Necessity may be the mother of invention, but serendipity can be an able midwife, as proved by the development of an unlikely product by a family company that is now poised for domestic and international success. JENNY DENTON reports
A small company based in Melbourne's inner east, has created an exceptional good news story with a product which takes imperfect fruit - which would otherwise go to waste - and upcycles it into healthy snack food for children, along the way creating employment in Northern Victoria.
Even in a perfect, fresh state, apples don't always appeal to kids, but the dried form of the fruit developed by Pipan Foods is likely to tempt them.
Sliced thinly with an appealing crispness and crunch, in form, Chippy Apples are more akin to the chip than the fruit because of a secondary vacuum-drying process they undergo.
Given the product contains no additives, it has the advantage of being a much healthier snack than most packaged foods, and at the same time it makes use of northern Victorian harvest that has failed to meet supermarket grade and is likely to otherwise be dumped.
Chippy Apples were created by Pipan Foods, a company founded by Richmond father-of-two Phil Gomizel and food scientist Naishal Dala, together with Gomizel's family friend Giovanni Mantovanni, who imported the technology to create them.
"We like to say we're turning ugly fruit beautiful," Gomizel says. "We wanted a way to encourage more consumption of fruit by kids and adults and support farmers who have to deal with tonnes of fruit that is considered cosmetically imperfect by supermarkets."
The product is currently retailing in 30 stores in Victoria and Australia's big supermarkets and independent health food distributors also have expressed interest in it. In the last few weeks, the company has taken it international, shipping containers of Chippy Apples to Singapore and Malaysia.
Gomizel's wife, Samantha, and his sister are the major shareholders in Pipan, with its three full-time and three part-time staff - including Dala - also holding shares. Gomizel is managing director.
Samantha grew up in Cobram, Northern Victoria, where Mantovanni is a third-generation apple farmer, and it was through her brother that Gomizel became aware that Mantovanni had bought some equipment to dry and package surplus fruit but had not been successful in marketing the results.
"Just before Christmas Daish and I went up there and toured the plant and saw that this was something special," Gomizel said.
The pair were excited by the potential of the equipment Mantovanni had imported, together with an operator, from Taiwan, observing it had "endless possibilities".
"It's a unique technology, You dry the fruit and then vacuum-dry to produce this big crunch," he says. "It's a very basic product, the humble apple. But because of the technology, there's no oxidisation. So the product still tastes like apple but it's crunchy."
They wasted no time in getting to work.
"It's a small manufacturing plant at the moment, capable of making two million packs a year," Gomizel says. "So we thought, 'Alright, let's start selling the first two million packs!' "
Six months later the Swan St company has branded and packaged the product direct to Victorian stores, with the potential for larger supermarket sales, as well as the Asian market.
Through previous projects, Pipan staff have the know-how and networks to grow the export side of the business.
The company was established in July 2018 when Gomizel, a former aerospace engineer who got into the food industry via commodities trading for a company focused on dairy products, teamed up with Dala when the pair were managing an infant formula plant together.
"It was our keen interest in ingredients and manufacturing and fortifying foods that led us to start Pipan," Gomizel says.
The company's first venture was a range of milk products with added micronutrients which it developed for export to China.
The product, Mo Milk, was doing well and Pipan had just clinched a major distribution deal in China when COVID-19 hit and its partner there went bankrupt.
With trade with China faltering, the company began to pivot away from their initial plan.
Then they heard about the Cobram fruit drying operation and went to investigate.
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The apple chips have been "school lunchbox approved" by the Victorian Department of Education, and Gomizel's son, Hughie, is being served them as part of his lunch by Richmond Primary's school lunchbox supplier.
"I've got two kids, I'm very passionate about what they eat and it is frustrating when you walk down the health aisle or the kids' aisle in the supermarket and see all the products claiming to be healthy," Gomizel says.
"It's overwhelming to the standard consumer.
"You flip the product over and you can't read any ingredients and you're like - 'Is this even good? Should I be giving this to my child?' And often the answer is no".
There are currently three varieties of Chippy Apple - a plain, lightly salted and cinnamon-dusted version - and the company is working on more.
"We've got some pretty cool flavours in the works," Gomizel says. "Things like sambal and sweet chilli.
"We just need to invest a bit more."
In recent weeks Pipan, which has so far been reliant on the support of an angel investor, launched an equity crowdfunding campaign.
Equity crowdfunding allows people to invest amounts as low as $250 for a share in the business.
With the apple snack product poised to take off, Gomizel believes Pipan is well positioned to expand its nutritional snack food offerings into other fruits, vegetables and flavourings.
"Kids love it, adults love it, and that's the base we need to launch into a range of fruit and veg," he says.
"A lot of the vegetable snacks you see in the supermarket are either from overseas or they're really loaded up with oil and then they're baked, which takes away the whole health claim.
"Our baking is at very low pressure and low temperature. The product is cooked at around 70 degrees, which makes it far more energy efficient as well, so we're not burning huge amounts of energy to make this and the only by-product is water."
"My hope is that we can build a much bigger manufacturing base in Cobram, create a lot more employment and upcycle a lot more wasted fruit."
"Because it's not just apples," Dala adds. "There's bananas, avocados, carrots - everything's getting wasted".
The company is also currently developing a nutritional shake for children.
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