Co-founder and a former pediatric ICU nurse, Katy Flannery, spotted the need for a premium lactose-free ice cream while juggling her lactose intolerance with her life-long love for ice cream. Flannery was familiar with the lactose-free options available (e.g. Lactaid and lactose-free products by Breyer's and Ben & Jerry's) but wanted to create an alternative that used the same ingredients as traditional ice cream (including cream and milk) and lactase (the enzyme that breaks down lactose in dairy products), without any stabilizers, gums, or additives typically found in lactose-free competitors.
"Us recognizing the gap [in the market] came from my journey as a consumer in the grocery store. I used to walk the aisles and would get to the freezer aisle and recognized that there wasn’t a traditional premium ice cream that I could enjoy and not have to sacrifice on taste and texture," Flannery told FoodNavigator-USA.
"The options available were just different than the traditional premium ice cream that I was craving."
Fellow Beckon Ice Cream co-founder and college friend, Gwen Burlingame, added, "Even not being lactose intolerant, I could not believe there was not a better option out there."
From the farmers market to nationwide distribution
Working out of a incubator test kitchen in Boston, Burlingame and Flannery spent two summers testing out their lactose-free ice cream recipe (using cream, milk, non-GMO pure cane sugar, egg yolks, vanilla extract, salt, and lactase in its vanilla flavor) at local farmers markets.
"Not using stabilizers or additives was important to us, because typically people who are lactose intolerant have other digestive issues... so we didn’t want to trade one problem for another," said Flannery.
According to Burlingame and Flannery, the farmers market was the ideal market test for their ice cream because of the instant feedback they received from lactose-intolerant customers (The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases estimates that
30 to 50 million Americans are lactose intolerant).
"Because we started at the farmers market, we had this great testing ground for flavors," Burlingame said. When Beckon Ice Cream entered its first Whole Foods store in the Boston area, the brand went with the top five performing flavors: vanilla, chocolate, espresso, mint chip, and sea salt chocolate chip.
"It started with one Whole Foods then grew to a few more. We eventually got into a few other regional grocery stores around the New England area and the New York metro area last year," Burlingame said. "From the sales side, the majority of retailers have been identifying that this is a white space within their set. They have consumers coming in and looking for lactose-free options."
Beckon Ice Cream will be launching nationally with Whole Foods on May 1 this year, along with new listings coming soon at Kings, Balducci's, Haagen. Nugget Markets, Market of Choice, Lazy Acres, Heinen's, and Plum Market (SRP $5.99 per pint).
'We want people to be able to enjoy ice cream with their family members, not along side their family members'
As mentioned before, lactose-free ice cream products do exist, but they don't hold the same consumer perception as traditional ice cream, said Burlingame.
"In the past, lactose-free products have been stigmatizing and medicinal, so we wanted to make sure that the packaging spoke to the fun of ice cream. Just because you need something a little bit different doesn’t mean you should have to sacrifice that element of the ice cream experience," Burlingame said.
To differentiate itself, Beckon Ice Cream markets itself as "dairy-full and lactose-free" with an ice cream illustration on the front of its colorful pints.
"It’s a challenge to ensure that everyone understands why our product is different and I think that’s probably a challenge that any unique product has," noted Burlingame.
Flannery added that the brand aims to be a family's go-to ice cream for those with and without a lactose intolerance.
"We say it’s ice cream for all. We want people to be able to enjoy ice cream with their family members, not along side their family members," added Flannery.