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Sisters leading a food journey

Puku Ora owners Erana Blandford and Amy Wray take care of themselves first, because the health and wellbeing of owners is integral to how well the business turns out. The sisters spoke with Sophie Rishworth about its humble beginnings and how they haven’t even got close to achieving what they want yet.

True to its name, Puku Ora has grown from a quiet opening four years ago with one person to a fully-fledged operation that now employs 30 staff.

Puku Ora means life form, and wellness and health within the gut.

In 2017, Erana Blandford said she “just opened the door and wondered, ‘Will anybody come?' ”

She had used every single cent to have product for her salads, smoothies and juices, and that first day didn't even have a cash float for change.

But Erana was determined about the food journey her family had been on and wanted to share the positive impact it had with the community.

Customers did walk though the door on day one, and kept coming back.

That forward momentum has driven Puku Ora, which is a business built on the philosophies of Erana, 42, and her sister Amy Wray, 37, who came on board in 2019.

Puku Ora operates close to the corner of Childers Road and Disraeli Street. The busy cafe offers keto, gluten-free and raw, tasty food. They also make and deliver 4000 school lunches to 11 schools in the Tairawhiti region.

They cater events, deliver lunch daily to adult field workers, and have ready-made dinner trays for busy families.

“It feels like the growth has been crazy but there's so much more we want to do,” says Amy.

There is a rolling to-do list for the sisters, who have learned the hard way and now have to ensure their health and wellbeing is a priority, so they can be more effective business owners.

“We won't compromise relationships for business,” says Erana, who has four children. Amy has six children with the youngest not quite two.

The sisters factor in weekly personal development and try to make family a priority.

They want to inspire positive change for themselves, their team, and their community.

“Our hope is that the perception of food changes, not just for lunches but changes to lifestyle.”

Already the feedback from the Ka Ora, Ka Ako healthy school lunches programme, piloted last year and now expanding nationally, has been all positive.

They have been told the children are more settled in class, especially in the afternoons.

They have been showing up to school more. Their behaviour is better and parents can afford more healthier food options.

“We have seen some really positive changes and hope that we are making a difference in the community”, says Erana.

But it hasn't been an easy road, it has been a lot of hard work for the Puku Ora team.

“In the early days we wondered if we could even pull this off. It was not easy to get ourselves established, but we just tried to make it through one day at a time,” says Amy.

“You've just got to be courageous enough to try it to make it possible”, says Erana.

Amy brings a practical planning approach and structure to the table, while Erana is the creative risk taker.

They try to think outside the box and have learned to be adaptable and involve the whole team in decision-making.

On the day of lockdown they gathered the team and moved to their new premises. They arranged overnight delivery of the “drive-through box” (off Trade Me) on the same day New Zealand went into Alert Level 3, so their team could continue to operate.

They work seamlessly in their roles to fill all the gaps, and support each other's strengths.

“It's fun to share the load and there's plenty of laughs along the way,” says Erana.

“As sisters we have each other's back when it gets rough. Some days it's so intense we look at each other and just know what needs to be done,” says Amy.

Between them they have many other roles and aspirations.

Amy trained as a midwife and lactation consultant and has worked in many areas of the community.

She runs another business called Mama Aroha where she has created breastfeeding resources for health professionals throughout New Zealand, and is working on a national project developing a phone app.

Willing to give anything a go

She is also an appointed member for the District Health Board and has been working hard with Gizzy Muscle where she has lost 50kgs while starting her journey with Puku Ora and hopes to compete in a body building competition later this year.

Life is busy but the sisters are grateful for each other, for their families and for changing ideas around a healthier lifestyle.

One of Erana's sons was diagnosed with autism. To help him, the whole family completely turned around how they ate, she says.

“Food is medicine.”

Erana took fermenting classes, and the whole family was eating a clean keto diet before it was even called keto.

Other family members diagnosed with cancer found it was the best way for them to eat as well.

All up, Puku Ora has been an opportunity to follow our passions, says Erana, who has another dream about to be realised — her bone broth formula.

The idea, and the broth, had been simmering away in the background to get it “just right”.

“I'm really excited about the bone broth. We've used it on our own health journey and have had great experiences with it.”

Already the broth has customers in Tairawhiti, elsewhere in New Zealand, and orders from other countries.

Both women are from Nga Puhi in the north and married Ngati Porou men, which brought them to Tairawhiti — which is now home.

“It's so good here, we're kind of in our own eco-system. It forces people to be entrepreneurs and be innovative in how they run their business.”

Erana says any challenge they face, they think harder to find a way through.

“We were raised by a strong mother, who was very resilient.”

The family had a humble upbringing and have four other sisters. All six have owned their own businesses at some point.

“We're all too strong and stubborn to be employed by a boss. There's no one to tell us we can't do something.

“We keep an open mindset, and are always willing to give anything a go,” says Amy.

A HEALTHY BUSINESS: The sisters behind Puku Ora, the cafe and catering business on Childers Road, are Erana Blandford (left) and Amy Wray. Together they have built up a very healthy business. Picture by Liam Clayton