Sarah Sherriff’s showcasing the best of Kiwi food

Written by Kirsten Matthew, photography by Anna Briggs

Meet the foodie who spends her weeks teaching producers how to make foods that go global.

Sarah Sherriff is about to leave for a week in the USA when we catch up. It’s a food trip, of course, to Natural Products Expo West in California, where around 70,000 makers and buyers of natural and organic products will be meeting. While Stateside, Sarah will also be snooping around Costcos, Whole Foods’ stores, and meeting with a Texan supermarket chain to talk about one of her beloved brands — Herbivore plant-based butter. 

Sherriff trained as a chartered accountant, but she became immersed in taking Kiwi brands to the rest of the world when she joined Icebreaker as its financial controller. During 13 years at the merino brand, she thrived. She lived in Canada for four years launching Icebreaker to the Canadian market, and became director of strategic projects.

“The joy I felt at Icebreaker, effectively promoting New Zealand overseas, was great,” says Sherriff. “I also loved the team. In the early days, almost everyone else was an extrovert and I was the only introvert and it worked. We needed each other!”

Her food obsession started once she returned to Aotearoa, settled with her family in Plimmerton and started looking for a job. She became international markets manager for Whittaker’s chocolate, focused on Asia, Canada and the Middle East. Next, as head of export for Fix & Fogg nut butters — another iconic Wellington food brand — she worked on making them big in the USA and Australia. 

“I travelled the world with these brands and I realised food is my happy place,” she says. “ I love the tangibility of seeing something on a supermarket shelf that you’ve been a part of.” 

These days, Sherriff has her own business, Dash Group, which helps brands to expand into global markets. She’s on the boards of Tom & Luke, which makes healthy snacks, and meat and logistics company Preston Corp.  She consults for Chia Sisters, Otis Oat Milk, Hello Period and others. If there’s a theme that runs through the brands Sherriff works with, it’s that they are creating high-quality products right here in Aotearoa. 

“I love it when a company is making the best version of the product in the category. It’s not the brand that attracts me; it’s that it’s the best quality,” she explains. “I don’t like filling the world with junk. My sweet spot is mass-premium products that are still affordable. What we make in New Zealand has to be good to survive, because with our small population you won’t last in business unless you’re making great quality.”

A typical work day starts with Sherriff spending time with her two teenage daughters and walking with them to the train station. It can then involve taking calls from clients in between “chunky” bits of strategic work and trips around the country to visit clients and attend board meetings. She works according to time zones in the Philippines, USA, Singapore and other markets, because, as she says, “export work is never 8am to 5pm; the flexibility works and is necessary because you can’t pre-schedule problems.”

With her experience, Sherriff is well placed to predict where food might go in the future. In recent history, she says, food has evolved by becoming more processed, but she expects that innovation will become less is more; making pure, whole foods more accessible to more people.  

“We’ll see innovation in things we already have,” she predicts. “There is always increasing demand, so we have to get smarter about how we do things. There’s a lot of waste in Western countries with food, and very few people will make a sustainable choice if it’s not tasty or convenient. We need some human adjustment to accelerate that on the consumer side.

“I work in a bubble of natural and specialty foods and I acknowledge that not all of the population can consume those,” adds Sherriff. The opportunity is in the mass market making those more accessible — drawing ‘the better for you, better for the planet’ into that part of the market.”

Sherriff’s new baby is Herbivore, a New Zealand plant-based butter brand that is the definition of that ‘better for you, better for the planet’ ethos. It’s made from coconut oil, is dairy free, vegan and environmentally friendly (coconut butter creates a quarter of the carbon emissions that dairy butter does). Sherriff loved the concept so much that when the founder came to Dash Group, she invested in it and now works in the business. 

“As soon as I saw the name, the brand, the purpose, I thought ‘Why isn’t anyone else doing that already’? There are plenty of coconuts in the world, plenty of capacity. We have a growing population and demand for food and we can’t add any more dairy to our ecosystem. It was a no-brainer,” she says.

“I always come back to the numbers, because I am still a chartered accountant,” explains the Palmerston North native. “I talk about all sorts of things — marketing, strategies, production — but the number one reason people won’t survive is cash. But if you have a significant point of difference in a massive category and the ability to scale, you’ve got a good proposition.”

Sherriff acknowledges that she can’t work and run her family alone. “My husband Aaron is awesome at sharing the load and my girls have five grandparents close by, who are all very helpful too,” she says. “But I’m really happy to see my kids at the end of their school day, and to switch into taxi driving, going to hockey practice, and all the family stuff.”

Surf lifesaving is a passion that for Sherriff runs a close second to food. She trained to be a lifeguard at her local Paekakariki club and is an official for lifesaving competitions: “It’s totally different to my work world,” she says. “But I’m in it for life.”

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