NORTHERN BL°C wants to become the UK’s number one plant-based ice cream brand. Having almost tripled its sales over the last three years, the company has secured a follow-on investment of £1.2m from Gresham House Ventures that will allow it to accelerate growth further still.
Expanding production to meet growing demand
The capital injection will see NORTHERN BL°C relocate to a new, larger site in its home city of Leeds. The company, which has already started the move to the former Bagel Nash production facility on North Street in Leeds, will convert the existing buildings into a purpose-built ice creamery. By the end of the summer it aims to have fully relocated its expanded production and office-based sales and marketing teams.
Production will begin immediately. The site will eventually be home to a factory shop and will host street party-style events. “We can’t wait to open our doors to the public at our new site and introduce more people to the world of NORTHERN BL°C,” co-founder and Director Josh Lee enthused.
The increased capacity is critical to support and accelerate NORTHERN BL°C’s growth trajectory. “In 2021, NORTHERN BL°C experienced 80% growth in turnover as out-of-home accounts started to come back from the pandemic in a strong position,” Lee told this publication. “We also won new out-of-home accounts and our retail business bloomed. Demand in these channels has continued to grow. The new capacity, live from early Autumn, is to keep up with this increased demand.”
Standing out in plant-based ice cream: ‘We put flavour first’
The company, which still continues to produce dairy products, has seen growth propelled by its plant-based offering ‘in particular’. The plant-based line is available in retailers including Waitrose, the Co-op and Ocado as well as out-of-home venues like the National Trust and Wagamama. “New launches include travel and new retail channels later this year too,” Lee revealed.
UK vegan ice cream is expected to exhibit a rapid CAGR of 7% through to 2026, according to forecasts from OMR Global. Demand is being driven by ascendant mega-trends around health, wellness and sustainability.
But competition is intense in this growing sector. “Competition between brands is fierce in the country, owing to the restricted level of product differentiation and consumers' negligible switching costs, combined with a challenging and volatile market environment,” OMR Global researchers noted.
The country has seen a number of notable plant-based ice cream launches hitting freezer counters in grocery and out of home channels. Plant-based bellwether Oatly has expanded beyond oat drinks into plant-based ice cream in the country, for instance, while Unilever’s powerhouse brands like Magnum and Ben and Jerry’s have brought out multiple vegan options.
Nevertheless, it would seem NORTHERN BL°C is growing significantly ahead of the market. How does the brand stand out in an increasingly crowded segment?
“NORTHERN BL°C takes a chef's approach to flavour, that's what sets us apart,” Lee responded.
“Manolo Imperatori is our chef, creative, scientist and fourth generation, world champion ice cream master. In his ice cream lab, he combines art and science to perfect our flavour profiles.”
Innovation is crucial, he continued. “We're constantly asking questions, learning, re-evaluating and experimenting with our ingredients, products and everything about our business. This means that our plant-based range is both innovative and indulgent. For example, in 2020, we were able to bring the first ever plant-based white chocolate ice cream to supermarkets - a flavour which, although traditionally high in dairy, we managed to replicate with Manolo's creativity and expertise.”
The company also recently added a premium, soft serve plant-based ice cream to its out of home range, known as THE WHiP! by NORTHERN BL°C.
With consumers notoriously unwilling to compromise on taste experience, how is the UK ice cream maker able to match the performance of dairy for creaminess and taste in its plant-based product formulations? For Lee, it is about taking a slightly different approach. The company, he says, is first and foremost an ice cream maker.
“At NORTHERN BL°C, we put flavour first. Our mission is to create a great ice cream which just happens to be plant-based. We use a mixture of vegetable derivatives, primarily peas and coconut derivatives, to create the cream-like taste in our plant-based ice creams. Our NPD processes evolve continuously to ensure we produce the best product possible, that is as sustainable as possible.”
This approach certainly seems to be resonating with UK ice cream lovers – and it is what appealed to the company’s financial backers as well.
“NORTHERN BL°C’s commitment to plant-based and naturally, responsibly sourced ingredients strongly aligns with our focus on sustainability and we’re excited to see what possibilities the new premises will bring,” Giles Whitman, Portfolio Director at Gresham House Ventures explained.
“Our first round of investment enabled us to be able to quickly and effectively fulfil this demand and we’re excited to see what the next year brings, on the back of this second investment,” Lee added.