After a lengthy search, Rob Leibowitz has been named CEO of Kite Hill, a maker of plant-based alternative dairy products. On his near-term agenda is meeting with company co-founder Tal Ronnen to discuss which categories the company could enter next, according to Food Navigator.
Kite Hill can expand beyond plant-based cheese, yogurt and yogurt drinks, and nothing is off the table, Leibowitz said. But he clarified that product taste is his top priority. However, he also said he isn't trying to innovate into areas considered nutritionally equivalent to traditional dairy products.
Leibowitz brings broad experience in the food space to Kite Hill. Most recently with TSG Consumer Partners, has also served as CEO of Raybern Foods, general manager of Del Monte Foods' pet products division and spent 20 years with Mars, Inc. He clearly sees solid potential in Kite Hill given the company's track record and the rosy future of the plant-based food and beverage sector.
Kite Hill — co-founded in 2013 by Patrick Brown, biochemistry professor and founder of Impossible Foods — produces its alternative dairy line from almond milk.
The company's success with these innovative products has drawn investment from General Mills' VC arm, 301 INC, which led a $18-million funding round in 2016 for Kite Hill's owner Lyrical Foods. The products are carried by a range of natural and organic chains and traditional supermarket heavyweights.
This fast adoption and widespread acceptance led Lyrical to push Kite Hill products into new categories before it had sufficiently scaled up operations. The company launched probiotic almond milk yogurt drinks and almond milk yogurt drinks for kids last year, but the items were later withdrawn. However, the company said it plans to relaunch them this summer.
Leibowitz said wants to slow this pace to make sure that the company has the resources to support launches and category expansions before taking the plunge.
Kite Hill and other dairy alternative manufacturers are well-positioned to take advantage of current consumer tastes. Non-dairy milk sales in the U.S. have increased 61% during the last five years and were estimated to reach $2.11 billion in 2017. Meanwhile, overall sales in the dairy milk category have dropped 15% since 2012, hitting an estimated $16.12 billion in 2017.
According to a recent survey, this trend is driven by consumer belief that non-dairy beverages taste better and are better-for-you. It's also supported by consumers who are lactose-intolerant or have milk allergies, as well as those looking to cut down on animal products for ethical purposes.
Consumer acceptance and hunger for dairy alternatives present an opportunity for Kite Hill and the larger plant-based dairy category to continue to capture growth. If Kite Hill is able to create products in less-developed categories that are attractive to vegan and mainstream consumers, it could gain a first-mover advantage in this category and bolster its in-store presence.