30 Jan 2023

From childhood roadside stall to avocado entrepreneur

From Nine To Noon, 10:05 am on 30 January 2023

Thorley Robbins is an avocado entrepreneur whose first foray into the horticulture sector was at age two - when he set up a roadside stall selling fresh tomatoes from his family’s orchard.

He grew up in Katikati on the orchard and seven years ago founded The Avo Tree - delivering freshly picked avocados direct to consumers around the country.

As demand grew, he found more and more small-scale growers to pick, pack and dispatch for- he now has 140 on the books.

Thorley Robbins

Photo: supplied

The internet has essentially become his nationwide roadside stall connecting small-scale growers with customers, he tells Kathryn Ryan.

“The Internet has enabled us to increase our side of the road stall and supply the product of the whole of New Zealand rather than just the cars zooming along State Highway 2,” Robbins says.

The idea for Avo Tree came about when he returned from his OE, he says.

“I was looking for something to do and my parents have a small orchard and Kerikeri, at the time e-commerce was in its infancy from a subscription perspective.

“And courier systems were getting better, so it didn't take too much to put the lot together, I've got the fruit, I can build a website and we can get this fruit to people in really good condition.”

Seven years later he has 6000 subscribers and tens of thousands of customers and has sent millions of fruit around New Zealand, he says.

Some of his growers only have five trees or even fewer, he says.

“We've really cornered the lifestyle grower. It's very difficult to get any return through the traditional food chain if you're a lifestyle grower, but because we're very efficient at getting fruit to market, we can get those returns back these growers.”

Much of this fruit would otherwise go to waste, he says.

“A lot of this fruit just drops on the ground, and it simply never comes to market.

“We can get the fruit from the trees to the customer within 24 hours … that's we're suitable to those lifestyle growers.”

The economics work out because they can source the fruit cheaply, he says.

“We can get the fruit very affordably from the lifestyle growers, it's very cheap to buy them there, because there's simply nowhere else to go, the fruit is essentially wasted so, something's better than nothing in a lot of those situations.”

The fruit Avo tree deals in is often imperfect on the outside but perfect on the inside, he says

“A lot of these lifestyle orchards aren't sprayed so, the fruit can be aesthetically slightly. rougher. But from a flavour and quality perspective internally, this fruit’s great.”

 They can supply fruit practically year-round, he says.

“From June right through, for Hass avocados, right through to sometimes the start of April, I think this year will probably be mid-March because the maturity is very high in the fruit, which means that it starts to fall off early.

“We are predominantly Hass and then from the end of the Hass season until we run out of them, we go to the reed avocado which is the green skin avocado.”

And Robbins has tips for storage and ripening – important when your taking delivery of ten unripe avos.

“The biggest misconception is that everyone has to suddenly eat ten avocados at once and why the hell would anyone buy 10 avocados and have them all ripen at once you're crazy.”

Let them get to about 80 percent ripe outside, then put them in the fridge, he says.

Then they will hold and be in perfect ready to eat condition for sometimes three weeks.”