Commercial food and beverage production in New Zealand has changed greatly since its beginnings in the 1860s. Initially hundreds of local family businesses produced a small range of goods, usually by hand. In the 2000s relatively few businesses made a wide range of products in much larger, highly-automated factories. Some production has shifted to Australia. Many originally family-run companies have been purchased by multinational corporations.
From the 1880s two major influences on commercial food production – canning and refrigeration – were introduced. Household refrigerators appeared in the 1920s, but these were only for the rich. After the Second World War they became common, and by 1966, 91% of households had one. Domestic deep freezers were rare until the late 1950s. They were common by the 1970s, and in 1982 nearly 75% of households possessed one. Home refrigeration and freezing increased the foods that could be stored at home, such as ice cream, ready-made meals or frozen vegetables – increasing product and marketing opportunities for manufacturers.
For decades home-bottled fruit and vegetables were more popular than tinned varieties. Before 1940 housewives tended to avoid canned food because the quality was inferior to their home-made preserves. As the quality of canned products improved, so did their uptake.
The growth of food and beverage manufacturing has been influenced by changes in society. In 1926 only 3.5% of married women worked full-time in paid employment, but by 1981 the figure was 35.8%. Many housewives spent days baking and bottling, making their own jam and other foodstuffs, but as more women entered the workforce there was greater demand for processed foods, ready-made meals and snacks.
The influence of immigrants on local diet was important – especially after the Second World War. New Zealand’s culinary tradition had largely been imported from Britain. It was bland, focused on quantity and had very little diversity. Immigrants had different cuisines and provided new products. For example in the 1950s Dutch immigrant Johan Klisser brought Dr Alfred Vogel’s Swiss wholegrain bread recipe and began making it. In the early 2000s Vogel’s bread remained popular.
Foods and beverages are exported, particularly to Australia, a move encouraged by the Closer Economic Relations agreement (CER), in place since 1983. Many processed foods and beverages are also imported from Australia. As eating behaviours and food tastes changed over the 1970s and 1980s there was an influx of imported foods from round the world. Kiwis also embraced new foods manufactured in New Zealand.
In 2008 almost 75,000 people were employed in food and beverage manufacturing industries nationwide, nearly 4% of the total workforce.
Commercially baked biscuits, widely available by 1900, were an acceptable substitute for home baking. From beginnings as a flour and cocoa miller in Nelson in 1864, John Griffin began making biscuits and confectionery. Having rebuilt in Nelson following several factory fires, his business moved to larger and more modern premises in Lower Hutt in 1938. This factory used the first continuous automatic biscuit-baking oven in the southern hemisphere.
Profiting from supplying Allied troops fighting in the Pacific during the Second World War, the company purchased enrobing machines in the late 1950s to make chocolate-coated biscuits. Griffin’s wine, superwine and gingernut biscuits were widely eaten.
The Lower Hutt factory closed in 2008. Production continued at a revamped Papakura factory which had originally opened in 1967.
Traditional vanilla-flavoured biscuits are sold as a fundraiser for Guides and Brownie units. In the early 2000s they sold about 1.7 million packets per year, including new chocolate-coated versions. The idea was copied from the Girl Scouts in America, where girls first baked and sold the biscuits themselves. In New Zealand they were made commercially by Griffin’s.
Richard Hudson set up his bakery making biscuits in Dunedin in the late 1860s. In 1884 he visited Europe where he bought a chocolate-making plant.
Cadbury originally supplied New Zealand with chocolate from its factory in England, but in 1928 increased duties on imported goods forced the company to look for a local manufacturer, to remain competitive. An amalgamation in 1930 formed Cadbury Fry Hudson, building on Richard Hudson’s existing Dunedin chocolate, confectionery and biscuit business.
Over time the company expanded its product range, adding more confectionaries. Sweets such as Pebbles, Minties and Moro bars became common.
Whittakers was a family owned business set up in Christchurch. In 1896 James Whittaker sold chocolate from his horse-drawn van. In the 2000s Whittakers’ Porirua factory supplied markets in Australia and New Zealand with chocolate and toffees – but the company was best known for its Peanut Slab, a peanut and chocolate bar.
Baker Ernest Adams started a partnership with Hugh Bruce in Christchurch in 1920, Adams Bruce. Their own poultry farm supplied the eggs for their cakes, which were sold through their specialty cake shops. In an innovative move for the 1930s, raw ingredients were checked in a test laboratory first, to ensure the cakes met quality standards. In the early 2000s the company traded as Ernest Adams.
Early settlers made their own ice cream using hand-churns and ice from the mountains. By 1871 Aucklanders could buy it from a Queen Street shop for threepence a glass ($3.66 in 2008 terms). Later, small companies, often set up by Italian immigrants, sold it from street barrows. Production grew from 4 to 10 million litres per year during the 1940s, due to the demands of US servicemen stationed in the country, and the growing availability of refrigerators and commercial deep freezers.
Ice cream has to contain at least 10% milk fat to be labelled ‘ice cream’. New Zealanders are among the world’s biggest consumers, eating an average of 22 litres each per year. The world’s favourite flavour is vanilla, and so is New Zealand’s, but it uniquely has hokey pokey (vanilla ice cream with added honeycomb toffee chunks) in second place, with chocolate and strawberry following.
The Tip Top ice-cream company was formed in 1935. The owners opened their first milk bar in Wellington the following year, selling only ice cream and milkshakes. In the early 2000s Tip Top made 50 million litres of ice cream per year for the domestic market, at factories in Auckland and Perth, Australia, and exported to Japan, Australia and the Pacific. It was part of the Fonterra Cooperative Group and employed 350 people in New Zealand.
Many boutique ice-cream companies such as Kapiti and Deep South (Invercargill) have developed high-quality products for national and export markets, encouraged by the New Zealand Ice Cream Awards, held annually since 1996. Companies have devised some unusual flavours – peanut butter, lemongrass and ginger, and even bacon and egg.
The increased availability of chest deep-freezers allowed ice creams and ice blocks (frozen, flavoured sugared water) to be sold to the public, in the form of snacks on sticks. The Jelly Tip, dreamed up in the 1950s, put the favourite children’s dessert jelly and ice cream on a stick, encased in chocolate. It originally sold for sixpence, and it has remained one of the top ten novelty ice creams. The trumpet (a coned ice cream with nuts and chocolate) was launched in 1964. Frujus are fruit-juice iceblocks that joined the burgeoning numbers of flavours of iceblocks.
Fruit and vegetables can be preserved by bottling or canning. Local canning companies began by using up surplus in-season fruit and vegetables. Fruit was cored, peeled and packed into tins by hand. Canning preserves food by cooking it in a sterilised sealed metal container. For commercial manufacturers the cylindrical canisters (later shortened to ‘cans’) were an improvement on storing food in glass jars, as they were cheaper, faster to make and less likely to break. Cans were originally made of tin (hence their alternative name), then of cheaper tin-plated steel, and then lacquered steel.
By 1891 there were 15 canning factories operating in New Zealand, supplying local and export markets. The sector was dominated by four main companies. Irvine and Stevenson sold canned fruit, jam, fish and meat from 1864, which was processed in Dunedin under their St George brand. Kirkpatrick and Co. of Nelson sold their ‘K’ brand jam and fruit from 1881. Tomato soup and green peas had been added to the range by 1926, and baked beans and spaghetti in tomato sauce appeared in the early 1930s. Tinned spaghetti and macaroni were probably the only pasta dishes most New Zealanders ate. The largest cannery was Wattie’s.
Fruit was the most popular canned food – 1,500 tonnes were canned in 1950, and over 20,000 tonnes by 1984, mostly for the local market. Peaches and pears remained favourites, accounting for 50–60% of production. The growth in commercial canning was matched by a decline in home preserving from the 1970s.
Several meat companies operated canneries, mostly for sheep tongues, jellied veal and corned beef. Corned beef from New Zealand was exported to the Pacific Islands and became a popular food.
In the 1930s James Wattie was horrified that Hawke’s Bay fruit rotted on the ground while local jam-makers imported Australian fruit pulp. ‘We’ll do something about this,’ he said. What he did was build the largest food-producing empire in New Zealand. Wattie’s became synonymous with products such as spaghetti and tomato sauce.
Canned vegetables – sweet corn, green beans, asparagus and beetroot, together with baked beans – became popular in the 1940s and 1950s. Sales declined in the 1970s as frozen food became more popular. In the 2000s tomatoes were the most common canned vegetable, often imported from Italy or Thailand.
James Wattie opened a pulping and canning business in Hastings in 1934. His company grew to become New Zealand’s largest food producer and a Hawke’s Bay institution. In the 2000s Wattie’s had three factories – the original in King Street, Hastings, and others at nearby Tōmoana, and in Christchurch. Around 1,900 people were employed (including 350 seasonal workers) to produce 140,000 tonnes of food products each year for domestic and export markets. Wattie’s merged with General Foods in the 1960s, and became part of Goodman Fielder Wattie in 1987. After 1992 it was part of the global corporate H. J. Heinz group.
Boiling fruit and sugar to make jam was originally a home-based activity using surplus summer fruit. Commercially-made jam, sold in cans and jars from 1880, gradually took over. The most popular flavours became berry fruit and plum.
Oak jam was founded by Thompson and Hills in Auckland in 1897. James Wattie began his successful food processing company in Hastings in 1934. By 1964, Wattie’s had absorbed Thompson and Hills and other jam-making companies. The Oak brand was retained by Wattie’s.
Marmite is a savoury yeast extract, formed as a by-product of beer brewing. Originally from England, it was distributed by Sanitarium in New Zealand, who later began making it under licence in Christchurch. In the 1930s the flavour was altered and sugar was added. After 1923 New Zealand Marmite competed with Vegemite, an Australian spread, for popularity. Families often had a strong preference for one or the other.
For breakfast in 1851 people might have been served mutton and bread. By 1890 porridge (cooked rolled oats), introduced by Scottish immigrants, was common. A milled, pre-cooked product called Creamoata, or ‘one minute porridge’, was introduced by Flemings of Gore in 1920 and became very popular. Images of ‘Sergeant Dan the Creamoata man’ were printed on the bottom of cereal bowls, and on spoons, to encourage children to eat up all their breakfast and see his picture. Flemings was bought by Goodman Fielder in 2006 and the factory was closed.
In 1987 Owen and Kay Pope started selling jam from their raspberry farm at a market stall in Nelson. They filled a niche for a high-quality product as good as home-made jam. Barker’s Fruit bought the business and in 2007 they moved production to their factory in Geraldine, where they processed 1,000 tonnes of locally-grown fruit per year.
American-styled pre-prepared breakfast cereals eaten with cold milk were quicker to make than porridge. By the 1920s cornflakes, puffed rice and wheat, and Weet-Bix were all available. Swiss muesli was popular from the 1970s.
American Edward Halsey began making breakfast foods for psychiatric patients in Christchurch in 1900. His Seventh Day Adventist beliefs supported the health benefits of a whole-food diet. Demand grew and his products were sold in the first health food shops in New Zealand. The original manufacturer of Weet-Bix was bought by Sanitarium in 1930. In the early 2000s Sanitarium had factories in Auckland and Christchurch. Its nationally owned businesses in Australia and New Zealand made over 150 products and employed around 1,700 people.
In 1998, to celebrate Hubbards’ tenth anniversary, all the staff were taken on a picnic – to Samoa.
Dick Hubbard began making breakfast cereals in 1988, with an initial staff of five. His independent company, founded on sustainable production principles, grew and in the early 2000s employed 150 staff at its factory in Māngere, Auckland.
Bread was a staple for the English settlers, who introduced wheat to New Zealand. Wheat was ground with a steel hand-mill, the dough was kneaded by hand and baked in a camp oven. Water- and windmills replaced hand-mills in the 1840s and 1850s, but dough was still hand prepared. Māori adopted bread and gained expertise in cereal growing in the 1850s.
As the population grew, bakeries proliferated, and every small town had a baker. Mechanical dough mixers, imported from England and Germany from 1890, sped up production. Automatic cutters, shapers and ovens followed. Better transport led to fewer but larger bakeries.
In the early 1900s white bread was preferred. Brown bread was associated with poverty, as unprocessed wholemeal flour was cheaper. Breads varied only in shape. Free-standing loaves such as the oval Barracouta and the round Scone loaf gave way to loaves baked in tins, which were easier to cut for sandwiches. Not till the 1940s was wholemeal bread promoted as being healthier than white. The Chorleywood Bread Process, first developed in England in 1961, meant a loaf could be made in two hours, instead of 12 to 24 hours, and resulted in loaves which kept twice as long.
Bread is best eaten fresh, so it must get to the customer quickly and regularly. Many people bought it from the grocer. Around 1910 home delivery was common, but inefficient. Many small bakeries with overlapping runs delivered about 200 loaves each per day. Home delivery declined from the 1940s as a wartime measure, even though customers objected fiercely.
Since bread is a staple food and requires a regular supply, the government controlled the baking industry. The Wheat Committee (and from 1965 the New Zealand Wheat Board) subsidised wheat growing and set the price of a loaf of bread from 1936 until 1987. Delivery costs were pooled, so everyone paid the same. Bakeries had no choice of wheat supplier or type of flour, and had to make the best of what was available.
In the 1960s bakeries operated Monday to Friday, creating a massive demand for bread on Friday to see people through the weekend. Many bakeries struggled to make 40% of the week’s bread on Friday. Later, some began making bread on Sundays, and produced a standard white ‘Sunday loaf’, relieving the agony of Monday’s stale bread sandwiches.
In 1968 eight provincial bakeries formed a cooperative company called Quality Bakers of New Zealand. By consolidating they could afford television advertising, and saved costs by bulk purchasing ingredients, and standardising loaf size. In the 2000s the company was the country’s biggest bread manufacturer. Two of the founders, brothers Pat and Peter Goodman, went on to build Goodman Fielder, a large Australasian company marketing numerous food products.
Pre-sliced, wrapped bread was unheard of before 1950. It was first sold in a waxed paper wrapping. In 1963, 30% of bread was sold this way. Plastic wrappers, introduced in 1979, had to be looser than waxed paper to stop mould.
In a move away from standardised loaves in the 1980s, bakeries in supermarkets and hot bread shops sold their loaves straight from the oven. Small artisan bakers flourished in the 1990s and early 2000s. They have revived traditional breads, such as the sourdough loaf, which has a slower rising time and a stronger, more fermented flavour.
New Zealand production of soft drinks began in the 1830s with cordials and ginger beer. The first aerated (carbonated) water was made in Auckland in 1845. The drinks were popular, and small manufacturers proliferated, from Gisborne to Greytown and Akaroa to Alexandra. By 1918 there were 164 factories nationwide, and most towns of 500 or more people had an aerated water factory.
The Hamilton bottles in use in New Zealand from 1840 to 1870 were sealed with a cork and secured with a wire. The bottoms were rounded to prevent them being stored upright, which would allow the cork to dry out and break the seal. They were named ‘torpedoes’ or ‘bombs’ after their shape.
In 1872 Hiram Codd patented a bottle sealed with a glass marble trapped in the neck, which was held against a rubber seal by the pressure inside. This ‘Codd’ bottle quickly replaced all others and was standard for 50 years. Children tended to break the bottle to get the marble out, which reduced the rate at which bottles were recycled.
Glass bottles were a major production cost. They had to be strong enough for pressurisation, and not to burst or leak before the beverage was consumed. Each manufacturer owned their own bottles, branded with their name. The bottles were collected, returned, cleaned and refilled – encouraged by a cash deposit repaid on empties.
Arriving at a safe and hygienic bottle design took many years and failures, until the advent of the metal crown cap in 1910. Due to hygiene regulations and costs, plastic bottles, aluminium cans and non-returnable glass bottles had become the standard containers by the 1990s.
Takeovers and mergers reduced the number of soft-drink manufacturers to 113 by the 1940s. Seven of these companies survived into the 1960s, including Innes, Grey and Menzies, Ballins, Schweppes and Thompson’s. Together they owned 22 factories nationwide. By the early 2000s the industry was dominated by large multinational corporations, although there were still some small locally-owned operations, such as Foxton Fizz in the Manawatū. Over 75 New Zealand companies were involved in manufacturing and importing cold drinks.
Paeroa, a small Waikato town, gave its name to a famous soft-drink, first called Paeroa and Lemon. The naturally sparkling water from a spring in a paddock was discovered in the 19th century. Bottling by the Paeroa Natural Mineral Water Company, located in the township a short distance away, began in 1900. In 1907 lemon essence was added and Lemon and Paeroa, or L & P, was born.
The factory had many owners, including Innes Schweppes, and eventually closed in 1980. In the early 2000s it was made artificially by Coca-Cola Amatil in Auckland. A seven-metre-high replica of an L & P bottle has been a familiar landmark in Paeroa township since it was built in 1967.
Coca-Cola was popularised by American servicemen in New Zealand during the Second World War. It was imported ready-made from 1939, and made locally from imported concentrate after 1944. In the early 2000s factories in Auckland and Christchurch could produce over three million litres of soft drink a day.
Energy drinks were introduced to New Zealand in 1997. They claimed to provide more energy than normal soft drinks, and became popular with young people. They contain as much sugar as standard soft drinks (up to 9 teaspoons per 250 millilitres) and almost as much caffeine as a cup of coffee. The caffeine often comes from the guarana plant, a Brazilian native which has about five times more caffeine per seed than a coffee bean.
Some coloured, flavoured sugared waters are also marketed as sports drinks.
To be called ‘fruit juice’ a drink must be pure fruit juice, with up to 4% added sugar. A ‘fruit drink’ must contain at least 5% fruit juice and may contain extra sugar, water and other additives. Juices are often concentrated by heating, to remove most of the water, and to reduce volume and transport costs. The juices are then reconstituted, mixed and pasteurised before being bottled hot and transported to retail outlets.
In the early 2000s ENZA Foods was a major producer of apple-juice concentrates, which were often mixed with imported juice concentrates to produce different flavours.
Tea was the hot drink of choice from colonial times and for most of the 20th century. Consumption was around three kilograms per person until the 1970s, when its use declined. In 1980 consumption was around two kilograms per person – the same as coffee. By the early 2000s yearly consumption was down to about one kilogram per person.
Tea companies buy tea leaf from different countries and blend it to ensure the flavour is consistent. Tea is sold either as leaf tea, or packed into teabags, which each contain about two grams of tea. Teabags were introduced to New Zealand in 1969.
During the First World War a one-pound Bell Tea tin had exactly the right dimensions to be sent to troops overseas at a special postal rate. Friends and relatives bought the tea, emptied the tins, and packed them with food and other small items to post away. Bell struggled to keep up with demand. New Zealanders at the front lines left a trail of Bell Tea tins behind them.
The Bell Tea Company was founded by Norman Harper Bell, after he arrived in Dunedin from Melbourne in 1898. Bell took over the Amber Tips brand in 1963, and the Edglets and Tiger Tea brands in 1969. In the early 2000s the Choysa and Bushell’s brands were owned by Unilever Australasia.
In the 20th century picnickers and travellers brewed tea outdoors, often boiling water from a stream nearby in a thermette – a metal container for water with a cavity underneath, in which a fire was lit.
Herbal teas are made from a wide range of plants. They grew in popularity in the 20th century. They do not contain caffeine, and many claim health benefits.
Coffee consumption increased with the arrival of European refugees and American servicemen in the 1940s. The introduction of instant coffee in the 1960s boosted its popularity further. By the 1980s, a cup of coffee usually meant ‘instant’ (80–90% of coffee sold).
In Cuba Street, Wellington, in 1926, Albert Fagg used the smell of roasting coffee to lure patrons into his shop. He also threw beans onto the footpath outside the shop, so when crushed by passers by, the delicious aroma would be released.
The use of instant coffee declined with the growth of cafés using ground coffee beans and espresso machines. The urban café culture created a big demand for freshly brewed coffee. Many new roasters were set up, and there was a proliferation of cafés and coffee kiosks in city streets.
Coffee manufacturers purchase beans grown overseas, then roast and blend them to make the desired flavours. Roasted coffee beans change from green to dark brown, and the flavours intensify. The time and temperature of the roast influences the eventual taste of the coffee. Roasted coffee beans have a shorter shelf-life than green beans, and roasting is ideally carried out close to where the coffee will be drunk. Beans are packaged and sold either whole or pre-ground.
Instant coffee is made by extracting coffee from the ground beans with hot water then freeze- or spray-drying to obtain the powder.
Bailey, Ray and Mary Earle. Home cooking to takeaways: changes in food consumption in New Zealand during 1880–1990. Palmerston North: Department. of Food Technology, Massey University, 1993.
Barringer, E. E. Sweet success: the story of Cadbury & Hudson in New Zealand. Dunedin: Cadbury Confectionery in association with Longacre Press, 2000.
Butterworth, Susan. Quality Bakers New Zealand: the first 25 years. Auckland: Quality Bakers New Zealand, 1997.
Conly, Geoff. Wattie’s: the first fifty years. Hastings: J. Wattie Canneries, 1984.
Goldsmith, Susette. Tea: a potted history of tea in New Zealand. Auckland: Reed, 2006.
Robson, Peter E. W. The aerated water and soft drink industry in New Zealand, 1845–1986. Auckland: New Zealand Soft Drink Manufacturers Association, 1995.
Information about the tea and coffee drinking habits of New Zealanders.
The food-processing company founded by James Wattie in 1934.