein shake across the pond.
“It’s taken me a long time – and I’ve had quite a few setbacks – to get to this point,” says Matt, who first came up with the idea of developing and producing a dairy-free protein shake back in 2013.
Matt grew up on the family farm, but had plans to become a police officer. So, after graduating from the University of East Anglia with a degree in social psychology, he applied to join Norfolk Constabulary.
“I was looking at a three-year wait to join its training programme, so I decided to go to London with my brother and took a job with a large food and beverages insights company,” he adds.
“At that point I had decided I did eventually want to go home to farm, but I wanted to add a diversification to the business.”
His work involved looking at consumer statistics and trends, as well as new food and drink products.
“I got to thinking about what gaps there were in the market and what, if anything, could I do to fill one using what we produce on the farm,” he says.
The family runs a free-range egg producing business and ‘bed-and-breakfast’ for pigs, taking 2,000 head from 7kg to 100kg each year, at Kings Farm. They also have an arable enterprise, growing wheat, barley, rape and sugar beet.
Matt intuitively felt eggs were the best fit for a diversification plan as an added value product.
“Particularly the ‘second’ grade eggs – the ones that didn’t command top price and often went for liquid egg production,” he says. “I knew there was more value to be added there.”
His parents built the farm’s 16,000-bird free-range egg unit eight years ago and the farm’s seventh flock of Lohmann Browns has just started laying. Eggs are sold to Anglia Free Range, which supplies Tesco.
Second-grade eggs are also bought by Anglia Free Range, but for command a considerably lower price per dozen.
As captain of his university rugby team, Matt is heavily into sports and fitness and noticed that most sports drinks and protein shakes on the market are whey-based.
“Yet egg protein – particularly egg whites – are more ‘bioavailable’ than whey protein so I saw an opportunity here,” Matt says.
He began researching the market – looking to see what was already available and if there would be demand for such a product.
“I spoke to buyers and retailers and they were interested in ‘switchability’ and a ‘unique selling point’,” he says.
“My idea had both – they felt it would sell if it were on the shelf. I then began experimenting and formulating the egg-protein shakes.”
But he soon realised the process was far more challenging than he first thought.
“I soon found out this hadn’t been done before and there was no rule book or template,” he says. “It was very much about trial and error – and there was plenty of the latter.”
He found adding ingredients to egg white, particularly those that changed the pH, ruined the recipe and changed the consistency of the product. He also has to use pasteurised egg whites, to meet food safety standards, and to increase the shelf-life of the product.
To do that on farm meant investing in expensive equipment, which is not viable when starting with small volumes.
“For now, we’re buying in pre-pasteurised egg white and eventually, when the product takes off, I’d like to pasteurise egg white from our ‘second-grade’ eggs and those from other local egg producers, to ensure we get the volumes we’d need,” Matt says. “But that’s in the future. I very much needed to get the product right first – to learn to walk before I tried to run.”
Flavouring the product also proved tricky. Two food-tech specialist universities he approached ‘promised the earth but didn’t come up with the goods’, but then he stumbled across a fruit and vegetable juice supplier on the internet.
The company has a development lab and within two days Matt had the three flavour combinations he’d been looking for: raspberry and blueberry, mango and passionfruit, and strawberry and lime.
“They were so helpful and professional, and their charges were also very reasonable,” he says.
Packaging the product was another stumbling block, but after making dozens of phone calls and wandering down many dead ends, Matt found someone to produce bottles that could be sealed and heated. And he put the job of designing the label for PECK out to tender using a crowd-funding site.
“I put a detailed spec on line,” he says. “I knew I wanted to call the product PECK and knew the rough shape of the bottle and what it needed to say – and gave the job to the person with the design I liked the best.
“We had around 100 different designs and we picked a winner. It cost just £600.”
Matt now has a product and packaging and also, somewhat uniquely, a market that’s waiting with bated breath. Already PECK’s Twitter account, which Matt set up to both create awareness and gauge interest in the product, has more than 2,500 followers – no mean feat when very little product has been available for sampling.
East of England Co-op is set to begin stocking PECK in June. And Matt has contracts to supply some of the UK’s leading fitness brands, including Muscle Foods.
Now he’s mastered it, Matt is excitedly waiting to house the equipment he’ll use to manufacture and package the protein shakes, into the two containers.
“There will be a 700-litre mixing tank housed in one of the containers, and both containers will be fully lined to meet all the food manufacturing, hygiene and safety standards,” he says.
Matt will buy in all the ingredients, including pre-pasteurised egg white, as well as soya and fruit juice. The soya serves to stabilise the egg white and each 250ml bottle contains four egg whites.
After bottling, the protein shakes are sealed and heated and have a shelf life of six months. And there’s no need to refrigerate the product.
As well as growing sales to the point where the business can justify investing in egg pasteurising equipment, Matt would also like to see if he can develop a protein drink that uses whole egg – the yolk and white.
“I’ve already got a few ideas up my sleeve and a few flavours in mind. And I think this kind of drink could also appeal to the elderly,” he says.
“The nutritional benefits of eggs are often overlooked and this would be a simple and tasty way to improve the nutritional intake of people who are unwell, unable to cook or don’t have a huge appetite.”
He is keen to have a go at growing soya on the farm and going ‘full circle’.
“But I know soya is tricky to grow and the crop would also need to be processed in order to add it to our drinks,” he says. “But it’s nice to have dreams and goals.”
That’s something that’s kept Matt on track since 2014 – even when other advisers and specialists said ‘it can’t be done’ or ‘that won’t work’.
“I’ve just carried on until I’ve found a way that something can be done and how I can make something work,” he adds. “And I’m on the verge of seeing that determination pay off.
“It’s an exciting time for me and I love every day. It’s hectic, juggling the free-range flock and the pigs with getting this business off the ground. But it’s enjoyable.
“And there’s been so much interest – a surprising amount for a product that’s not even available to buy just yet.
“That’s a huge motivator for me. I can’t wait to see what happen when we finally launch to market. I know we’re going to sell a lot of product and not just in the UK. The question is how much and will we be able to keep up.”