This is the story of a Devonport couple: how they harnessed passion, enthusiasm and downright determination to turn a need and a good idea into a small business – and how their ambitions grow as the business grows. It’s also about how “overnight” success is more often than not the result of years of trial and toil.
It all started when Brazilian Aline Fonseca met New Zealander Patrick Malloch in the Bayswater school playground as they waited while their children played together. They were both new to Devonport, and over several months friendship blossomed into romance. Eight years later they’ve had two weddings – one in Brazil and one in New Zealand – and have a blended family of four teenagers aged 14 and 13 – Patrick’s twins Thomas and Maurice and Aline’s daughter Lily (the same age as her step-brothers) and Patrick’s younger daughter Rima (just 13 months younger than her brothers and step-sister).
Aline is a chef who has followed in the footsteps of her famous-in-Brazil restaurateur father. She ran a small restaurant in Brazil, held cooking classes and cooked meals to order in people’s homes. She was a solo mum running a niche business, helped during the week by her parents. Since moving to New Zealand, she has worked mostly in “fmcg” (fast-moving consumer goods), as territory manager for Ceres Organics from 2014 to 2019, and then as retail sales manager at SOHO wines. Her time at Ceres Organics, she says, gave her a good background and wide contacts when she and Patrick combined their complementary skills and personalities to develop a product that met their vegan needs for something to replace butter in their diets.
Patrick arrived in Auckland from Christchurch in 2012. He had an established architectural business, Malloch Architecture, which he continues to work in full-time, with one employee. Aline has recently resigned from full-time work to focus on the development of their business, Feliz Wholefoods, and more specifically Vutter, a vegan butter substitute. While they have both been intimately involved in the development of this cleverly named addition to the fast-growing range of vegan products gracing the shelves of wholefoods stores and supermarkets, Aline’s background as a chef has been crucial to launching Vutter after several years’ development. But Patrick came up with the name.
“We were going to just call it "plant-based butter" and thought that naming it butter could maybe get us a bit in trouble, since it’s vegan... so we started brainstorming, and Patrick shouted Vutter,” Aline says. “I remember laughing out loud and saying - no way! Hahaha, a few weeks on and we could not stop calling it Vutter. I hated at first, but it really grew on me. Its brilliant as it really sticks into your head! I love Pat's creativity…. No one is calling it a butter!”
The simple story of its development goes that after perfecting the product in their blender at home, they served it (and a garlic version) at their wedding in New Zealand and were encouraged to take the concept commercial by friends and guests impressed by the taste and texture.
The longer story is that they were inspired by an earlier visit to Brazil for their wedding there. They found a vegan shop that had a butter alternative that met their high expectations in terms of taste and texture. Aline confesses to enjoying “slabs” of butter on bread or toast, and this was the first time she’d found something that came close to the taste of butter without the ancillary issues of associations with the dairy industry.
When they met, Patrick had been vegetarian for many years. He jokes that Aline, not yet vegetarian let alone vegan, introduced him to meat. He adds that the move from vegetarian to vegan was not too difficult, though missing butter and cheese came high on the list of challenges. Cue the search for a good vegan alternative – once Aline was on board with a new approach to food as well.
Aline became interested in veganism because she’s a foodie, because she is concerned about the environment, and because she watched several documentaries that drew her attention to the health impacts of dairy and meat consumption and the way animals are treated on some farms. Until then, she confesses, she had done little to connect the meat she purchased in packets with the animal it came from.
“It’s hard to be compassionate to animals and at least not be vegetarian,” adds Patrick.
Their teenagers are vegan too – at least at home. “We’re pretty tough parents,” says Patrick, not entirely seriously. The rule at home is that only vegan food is eaten, and with a chef in the house there are “pretty tasty” meals cooked. “If we go out for dinner,” he says, “we don’t pay for meat or dairy.” If their teenagers want that, they pay.
It’s so much easier now to be vegan than it was a decade ago, Aline adds. Good plant-based substitutes are available for most things, though until now, they’d claim, not for butter. Even vegan cheese, Patrick assures us, makes good cheese toasties.
But back to the Brazil. Having found their vegan butter nirvana, did they ask for the recipe and bring it back? Well, no, confesses Patrick. But they did come back inspired, and started down an online research rabbit-hole that turned up “millions of people doing different things” in the butter-alternative space. First using their kitchen blender, and then a food truck they purchased,
they experimented with recipes that originally included soy milk or almond milk, and even nuts.
The food truck, ironically, has never been used as a food truck. “When we bought it we had this fantasy of going out to festivals in summer selling vegan food,” says Aline. But that was “way too big a dream for a professional couple working full time and running a household of four kids! So we never did it. We had some friends around and cooked in it a few times, just for fun. Then it became our "lab kitchen" for Vutter and other products we hope to develop and launch soon.”
Once commercialisation looked a possibility, they reworked the recipe. “We decided to get rid of nuts and soy to make it more friendly for a wider population,” says Aline. What they produce now is far from the product they started with. “I’m very happy with it,” she says, “but it’s not even close to the original recipe.”
Of course there have been challenges along the way.
Patrick suggests the biggest has been “our relationship; working together in business”. They work well as a team, he says, but have different ways of approaching things. They have a friend who is a director, and when things get tense, they run issues past her.
Aline takes a more practical perspective. Packaging, she says. It was also “a big knock, when we noticed the colour fading”. Despite working closely with an experienced food technologist who provided technical advice and knowledge, they only discovered after launching that turmeric, which they use to make Vutter look butter-coloured, is a “fugitive dye”. It fades in UV light, resulting in unevenly coloured Vutter in stores, with the turmeric colour relegated to the bottom or the far side of a tub. The original clear packaging is now gone; the new packaging is opaque and light-proof. They’d love to package Vutter in blocks, butter-style, with compostable paper; they’ve tried it and it looks really classy, but there are issues with food security, and it’s a work in progress.
Then there is the challenge of scaling up. It’s one thing to make a domestic (or food truck) blender full of product; quite another to produce commercial quantities, and even now, they can’t produce enough to start approaching supermarkets. First try at ramping up production involved a Brazilian chef, stuck in New Zealand by Covid-19. Patrick and Aline had offered to him their food truck to use to start a Brazilian street food business. The second lockdown put paid to that, so they asked him produce Vutter for them, first in the food truck, later in a commercial kitchen in the city. They had perfected the texture, designed labels, sorted a barcode, established prices that gave both them and the retailers a suitable return, and were ready to go.
Aline approached retailers specialising in fresh and whole food products. Within a week, she had five retailers signed up; in week two another five came on board. Halfway through week three, their friend announced that he, his wife and tiny baby were returning home to Brazil – immediately.
Aline and Patrick took a few deep breaths. They had not long purchased the house they had been renting for several years, but if they wanted to develop the business – and they certainly do – it seemed the way forward was for Aline to quit her job and devote herself to the business full-time.
At the beginning of November, when we interviewed Aline and Patrick, she had left SOHO Wines and was “focusing again”. She has new retail outlets in her sights and is aiming to develop the catering side of the business, selling 1.7 kg tubs to bakers and cafés. She’s also at a plant-based market in west Auckland every Saturday, her enthusiasm and passion for the product spreading the word as well as selling product.
They’re also dreaming of the future: hemp Vutter or garlic Vutter, though getting fresh, New Zealand-grown organic garlic or hemp year-round may result in these being seasonal products. Patrick hints there is something else in the wings they can’t talk about yet.
“I would like to create plant-based alternatives to staple foods; things that vegan people miss,” says Aline. She muses that she could also use her culinary and sales skills to help other small companies develop their products.
As for sales to supermarkets, that’s a way off, as the scale that is required is huge. So too is distribution outside of Auckland and Northland, largely because of cost. They’ve approached MBIE for mentoring assistance and hope they can learn from them.
Vutter has taken over their lives a bit, they confess. But their teenagers are relatively independent – “they’re not interested in us!” they joke. And for Aline, this journey is “like a dream come true. I’ve always wanted something that is ours. Running a restaurant is crazy; crazy hours, but with my passion for food…”
“It is like growing something,” adds Patrick. “Your passion is in it.”
Aline agrees. When working for other companies, she was passionate about the products she sold. “And now I am doing my own, it’s even more exciting!”