The product was originally developed with their son, Alakai, in mind as an answer to the lack of options available for kids in the plant-based milk set, which either contained additives, gums, and stabilizers they wished to avoid, or were lacking in nutrition (or both), said the husband-and-wife team.
Working with pediatricians, nutritionists, and naturopaths, Lauren and Alex came up with a clean label formulation made from a variety of plant-based ingredients that could match the nutrition of a glass of cow’s milk, claimed Lauren Abelin, who originally started Kiki Milk's parent company, Plant Baby, to develop a plant-based infant formula which is still under development.
"Our North star product is still creating a plant based infant formula with the highest quality [plant-based ingredients] that we can," Lauren Abelin told FoodNavigator-USA.
“We had a number of first, second, and third priorities around the nutrition facts that we wanted to meet with only whole foods,” she said, adding that they were focused on delivering a substantial amount of calcium (from marine-derived Aquamin), fats (from coconut), protein (5g per serving - which is a little less than cow's milk, which has around 8g), and sugar (4g of total sugar from coconut sugar and monk fruit) as their top nutrition priorities.
Acknowledging that Kiki Milk has a slightly lower protein level than cow’s milk, Lauren said that a culture of protein obsession has led consumers into thinking they need astronomical of protein per day, which isn’t the case, especially for kids.
“I think people are protein obsessed in this country. I had so many conversations with doctors, pediatricians, and nutritionists around protein. And especially for little kids, it's obvious that they would need a lesser amount than a 50-year-old grown man going to the gym every day,” she said, noting that including enough healthy fats was more of a priority for the brand.
Some other notable ingredients in Kiki Milk include amla (also known as Indian gooseberry), which provides the beverage with vitamin C and has been linked to improved immune health and digestion.
“It's ‘teacher ingredient’, meaning that it is uncommon in the US but it's so common in Ayurveda and in countries like India, it's called Indian gooseberry and it's so high in vitamin C, and it's known to be one of the most nutritious foods that is often given to children,” she noted.
The brand is also calling out its ‘glyphosate-free’ credentials as an added benefit due to consumers’ increasing concerns in the area.
Taste testing with kids
With such a custom formulation and zero additives to mask flavor or modify mouthfeel, Lauren said that early reactions to taste and sensory experience of the product have been “overwhelmingly positive,” crediting the success to including kids as taste testers during its development process which took a full year to perfect and “hundreds and hundreds” of iterations.
“We had a group of kids (5- to 15-year-olds) tasting it, including our son, and giving us feedback on what they wanted, what they liked, and really included them in the process on the journey,” she said.
Gaining traction on direct-to-consumer
Kiki Milk launched online through its own website in December 2021 where consumers could purchase a pack of Kiki Milk as a one time purchase for $35.00 or save 20% on a subscription.
“The response immediate, we ended up selling out three weeks. So we kind of tightened the belt and really pushed our supply side of the equation,” said Alex Abelin, adding that Kiki Milk now has nine full-time employees to help sell the product.
In March 2022, the brand started selling on Amazon and was also picked up by online specialty retailer Thrive Market, who took the product very early on without a ton of market validation, said Alex.
“They took us on before we even had commercially-packaged products back in the Summer of 2021, which is pretty unique,” he said, noting how its placement on Thrive Market gives it access to its core community of vigilant label readers and consumers looking for products that fit their specific lifestyle needs.
“The performance on Thrive has been exceptional every month,” he said.
The brand has also dipped its toes into some brick-and-mortar retailers such as Woodlands in the San Francisco Bay Area and Food For Less, but doesn’t want to expand too quickly before getting a handle on its supply and simply producing enough product to meet current demand.
“Because of the success of the digital marketplaces, we haven't really had to stretch much further beyond due to inventory constraints, so we're trying to find a way to pace with demand,” he said.
‘First movers’ in plant-based milk for kids
“I would say we're first movers when it comes to certified organic, whole food plant-based milk. There isn’t a product on the market that’s like ours,” claimed Alex.
Taking a look at the competitive set and what Kiki Milk is up against, Alex said that he sees Horizon Organic and its Growing Years dairy milk product (also packaged in single serve carton format) and pea protein milk brand Ripple Kids (which uses gums and stabilizers) as its immediate competition.
“It just shows the need for more products like these need to be out there, and I think we’re doing it in a bit more modern and thoughtful way,” he said, who wants to eventually launch Kiki Milk in a 32-ounce multiserve carton to capture more consumer interest and bring the price per fluid-ounce down and eventually expand further into physical retail stores.
“I think we're just starting to scratch the surface of the demand,” he added.