NZ dad turns birthday cakes into booze!

Vaughan’s creative idea has him living the sweet life
Cake waste and man holding vodka
Good Bones Distilling's Vaughan Campbell
  • When Vaughan Campbell, 34, from Whanganui, NZ was diagnosed with leukaemia, he felt his world was crashing down.
  • So he set his sights on opening the distillery he always dreamed of.
  • After watching a news story on the environmental impact of food waste, Vaughan decided to turn excess baked goods into booze.

Here Vaughan shares his story in his own words

As I yawned loudly, my wife Emma rolled her eyes.

It was March 2020 and we’d welcome our third child, Kiva, in November. Ever since our bub arrived, I’d been sleeping all the time. I had lost my appetite too.

‘I swear you’re sleeping more than the baby,’ Emma joked.

At first I put it down to stress. Emma and I had a busy life, juggling our three kids Madison, then 14, Xodi, seven, and Kiva, four months.

Then I noticed giant bruises appear on my arms and across my body.

Concerned, I went to my local GP who ran some blood tests.

That night, I got the phone call that would change my life.

‘I felt my whole world scream to a halt.’

‘Mate, we need you to come to the hospital right away,’ my GP urged. ‘I’m referring you to a specialist.’

My heart in my throat, I raced to the hospital. There, my worst fears were realised when the specialist told me I had leukaemia.

Shocked, I felt my whole world scream to a halt. I have too much to live for, I thought. I’m only 30. What about my family, my dreams?

Breaking the news to Emma was horrible.

‘I know I can get through this,’ I assured her, wiping her tears.

Together, we explained to the kids that Daddy was sick and would need some special medicine.

As they cuddled me tight, I knew I had every reason to fight for my life.

A woman and a man
Emma and me (Credit: Supplied.)

I was terrified of what the future held, but that day I made a promise to myself – I was going to open the distillery I’d always dreamed of.

I’d been home brewing beer and spirits since I was 18 as a hobby. And when I wasn’t at my job building engines for racing cars, I experimented with new flavour combinations and honing my skills.

‘If I don’t take this chance now, I never will,’ I told Emma.

‘I want to leave a legacy for the kids, something they can be proud of.’

Put on a medical drug trial, I took two pills a day to keep the cancer at bay.

‘‘I want to leave a legacy for the kids.’

Then Covid hit. With my engineering work on hold, and ethanol which is used to make alcohol, being diverted to produce hand sanitiser, I had lots of spare time.

Days later I was watching a news story about the environmental impact of food waste. Immediately, a light bulb went off.

What if I used my distilling skills to rescue food destined for landfill in our local community?

I could turn the waste into premium spirits.

As breads and cake were full of carbohydrates, and they break down into sugars to produce alcohol, I figured it could make booze that way.

Working in my distillery (Credit: Supplied.)

Scrolling social media late the following night, I read about the inaugural Innovate Whanganui competition – where the winning entrepreneur would win $10,000 to put towards their venture!

I woke Emma, excited to tell her about my big idea.

‘That’s great honey, but can we chat about this in the morning,’ she said, cranky I’d woken her after she’d just got Kiva to sleep!

Brain racing, I had no chance of sleeping. So I spent all night writing my entry for the competition, explaining how I wanted to make a premium craft vodka with an emphasis on minimising food and packaging waste.

Man pouring food from a bucket
Loading leftover bread (Credit: Supplied.)

Accepted into the comp, after a 10-week accelerator course, I pitched my idea to five judges. It was like the TV show Dragon’s Den!

Inspired by my leukaemia diagnosis – which affects the bone marrow – I called my business Good Bones.

‘I already have plenty of bad bones,’ I told Emma. ‘I could use some good ones!’

My stomach was in knots as I pitched my big idea to the judges, answering all their questions about the business, its revenue and scalability.

I couldn’t believe it when my name was called as the winner of $10,000.

I could start my business! It was a dream come true.

‘Bits of birthday cakes and bagels became tasty tipples.’

Wasting no time, I got straight to work contacting a local brewery, who agreed I could share their space to distil my spirits.

Modifying a 1978 boiler rescued from a local sweet factory into a still, I connected with local bakeries to upcycle their unsold treats.

Bits of birthday cakes, bagels and sourdough bread, all too old to sell and destined for landfill, became tasty tipples.

Combining leftover food with water and malted barley, I create a sticky mash that’s left for over an hour as the carbohydrates react with the mix and turn into sugar. Then the liquid is strained and left to ferment for about five days.

Baked goods
Cake waste being processed (Credit: Supplied.)

And while it takes some science and a lot of hard work to get from brioche to bottle, the result is always worth it.

On November 2022, as I watched the wax dry on the caps of my first bottles of vodka, I couldn’t help but beam with pride.

‘I can’t believe this is happening,’ I grinned, taking Emma’s hand in mine. ‘Thank you for supporting me. None of this would have been possible without you.’

Four years on, my medication is still working and, while I’ll have to take the pills every day, I’m so grateful I get to live my dream.

Juggling the distillery with my work making engines, there is never a dull moment.

And life is just about to get busier with another bub due in January 2025!

Madison, now 18, Xoni, 11, and Kiva, four, can’t wait to meet their sibling.

While at times it can be chaotic, for me, life couldn’t be sweeter!

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