Simon Lester knows plant-based milk chocolate doesn’t have the best reputation among consumers.
While most of today’s plant-based chocolates are dark, Lester said, confectioners are missing a huge piece of the market. Nearly half of U.S. consumers prefer milk chocolate, according to YouGov.
Lester and his wife, Courtenay Vuchnich, who started allergy-friendly chocolate company Pascha a decade ago, want to fill this market white space. After all, Lester said, plant-based milk is hugely popular, with sales growing annually. What is the problem with plant-based milk chocolate?
Then, Lester said, he finally figured it out.
“What we've been doing was the polar opposite of what we should be doing,” Lester said. “We're trying to make this product taste like milk chocolate, without the flavor of the plants. Turn it upside down, and that's not actually what people do with the plant-milk category. You don't get an oat milk latte or cappuccino thinking it's gonna taste like dairy milk. You expect a hint of the flavor to come through because it's supposed to be oat milk.
“So why is that not happening in chocolate?” he continued. “The minute you allow yourself to bring that flavor in, it changes the entire game because you're not trying to replicate dairy milk chocolate. You're actually trying to make the plant milk actually be the hero.”
Lester and Vuchnich created Lovo, a new plant-based chocolate brand that gives alternative dairy the starring role it has been missing. Lovo is launching online today with four different Swiss-made milk chocolates, each featuring a different plant-based milk: almond, coconut, hazelnut and oat.
Vuchnich and Lester say they think this new brand goes a long way toward rectifying consumer problems with plant-based milk chocolate. The brand name Lovo is a combination of two emotions people often feel about chocolate in general, Vuchnich said: love and crazy — or loco, its Spanish translation.
“We wanted something that was about people's undefined, emotional connection to milk chocolate,” Vuchnich said.
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One of the biggest problems with previous iterations of plant-based milk chocolate comes from the ingredients that were chosen, Lester said.
Many plant-based chocolate makers have historically used rice milk in their chocolates. Rice milk has a very mild flavor and imparts some sweetness, so in theory it can achieve a taste that is close to dairy milk. But, Lester pointed out, the end product is a little too sweet and the texture isn’t nearly as creamy as milk chocolate because rice milk has very little fat.
As the plant-based milk category has grown in popularity, consumers have drifted away from rice milk and toward almond, coconut, oat and hazelnut milks for the complete experience they offer — taste, mouthfeel and performance in applications including coffee or cereal. So Lester and Vuchnich also experimented with them in chocolates.
The work began in their kitchens, and they tried to see what kinds of plant-based milks could make a good combination in milk chocolate. After they came up with products that Lester said were two-thirds there, they took it up a notch. Since Swiss confectioners are known for their top-level expertise in premium milk chocolate, they found a Switzerland-based manufacturing partner to make some samples.
The first prototypes, Lester said, were OK, but not great. Then they explained exactly what they wanted: a simple and smooth chocolate that highlights the flavor and attributes of each plant-based milk. Two weeks later, he said, they had “phenomenal samples.”
It takes quite a lot of reformulating, testing and sampling to make plant-based chocolate based on one dairy substitute, but Lovo has four varieties launching at once. Lester said this goes back to the heart of what the brand is doing: Creating milk chocolate that puts plants in the spotlight.
“Variety is the essence of the plant milk market,” he said.
Lovo is targeted at chocolate lovers. Vuchnich and Lester said they’re looking for flexitarians — the type of people who buy plant-based items and traditional ones. While the bars are vegan, that isn’t the demographic they’re focusing on. And they’re making Lovo a completely separate brand from Pascha because Lovo’s bars contain nut allergens.
Vuchnich said they may also lean into the fact that chocolate made from plant-based milk might have nutritional benefits, which could sway some consumers.
“If it's delicious enough and it's a bit healthier, they would prefer our product,” she said. “We've seen this in other categories where a product has been introduced that has a few attributes that make them healthier, and they've been able to carve out and expand the overall category.”
Lovo is launching online first to build awareness and start getting noticed, Lester said. They eventually want to launch in retail. The right retail partners can help get Lovo to consumers, but the company is taking a slow approach to finding out who they are.
Each Lovo bar will cost $4.99 — close to the same price as premium chocolate, though not the most expensive bar out there, Lester added. Consumers today are used to paying a small premium for plant-based products, he said, so Lovo will fit in that pattern.
In order for Lovo to succeed, Lester said they need to get two messages out to consumers: Lovo is delicious milk chocolate and it’s made from plant milk. As long as consumers understand that the chocolate is both of those things, he said Lovo will sell.
Consumer research they have done backs up that belief, Lester and Vuchnich said. They asked people how they felt about several kinds of alternatives to dairy milk, including soy milk, rice milk, lactose-free cow’s milk and the plant-based milks in Lovo chocolate. Consumers did not want rice, soy or lactose-free milks, but had strong preferences for products such as almond milk and oat milk, Lester said.
“I think the consumer is open,” Lester said. “I don't think they're saying, ‘I've been there, done that. Tried it [chocolate] with the rice milk and it didn’t work. Give me the milk.’ I think they're ready to and willing to give it a go.”