WāHiki Creamery co-founders Haman Shahpari and Sergio Figueroa (Photo: Supplied)

How a local vegan ice cream brand is sweetening the deal for Chinese kids

Every week on The Primer we ask a local business or product to introduce themselves in eight simple takes. This week we talk to Haman Shahpari, co-founder of vegan, low calorie, halal certified ice cream brand WāHiki Creamery, which has recently signed a deal to enter the Chinese market. 

ONE: How did WāHiki start and what was the inspiration behind it?

Ronnie Tan, Sergio Figueroa and I wanted to create a healthier alternative to dairy ice cream which everyone loves but can make you feel guilty. Also, not everyone can have lactose or gluten, and with the rise of the health-conscious consumer, many people are worried about high sugar and calorie elements.

We thought high fat, high sugar dairy ice cream had its day and it was high time to innovate, not mimic, ice cream that was better for you. We were inspired by the health benefits and taste of coconuts, and we saw a visible gap in the market for something that offered more than just a singular benefit.

Our name WāHiki means ‘time out’ in te reo Māori and pays homage to the proud indigenous culture of this land. We started with a single vanilla flavour in December 2016, and nearly 24 months in, we’ve got flavours that are first in New Zealand and the world. Our sales have increased exponentially since we first launched.

TWO: Did you have any interest/experience in business prior to starting WāHiki?

Ronnie comes from a 25-year entrepreneurial background within the financial sector, Sergio brings two decades of fitness sector experience, and I come from a decade-long career in senior management roles and sales within the packaging industry. Our combined skills and experience from the various sectors meant everybody brought something to the table.

WāHiki Creamery ice cream (Photo: Supplied)

THREE: Where is WāHiki’s ice cream made and where do you source your ingredients from? 

WāHiki products are manufactured locally. However, as New Zealand doesn’t have coconut, mango or banana plantations, our sources for these flavours are international suppliers. We’ve taken painstaking measures to ensure our suppliers are sustainable and ethical sources and our ingredients are from the highest quality products on the market. It’s critical for us as a premium ice cream brand not to sacrifice quality for cost.

FOUR: A lot of new vegan ice cream brands (particularly coconut cream-based ones) have popped up over the last few years, with big companies like Sanitarium even trying their hand at dairy alternative products. What is it about WāHiki that sets it apart from the rest of the pack?

We’re premium, healthier and we just won the People’s Choice Award at the Auckland Business Awards for the central region where we took out first place by 1,200 votes. It’s also worth noting that on our first ever entries into the awards, we came away as finalists in the Best Emerging Business category, and the Excellence in Marketing category.

On product alone, we make an ice cream that’s better for you with less sugar and calories. Coconut milk’s been touted as having health benefits over dairy milk, but if it’s high in sugar and calories, you’re counteracting those benefits with all the stuff that’s bad for you. We’re making ice cream with fewer calories than a large serving of a single fruit, as four out of our five flavours actually have fewer calories than a large Honeycrisp apple (130 calories).

Sugar aside, we also have no artificial flavours and preservatives in our ice cream and have removed all emulsifiers and foaming agents from our range barring Matcha, which will join the rest by early 2019. WāHiki is also New Zealand’s first and currently only coeliac certified ice cream which means there’s a nil chance of cross contamination (a major issue in the food industry with serious repercussions). We’re also certified halal which means people with this dietary requirement can enjoy our ice cream without worrying about how and where it has been produced.

Lastly, we pump less air in the churn process which makes ice cream fluffy, producing a dense and thick product that melts later than your average tub. This means each WāHiki tub is heavier and has more ice cream than other brands.

L-R: Figueroa, Audacity PR’s Golnaz Bassam-Tabar, and Shahpari at the 2018 Westpac Auckland Business Awards (Photo: Topic Images | Hannah Rolfe)

FIVE: It was recently announced that WāHiki had signed a deal to supply ice cream to Asia’s biggest childcare centre, Cathay Future, which has about 20,000 children enrolled in Tianjin, a major port city in northeastern China. How did this deal come about and what does it mean for a small company like WāHiki? 

We’ve spent significant time and resources on carving out a mutually beneficial relationship with our Chinese partners. We established contacts in recent travels and have carefully nurtured them over time. The Chinese have proven to be incredibly progressive and have shown us more than a warm reception. The China deal is a significant milestone for us as it’s opened doors to countless opportunities in that part of the world who. from what we see, have a huge appetite for healthy food alternatives.

SIX: Crucially, what’s the response been like from kids? I would assume most of them have never tried dairy-free ice cream before.

Kids love our ice cream. You might not believe it, but from the feedback we get, our turmeric latte is a popular hit despite it being perceived as an acquired taste.

It’s really important for ice cream to be dense, creamy and full of rich texture for it to taste and feel like ice cream, otherwise, it’ll quickly be biffed as too icey and too frozen, especially by kids. Kids want ice cream to taste like ice cream, so even if you’re a little bit off, they’ll let you know about it straight away. So far, we’ve only had positive feedback with parents sending us pictures of their kids loving our products.

WāHiki Creamery Mango Flavour (Photo: Facebook/WāHiki)

SEVEN: Do you have any other plans to scale/grow further and if so, what are they? 

Our ambitions are to expand our business globally. We’re collaborating with various business partners and expect to see our products enter new markets over the next two years.

EIGHT: Lastly, tell us about a New Zealand start-up or business that you really admire right now.

We love the TradeMe story. It resonates with us because it was made by the archetypal do-it-yourself Kiwi who was fed up with the lack of options the market offered him. So true to Kiwi tradition, he went and built it himself, put in the work and persistence required and turned something small and novel into a household name. In the beginning, no one might have believed in Sam Morgan’s dream, but he persisted and persevered, and now no one can deny the success of his vision. This is how we see ourselves and we have the drive and ambition to see our vision through.


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