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Noosa co-founder: Greek yogurt isn’t the only game in town

By Elaine Watson+Elaine WATSON

10-Jun-20141402351200
Last updated on 13-Aug-2014 at 00:57 GMT1407884234

Noosa co-founder: Greek yogurt isn’t the only game in town

While Chobani, Dannon and Yoplait have been battling for supremacy in the US yogurt market (and at halftime at the Super Bowl), another equally ambitious player has recently emerged from the leftfield and served as a reminder that Greek isn’t the only game in town.

First launched in the US market in 2010, honey-infused, Aussie-style set yogurt noosa has grown at an explosive rate ever since, and is now available in chains including Target, Kroger, SuperValu, The Fresh Market, Whole Foods, Safeway, Wegmans, Stop & Shop and Giant.

We think we’ve found the sweet spot

While there is no room for complacency in the US grocery market, noosa's success straight out of the gate has made co-founder Koel Thomae confident it could be a $100m brand with potential to expand beyond the yogurt aisle.

“We need to continue to innovate, but we have something unique,” Thomae - a native Australian now based in Boulder, CO - told FoodNavigator-USA.

“Everybody is doing Greek yogurt, as it’s what has driven the growth in the category. But people want to try something new. We’re still higher in protein than traditional yogurt but we’re in our own category of indulgent whole milk yogurt.

“Retailers are feverishly trying to increase their dairy set to include this next wave of indulgent, international yogurt, and some of them have been quite ruthless about compressing space allocated to other slower moving categories.”

Depending on the flavor, each 8oz/227g pot of noosa has 11-14g fat, 14-17g protein, and 240-320 calories, compared with around 0-7g fat, 18-22g protein and 140-230 calories for 8oz of Greek yogurt.

We’re at a premium price because we’re selling a premium product

Available in 12 flavors -plain, honey, blueberry, mango, raspberry, lemon, coconut, strawberry rhubarb, passion fruit, tart cherry, pineapple, and peach - noosa typically sells for around $2.49, a premium price, but not a prohibitive one, says Thomae.

“We’ve been strategic; we know we don’t belong in every store. We’re at a premium price because we’re selling a premium product. But we invest a lot of money on sampling and coupons to encourage trial, because when people taste the product, they love it.

Traditional yogurt in the US can be quite sweet, whereas Greek can be quite tart. noosa is really creamy and thick like Greek yogurt, but it’s not overly sweet or too tart, so we think we’ve found the sweet spot.”

I had one bite and I was blown away

Koel Thomae: I had one bite, and I was just blown away

Thomae - who has a degree in marketing and cut her CPG teeth at Boulder-based IZZE Beverage company (now owned by PepsiCo) before going it alone with noosa - first came across a family-owned brand called Queensland Yoghurt at a corner shop during a trip back to her native Australia a few years ago. She tasted it, and was instantly hooked.

 “I had one bite, and I was just blown away," says Thomae. "It was the best tasting yogurt I’d ever had in my life.

"I called up the family that made it [Paul and Grant Mathewson] but they didn’t want to do anything in the US at that point. So I came back to Colorado, but I couldn’t stop thinking about this amazing yogurt.

“About 18 months later my boss persuaded me to contact the family again and we set up a meeting and this time I was determined. I pitched the idea of setting up in Boulder, Colorado, which is a real natural food mecca, and this time, they came on board, and agreed to relocate to the US to get the business started here.

“Then we came up with the noosa brand. While we wanted a link to our Aussie heritage, we felt that Queensland Yoghurt wouldn’t mean anything to US consumers so we rebranded the product noosa after a beautiful little coastal town in South East Queensland where the recipe originated.”

If you have to, you can work until 5am to get an order out

The next step wasconvincing family-owned dairy farm Morning Fresh Daily (based in Bellvue, CO) to be its milk supplier and partner.

After a chance meeting - Thomae saw a flyer about the dairy in a coffee shop and called the number at the bottom - Morning Fresh owner Robert Graves sensed a business opportunity and agreed to come on board, and the team set about building a yogurt processing facility next door to his dairy.

“It seems very bullish to set up your own facility," says Thomae. "But the yogurt was a proven concept in Australia so we felt confident. There are also a lot of advantages of running your own facility when you start out. You’re in control, you can do very short runs, and if you have to, you can work until 5am to get an order out.”

The yogurt was a proven concept in Australia

Meanwhile, there are obvious practical and marketing advantages to having a milk supply that comes from cows that are literally next door, she points out. 

As yogurt is a perishable product with a quick churn, noosa started generating cash fairly quickly and this, coupled with the initial investment from the partners and bank loans enabled the business to get off the ground without private equity funding.

Looking ahead, there will probably come a tipping point at which noosa will look to set up a second manufacturing facility on the east coast, says Thomae.

Ideally we’d love to find a family-owned dairy farm that we can work with there as we do with Morning Fresh so we can have the same focus on quality, traceability and local milk.”

The elusive work/life balance

While anyone running a business can only dream of being able to fit in a life between the 24:7 day job, having a baby has forced Thomae to inject some more balance into the work/life equation in the past 16 months, she says.

But it’s still hard to completely disconnect yourself from a business you run, she admits.

 “It’s my passion, so it’s hard to unplug. Even when I’m on holiday, I have to go to the local store and see if noosa Yoghurt is on the shelf, which drives my husband crazy.”