It's been three and a half years since elite athlete coaches Damien Kennedy and Greg Duggan launched high protein, sugar-free ice cream brand WheyHey onto the UK market.
When they started out in 2013, the duo wanted to provide a healthy, tasty treat in a category dominated by high fat, high sugar products.
“Our goal was to offer a healthy alternative to the rubbish food companies put out there. We wanted to be the Red Bull of the freezer aisle,” said Kennedy.
Proof is in the listings
The company already seems to be on its way to fulfilling this aspiration. In the UK, WheyHey has listings in retail channels Holland & Barrett, Tesco and Wholefoods.
The brand has also made inroads in the mainstream retail market in Ireland, where it is listed in SuperValu, Centra and Musgrave outlets. In Germany and Austria WheyHey is on-shelf in Rewa, Edeka and SPAR, and in Finland, the ice cream has listings with K-Market and S-Group.
“When we compare ourselves to where Red Bull and Innocent were after three years, we are further on,” Kennedy told NutraIngredients.
However, WheyHey’s owners don’t see the multiples as the be all and end all. As well as targeting health clubs, they are busy building the food service channel, and have recently struck a deal with Odeon cinemas where the high protein ice cream goes head to head with premium indulgence brands.
Few ‘functional food’ start-ups can report this level of success. Indeed, as Kennedy points out: “90% of start-ups fail within the first two years.”
Asked why he thinks WheyHey is swimming in a pool where other functional foods have sunk, he said: “I think there are a lot of brands in this space that take consumers for granted. The nutritional profile and the taste of most functional foods isn’t good enough.”
WheyHey’s founders have gone to great lengths to ensure their ice cream tastes good as well as having a ‘good for you’ nutritional profile.
“It has zero impact on your blood sugar levels, provides 20 g of protein, tastes great and offers a real alternative to eating high-sugar, high-fat ice cream,” said Kennedy.
Destined to remain niche?
Whilst this concept has clearly struck a chord with a core of consumers so far, New Nutrition Business director and market analyst Julian Mellentin questions whether it has the potential to go ‘mass market’.
“Products like WheyHey appeal to the person aged 20-40 who is committed to fitness and have very limited appeal to a wider consumer market,” he told NutraIngredients.
He explained that one of the limitations to WheyHey going ‘mass market’ was its use of ice cream as a vehicle.
“People don’t associate protein with ice cream and the biggest lesson companies have learned over the last 20 years is that an ingredient has to be credible in the product format for people to accept the product.
“Ice cream is all about indulgence and pleasure and every effort to make ice cream products healthier - from frozen yoghurt to low-sugar ice cream and low-fat ice cream - has resulted in niche performances. Selling ice cream for health and fitness lacks appeal for all but the group of consumers who are most motivated by the ingredient.”
He added that the ice cream market is “intensely competitive”, with the mass market dominated by Unilever and Nestlé, and the premium end fragmented among brands who market on “naturalness, pleasure and innovative flavours”.
“Taken together, these factors mean that protein ice cream is ideal for a niche of protein-seeking, ultra health-conscious fitness enthusiasts who aren’t so driven by pleasure and naturalness,” he said.
“There’s no reason why WheyHey can’t be a successful niche brand and achieve total retail sales of €30-40 million. That would be a great business. But that’s also likely to be the growth ceiling for one brand and there’s probably only scope for one such brand per country.”
Kennedy declined to disclose sales figures, but said WheyHey had achieved double digit growth last year and expected to see triple digit growth going forward.
He confirmed that WheyHey was “potentially looking at Sweden and Denmark” and “working on entry into the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] region via Kuwait”.
A foray into the US market is also on the horizon after being selected to participate in Thrive - a food technology accelerator programme based in Silicon Valley.
“This is a major opportunity but we are not going to rush,” said Kennedy.
Indeed, WheyHey’s growth ambitions appear to be motivated less by market domination than by altruism.
“The world needs to not only produce more food between now and 2050 but also educate people on eating more healthy. We’re staring down the barrel of a health crisis with diabetes, metabolic syndrome and obesity.
"Moving forwards, we see ourselves as a key player in this context. You think of any indulgent product - we will offer an alternative. We want to take on every channel in the supermarket. We started out saying we wanted to be the Red Bull of the freezer cabinet. Now we want to go beyond that,” said Kennedy.