Smart Thinker: James Porteus, Oamaru Organics
Smart Thinker: James Porteus, Oamaru Organics
Most of us would look at a patch of soil and not see anything remarkable. But for James Porteus, it’s a thing of beauty.
To him, soil tells a story.
“From the mountains in Central Otago and further north near Mount Cook, there’s a lot of rock, minerals and schist. It slowly flows down the valley and accumulates nutrients, going down the Waitaki Valley,” he says.
“Then it peaks south of Oamaru where you’ve got this organic soil with great nutrients. That’s how you get the amazing flavours of the vegetables in Oamaru.”
For 23 years, Porteus lived in Japan, working as a consultant in IT. After meeting his wife and starting a family overseas, he realised something was missing.
“I had this yearning to return to the land and learn about the soil,” he says. “I wanted my children to experience a childhood in New Zealand.”
Turning a failing restaurant into a booming business
Porteus jumped on Trade Me and purchased a business. “I bought a failing Thai restaurant in Frankton, Queenstown. I got off the plane and there it was, all of a sudden I was the owner,” he says.
He found a chef and got to work to try and turn the business around. “I would drive the family station wagon and deliver menus into letterboxes,” he recalls.
The business has grown a lot since then, expanding into three Thai2Go restaurants in Wanaka, Queenstown and Timaru, as well as a small deli in Wanaka.
About four years ago, Porteus made the decision to transform Thai2Go into a fully organic restaurant, making it the only organic fast food in New Zealand.
Sourcing the vegetables from nearby Oamaru, Porteus would meet the local farmer to pick up his vegetables and take them back to the restaurants. When Oamaru Organics came up for sale, it made sense for Porteus to purchase the farm.
A circular concept
Together, the food businesses and farm make up Organic Solutions. The vision, he says, is to create a circular business model – from growing the food, to cooking, to composting the waste and then returning it to the soil.
Self- sufficiency and sustainability tie into every part of the business, with a fleet of electric vehicles used to deliver the food. “We aspire to have that zero-waste concept and zero carbon emissions,” says Porteus.
As the largest organic vegetable garden in the South Island, Oamaru Organics boasts a growing variety of vegetables. Thanks to his farm manager, Nigel Clark, they’ve been able to increase their crops from 15 to 24.
Many of those are being grown for the Thai restaurants, including joi choy and bok choy. Porteus has even experimented with growing Japanese mustard spinach, a vegetable his wife was missing from home.
For Porteus, the freshness and flavour of organics is unrivalled. In fact, his chefs found that the vegetables were so fresh they had to adapt their style of cooking.
“They’d have to use a thicker sauce because the moisture and freshness of the vegetables would make the stir-fry quite different,” he says. “The freshness and the Thai flavours, they just sing with the best produce in the world.”
Porteus sources beef, lamb and eggs from nearby organic farms. He even meets with the cows face to face. “I don’t think many restaurant owners do that,” he laughs.
“It’s important to me to know how that animal lives, how vegetables are being taken care of and how the soil is managed,” he says.
“As a restaurant owner, I have a moral obligation to make sure we source everything ethically and know exactly where the ingredients are coming from.”
Creating value from waste
He also likes to know where the ingredients will end up. Alongside his organic vegetables, Porteus has established a worm farm to deal with this waste.
Collecting organic waste from his restaurants and others around Queenstown, he composts it and turns it into fertiliser.
His hope is to roll this out across Queenstown. “All of Queenstown’s food waste, except for what we collect, is sent to landfill,” he explains.
“It’s wrong, it’s screwing the planet … and so against the values that we’re trying to portray as a pure New Zealand image,” he says.
Porteus hopes leaders will see Queenstown’s transformation in the wake of COVID-19 as an opportunity to push the region in a more sustainable direction. “Now is the perfect time to do it, as we’re looking to retrain people.”
Reflecting on his journey since returning to New Zealand and the rapid growth of his businesses, Porteus hopes his self-sufficient and sustainable model can be a blueprint for others.
“Maybe it’s too late to save the world, but the next best thing is to create a sanctuary where we can rebuild from as a planet,” he says.
“I thought if we can create one region as an example, the other regions could emulate what we’re doing.”
It’s a vision that begins and ends with the land, piecing together the building blocks of a resilient business while honoring the story of the earth.
“We can rebuild on a new economic system that is tied to the land and not based on greed and short- term gain, but living in harmony with the planet and with nature,” he says.
“This will benefit our health and create a more sustainable way for humans to interact and live with each other, when we’re more in tune with the planet.”