Next the Los Angeles-based start up adds small amounts of coconut milk, dates, and cacao butter to create a novel option in the burgeoning non-dairy category, with no added sugars or high intensity sweeteners.
The result - as co-founders and best friends Hannah Hong and Mollie Cha (who met at Berkeley as undergrads) like to describe it - is a “banana-based non-dairy nicecream” with a short, clean label that is creamier than a sorbet, but far lower in fat and calories than dairy ice cream and most dairy-free alternatives.
Hakuna Banana – which is manufactured in a commercial kitchen in Los Angeles run by L.A. Prep – debuted in southern California earlier this year in Whole Foods and several independent retailers (following a successful ‘ice cream social’ in which Hong and Cha road-tested it with friends and family). It's early days, but so far it seems to appeal to a broad range of consumers, from vegans, to dairy ice cream fans looking for a more guilt-free treat, and Moms looking for creamy, but lower calorie options for their kids, Hong told FoodNavigator-USA.
Each pint (MSRP $5.99+) contains two bananas, while each half-cup serving contains 100-120 calories, 2-3g fiber and 280-400mg potassium (depending on the flavor).
(To place this in context, a serving of Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey banana ice cream contains 300 calories, while its non-dairy counterpart made with almond milk, sugar and coconut oil still has 260 calories.)
‘Hannah was saying, this is amazing, we should package this!’
That said, Hakuna Banana didn’t start as a healthy indulgence project, stressed Cha, formerly a strategy manager, innovation, at Bolthouse Farms (where Hong worked in brand management). “We’re not positioning this as a low-calorie treat, and we didn’t start out with a Nutrition Facts panel in front of us and engineer the product [to meet certain nutritional criteria], we just made a product we loved and the nutritionals turned out very well.
“We're both into cooking and we were making home-made banana ice cream in a food processor with mashed banana, almond milks, peanut butter and so on.
“If you google it [banana dairy-free ice cream recipe], tons of recipes come up and a lot of vegans have been making this for a long time at home, so it’s not a new concept, but no one was doing it commercially, and Hannah was saying, this is amazing, we should package this!”
Months of tweaking the recipe then followed to get to a “creamy, scoopable” recipe that would work at a commercial scale: “If you just put bananas and a splash of almond milk in a container it freezes very hard, so we played around with the recipes to get the right texture, as you need some fat [from coconut milk and cacao butter]," said Cha.
“But a lot of the texture and the bulk comes from fresh bananas. If it thaws, it doesn’t melt down to a puddle, it holds its body.”
What’s in a name? Hakuna Banana is a riff on the Swahili phrase ‘hakuna matata,’ popularized by the musical The Lion King and roughly translated as ‘no worries.’
INGREDIENTS (Banilla): Bananas, coconut milk, dates, cacao butter, vanilla beans, vanilla extract, vanilla bean extractives, guar gum, salt, tara gum, citrus fiber
All six SKUs feature banana as the #1 ingredient, coupled with coconut milk, dates and a tiny bit of cacao butter for creaminess and sweetness, plus a small amount of guar gum, tara gum and citrus fiber to help stabilize the product and prevent the ice crystal formation that can occur when consistent temperatures are not maintained throughout the supply chain, explained Hong.
“When we’re just making this in our kitchen we don’t use gums, but when you’ve got a commercial product it helps to have a tiny amount because there is always temperature abuse.”
‘Brand management is very different to sales’
While starting any business is not for the faint-hearted, Hong's and Cha's experience at Bolthouse Farms has given them a greater understanding of how things work in the food industry than many new entrants to the trade, although nothing really prepares you for going it alone, acknowledged Hong.
“Our experience has definitely helped us with things like developing the recipe and the brand, and knowing what the requirements would be to get into Whole Foods and so on, but brand management is very different to sales, so that was the largest learning experience for me.”
For Cha, the biggest challenge as the business grows will be building the team: “Hannah and I are really in sync and in lockstep with each other but it can’t just be the two of us; to develop and grow a company takes real thoughtfulness and I’d say that’s probably what keeps me awake at night more than anything, how to build the team.”