While taking the plant-based cheese and yogurt brand into new areas is a strategic priority, however, so is executing plans already in place, said Leibowitz , who acknowledged that Kite Hill had been a “victim of its own success” and had learned the hard way that you can’t do everything at once.
As a case in point, brand owner Lyrical Foods recently introduced, and then withdrew, two new Kite Hill products - probiotic almondmilk yogurt drinks, and kids’ almondmilk yogurt tubes, both of which will be coming back to shelves in due course – because it didn’t have the resources to support them and the core cheese and yogurt portfolio, said Leibowitz .
“When you get that consumer acceptance, the tendency is to go as fast as you can,” he told FoodNavigator-USA.
“We’re part of a plant-based movement, and we expanded as fast as we could and frankly doing that we took our eye off the ball, which is blocking and tackling over first things first. It was a little bit of let’s have dinner before dessert, so we had to retrench.
“When we [re]launch our innovations, we want to surprise and delight everybody, and at the same time deliver excellent execution of our core products in the trade," added Leibowitz , who joined the team at the end of February after a lengthy search to replace former CEO Matthew Sade.
In the first few days and weeks, however, said Leibowitz , his plan is to “merge with the traffic,” and “listen and learn from the team and engage where I can add value.”
After that, he said, “We’ll refine the multi-year strategy and ask how much do we continue to expand our core, and which new platforms do we branch off into? The shoulders of the Kite Hill brand can hold many product platforms.”
I’m not interested in joining an octane war pitting plant-based versus dairy
Asked what consumers were looking for from plant-based dairy alternatives, he said taste was #1, and that he was not looking to develop products that are nutritionally equivalent to dairy.
Many consumers buy both dairy milk and almond milk products, and the motivations for selecting plant-based products range from taste to allergies, sustainability, and animal welfare, he said.
“I reject the noise associated with this. I’m not interested in joining an octane war pitting plant-based versus dairy.”
I love the people who I've met here
Asked what he hoped to bring to the brand – which launched in 2013 – Leibowitz said his experience of working with large CPG and smaller, fast-growing brands (his career includes stints at Raybern Foods, Dogswell, thinkThin, Big Heart Pet Brands, Mars, and TSG Partners), should help Kite Hill move into the next stage of its development.
“Kite Hill has a real opportunity to be much broader than cheese and yogurt and yogurt drinks.”
He added: “I love the people who I've met here and I am just thrilled and excited that they felt the same way about me as I felt about them.”
Founded by vegan chef Tal Ronnen, cheesemaker Monte Casino and Stanford biochemist Dr Pat Brown, San Francisco-based Kite Hill makes almond milk from nuts and water, and then cultures it using proprietary cultures and enzymes to separate it out into solids and liquids, just as traditional cheese makers do.
Its products (almond milk cheeses and yogurts) are now in several thousand stores from Whole Foods and Sprouts to Kroger and Safeway/Albertsons.
Brand owner Lyrical Foods closed an $18m fundraising round led by 301 INC (General Mills’ business development and venturing unit) and CAVU Venture Partners in 2016, with 301 INC's general manager John Haugen serving as interim CEO in recent months as the firm sought a replacement for Matthew Sade, who departed last April after nearly four years at the helm to co-found kids’ food start-up Freeli Foods.