“Back in 2004, we were the first ones doing this,” adds Nicholson, who became financial controller at Nada Moo! in 2008 and took the helm in 2011.
“And we were probably catering mostly to rigorous vegans. Today, we're catering to anyone and everyone, although I think Millennials are definitely buying into our product and our brand in particular.
"At the beginning, our founder Amy Ramm was making the product herself and supplying it to a local juice shop and it caught the attention of a Whole Foods regional buyer. I don't think she even had a brand name at that point, but he basically said, if you put it into pints, we’ll sell this product at Whole Foods.
“There were dairy-free products on the market at the time, but they were generally soy, rice or almond based, so coconut was something really new.”
This year we fully expect to grow well into the triple digits
While the Austin, Texas-based company has grown steadily since its launch, things have really picked up in the past couple of years as the plant-based food revolution has taken off and non-dairy options have captured a sizeable share of the 'milk' category and are starting to make inroads into every part of the store, says Nicholson.
And 2016 looks set to be a record year, predicts Nicholson, with four new flavors in the portfolio and a nationwide rollout at Whole Foods starting this month. The product, which is in around 2,000 stores including Vitamin Cottage, Safeway/Albertsons, Raley’s and Save Mart is also rolling out to more than 250 H.E.B. stores (up from 100 at the start of the year).
“Over the past two calendar years, we have grown by on average by about 75% per year, and this year we fully expect to grow well into the triple digits.”
Nada Moo’s base mixes are 100% certified USDA organic, “but for some ingredients, such as pecans and almonds, the cost of organics just doesn’t make sense for us,” says CEO Daniel Nicholson.
“Nationally we are priced anywhere from $4.99 to $6.99 for a pint which is extremely competitive; we don’t want to be a super-premium brand; we want our product to be consumed by everyone.”
So what does he make of the recent move into the dairy-free frozen desserts market from Ben & Jerry’s, and could the arrival of CPG's biggest funs into the category put real pressure on smaller brands such as Nada Moo! and fellow coconut-fueled brand Coconut Bliss?
Potentially, says Nicholson, but there is no evidence yet that competitive dynamics are denting sales at Nada Moo! which is going from strength to strength.
“There is a lot of money being poured into the natural food space right now, and lot of large food corporations that are trying to develop their own in house natural food products, but that’s where relationships are important for brands like ours. People know us, and know we are pioneers in this space, and that carries a lot of weight. We’ve earned a lot of respect as a family-owned business and that counts for a lot."
There could also be positive benefits to bigger players entering the space, he adds: “When brands the size of Ben & Jerry’s [which is owned by Unilever] put their marketing dollars behind dairy free lines it will turn a much larger consumer base into this space, and that will bring more people to our product as well.
“I think it’s neat that brands like us and Coconut Bliss have started a pint-sized revolution that some of the larger brands now want to be a part of.”
But what differentiates the players in the coconut desserts space from a product perspective aside from some certifications (organic, fair trade, non-GMO)?
There aren’t major differences in the basic recipes, says Nicholson [coconut milk, water, sugar, gums and flavors] although they all have slightly different tastes and textures.
“But there are some things we’ve noticed, for example, some of the larger players are getting creative about how they source coconut and they are rehydrating it, whereas we continue to use 100% USDA organic coconut milk straight from our source.”
We took a risk, it didn’t work, and we paid for it
It hasn't all been plain sailing for the firm, however, acknowledges Nicholson, who recalls a costly blunder back that served as a painful learning experience.
“A few years ago we decided to test out a new coconut milk supplier. Everything looked good. The product was USDA organic with exactly the nutritionals and technical specifications we asked for, but when we ran it through the plant, we knew immediately after the first run that it just wasn’t the same, but we had committed to buying x-amount of it.”
But surely this problem could have been detected before a commitment to purchase the coconut milk was made?
You would think so, says Nicholson, but the challenge was that at the time, Nada Moo! did not have a pilot plant enabling it to do a test run to see how the product performed on a more industrial scale, and had only tested the new ingredient on a small scale, where it performed as expected.
“At the time, we had no cost effective way to run 100 or 200 gallons, which would have been ideal to see how it would work on a larger scale, and we took a risk, it didn’t work, and we paid for it, but we survived and live to tell the tale.”