It's not unusual for plant-based food brands to tout their sustainability compared to their animal-derived equivalents.
Dairy-free ice cream brand NadaMoo is taking it to new heights. With rebranding and new packaging to commemorate the company's 15-year anniversary, CEO Daniel Nicholson is focusing on the things that make NadaMoo sustainable: coconuts, agave nectar, organic and biodynamic farming practices and new more environmentally friendly packaging.
"There aren't many players out there that have a 15-year story like ours who have continued to remain independent and continued to push forward this category into the future," Nicholson told Food Dive. "[We put in] time and quality [ingredients], and sustainability ... all the way down to the farm level ... into the consumption of our consumers. ... It's part of who we are and it's core to the change that we want to be a part of and make in the future of the world that we live in."
The coconut-based ice cream brand, which launched in Austin, Texas in 2005, has rapidly expanded since a Whole Foods buyer discovered founder Amy Ramm's frozen dessert at a local tasting event. In the past 15 years, NadaMoo went from only being at the natural grocery chain's flagship store to more than 8,000 groceries in the U.S. and Canada.
Last year, Nicholson said, the company had retail sales of more than $24 million, and it's continued growing. NadaMoo's growth rate has outpaced that of the total non-dairy dessert category. By the end of 2020, Nicholson said the brand should be in about 1,000 more retail locations, as well as in additional foodservice locations.
Nicholson hopes that by showing the world the brand's sustainability credentials — along with working on getting that message and its ice cream in front of more consumers — it will be building toward more growth for its next 15 years.
The most important problem to solve
From its onset, NadaMoo was a brand built to solve problems. Ramm created the signature ice cream recipe because she wanted to make a treat for her sister who was lactose intolerant. Nicholson said she chose coconut because it is high in saturated fat and could mimic it in dairy milk.
While the brand has solved the problem of creating an allergen-free frozen dessert that looks, tastes and feels like the dairy equivalent, and has made that treat clean label, organic and Non-GMO Project Verified, that's not the problem it's trying to solve right now. Even talking about the nutritional benefits of NadaMoo versus conventional ice cream — a comparison Nicholson said NadaMoo would handily win on almost every aspect — doesn't go anywhere toward solving today's biggest problem, he said.
"There are real, real issues plaguing the world, and the climate crisis," Nicholson said. "If we do not continue to lead and push this sustainability conversation forward, we really don't know what we are doing. That, to us, is the most important problem that we are a solution to. ...We want to connect with the people who are either really, really passionate about those same things already, or we want to take part in educating the people who are not, because we think it is important for the masses to solve this problem together."
"[We put in] time and quality [ingredients], and sustainability ... all the way down to the farm level ... into the consumption of our consumers. ...That is core to our mission. It's part of who we are and it's core to the change that we want to be a part of and make in the future the world that we live in."
The eco-mindfulness NadaMoo is pushing has always been a part of the company, Nicholson said. For example, no additional water is necessary for the coconuts the brand uses for its products. The same thing applies to the agave nectar the brand uses — it was chosen for the brand because it is a low-glycemic sweetener. The recipe has stayed the same for 15 years.
The packaging itself is actually the only thing that is changing, Nicholson said. Not only is it going to look different, but the materials will also shift. Most ice cream cartons in the United States are lined with plastic and not recyclable. NadaMoo's cartons are now coated with something made from renewable sugarcane. It is much more sustainable, though it cannot be recycled at the consumer level at this time.
True to the company's name, as Nicholson talked about sustainability, he made no mention of cows or other livestock. Instead, the renewable energy engineer turned food executive focused on why the company had made its earth-friendly choices.
"If we can't be at the forefront of this conversation and really pushing this whole movement forward, ...we would be doing an injustice to the brand, to the natural food movement and the plant-based food movement, and to the evolution of a more mindful and conscious consumer," he said.
A plant-based pioneer
When NadaMoo first arrived in Whole Foods, there were no other coconut-based non-dairy frozen desserts.
Nicholson said sales immediately took off at the Whole Foods flagship, and the then-unique product quickly spread across the chain and into other grocery stores — both those focused on more natural products and mainstream stores as well.
Nicholson has been with NadaMoo for most of this time. He joined after being introduced to Ramm in 2008. He loved the product, leading to a family investment in the company and his appointment as comptroller. He took over as CEO when Ramm stepped down in 2011.
The plant-based dessert market has changed significantly since NadaMoo first started appearing in stores. For starters, the category has gone from wide open to positively crowded. Nicholson said plant-based pioneers such as NadaMoo helped build the infrastructure for the category expansion, showing the big companies that the plant-based category is worth getting into.
More competition, Nicholson said, is good for everyone.
"There's a lot of new players. There's a lot of new competition, but the people who are ready and willing to compete, I think it helps us all have better operations," Nicholson said.
The crowded freezer case also encourages diversification and variety. When NadaMoo started, no other big brand used coconut milk for a base. Now, there are other coconut milk-based options, plus those made from oat, cashew and almond milks, sunflower butter and even fruits like persimmon and avocado.
"If we do not continue to lead and push this sustainability conversation forward, we really don't know what we are doing. That, to us, is the most important problem that we are a solution to. ... We think it is important for the masses to solve this problem together."
"We've seen a lot of creativity," Nicholson said. "We've seen a lot of new competition and I think, naturally, that's a good thing. ...As things change within the space, we [only] don't like to see products that don't taste good because we don't want the consumer to be turned away from continuing to dabble in the non-dairy frozen dessert space."
Although the company was one of the first in the non-dairy ice cream category and its sales are consistently trending up, Nicholson said there has never been any serious interest in an acquisition from a larger player. That's fine, he said, because it isn't a company goal — though he would be open to any conversations. His goal, he said, is making sure the company is prepared for the present and future.
The true meaning of NadaMoo
In looking ahead, NadaMoo is targeting many different avenues. There's the new packaging, which amplifies its sustainability efforts. There also are opportunities in marketing and foodservice that NadaMoo has not yet taken.
The brand opened a scoop shop in Austin in 2018, but Nicholson hopes to delve deeper into foodservice opportunities this year. He recently hired a company vice president tasked with building out that distribution channel.
NadaMoo's marketing budget for 2020 is also more than twice what it was last year, Nicholson said, and he's built an internal team to get NadaMoo's message out. It's important for the company to refocus around its signature product.
"As things change within the space, we [only] don't like to see products that don't taste good because we don't want the consumer to be turned away from continuing to dabble in the non-dairy frozen dessert space."
But Nicholson also plans to spend more time and effort on product development, too.
"NadaMoo, kind of by definition, means dairy free," Nicholson said. "And we really think that, even more so into the future, that brand name will be of value as we dabble in product development and begin to really focus on bringing new products to market."
Nicholson said consumers aren't likely to see NadaMoo cheese, yogurt or milk anytime soon. After all, he said, there's still a lot of value and innovation the company can still create in the frozen dessert space.
But, he said, he hopes that the company's moves can continue to drive more conscious consumption.
"We really feel like it is our role to continue to raise the bar, and to continue to motivate and inspire people to open their minds — and to open their mouths — up to a plant-based lifestyle, because there are so many benefits that come from it for their own health and for the health and well being and sustainability of the planet moving forward," Nicholson said.