Minor Figures bolsters positioning in US market: 'The big secret and big challenge is to be localized in a community,' says CEO
Originally started in the UK in 2015 by co-founder, CEO, and self-described 'coffeehead' Stuart Forsyth who has decades of experience working in the specialty coffee space, Minor Figures was always meant to be an oat milk designed for coffee, he said.
"At the very heart of our business is this very strange juxtaposition where we kind of consider ourselves a coffee company without making coffee anymore. I liken it to during the Gold Rush where Minor Figures would be selling the aprons and the shovels to miners," Forsyth told FoodNavigator-USA.
The brand's first product was a ready-to-drink (RTD) canned coffee product which the founding team wanted to pair with a non-dairy milk rather than dairy.
"We began to design a plant-based milk for coffee. The main difference between Minor Figures is while all the other plant-based milk companies are comparing themselves to dairy and trying to get their product as close to dairy as possible, we never bothered with that. The difference is we’re trying to highlight the natural characteristics of coffee itself. While other products are trying to behave like milk, we’re looking at things like filtration, buffering structure, and how it behaves in an acidic environment," Forsyth said.
"The portfolio started as the RTD coffee can, but that changed very quickly as soon as we designed the oat milk for the cans."
Minor Figures oat milk products are sold in 1L shelf-stable cartons in three varieties: an original, an organic offering, and the company's recent launch, a 'light' version with fewer calories, less fat, and sugar.
'We got sucked into the US at the end of 2018'
The brand first expanded from its home market in the UK to Australia and eventually the APAC region before entering the US in late 2018/early 2019, said Forsyth.
"We got sucked into the US at the end of 2018 when the industry was experiencing an oat shortage, which was a pretty phenomenal journey," he said.
With the additional capital and backing of Danone Manifesto Ventures and Green Monday Group, Forsyth said that the company is positioned to accelerate its mission of leading the plant-based milk category.
“The team at Danone Manifesto Ventures – the first corporate venture unit to be independently certified as a B Corp – shares our core vision to create a sustainable future for humanity. We are confident they are the perfect partner to help us optimize and grow our multi-geo, multi-channel business. Their vision, knowledge and deep experience across the globe cannot be matched," he said.
The partnership with Green Monday Group will help Minor Figures continue to grow its presence across Asia where the opportunity for plant-based milk alternatives is enormous, added Forsyth.
The coffee shop model
According to Forsyth, the company developed the perfect non-dairy complement to coffee and soon was engaging with coffee roasters and coffee shops around the world becoming the oat milk of choice for baristas at specialty and third wave coffee shops because of its taste and ability to foam and steam in coffee drinks.
"What gives oat milk its energy is its performance in coffee," argued Forsyth, who was more focused on engaging with local coffee shops and building an authentic connection to local communities than taking the retail market by storm at the time.
"The big secret and big challenge for a big brand is to be localized in a community, and now you see big brands trying to reconnect with communities that they left behind, and it can be a little bit contrived. The best way to localize your brand is through their coffee shop," he said.
"It isn’t easy to crack the coffee shop market because most carry one brand of oat milk, so it's either kill or be killed. "
Globally, Minor Figures can be found in roughly 5,000 coffee shops, according to Forsyth, noting that it is beginning to gain traction in the US.
As the brand built its coffee shop presence, the discussion of entering retail arose and the brand made a slower play into the channel as the environment was completely different, noted Forsyth.
"It actually took our business a while to crack retail. We realized it’s a whole other ecosystem and a whole other language. Now, our sales are almost split 50-50 retail to cafés," he said.
Minor Figures is present in many small, super-premium independent stores in the US including Erewhon and Gelson's Markets in California and some distribution in the natural and specialty channel including distribution with Whole Foods in the mid-Atlantic region.
"Now we’re trying to crack the bigger chains as we grow," he said, noting that the company has a hired a remote sales team in the US to engage with more retailers and is working with a co-manufacture to product Minor Figures oatmilk products.
12-24 month focus
Once the company feels like it has stable footing and confidence in fewer disruptions to its supply chain, it will revisit new product innovation, but Forsyth isn't inspired by the idea of expanding into new categories such as plant-based yogurt or ice cream.
"I'm more interested in imagining where customers will be in five years and how and where they’ll be buying and try to produce innovation for that five year space," he said.