4 Food & Beverage Entrepreneurs To Watch: Jeff Richards

Sept. 4, 2020
The search for a non-allergenic base for nondairy milk led to Mooala, the only refrigerated banana milk in the U.S.

This article is part of a series on Entrepreneurs To Watch in the Food and Beverage Industry. You can read the full series, starting here

When Jeff Richards discovered that he had become lactose-intolerant in his late twenties, he didn’t much care for the available alternatives.

The result: Mooala Bananamilk, the only refrigerated nondairy milk with bananas as a primary ingredient, not a flavoring.

Rolled out in 2016, Mooala is now in about 5,000 stores nationwide, in every state except Alaska. Mooala also markets almond milk and oat milk, but banana milk is its best seller. All products are organic, and all have moderate price points.

Richards was inspired in the same way as many entrepreneurs, especially in food: through personal experience. He cut out dairy from his life for about a year while following a paleo diet. When he tried to go back to dairy foods, he found that they made him sick.

“So that really got me super-interested in the nondairy space,” he says. “My background is in banking, and I’ve dealt a lot in consumer products, and I’ve just always been interested in the category and the market in general.”

When he looked at the nondairy milk market, he found a lot of low-end, commodified almond milk and some upscale stuff, but not much in between.

“The idea was to launch an organic plant-based milk that was not on the low end, but also not super-premium, because you can really quickly make a bottle of almond milk that’s seven dollars,” he says. “So we really targeted that middle price point, that $4.99 price point. No one else was doing that – it was this void in the market.”

Another void was a lack of choice – it was dominated by almond and soy.

“We were thinking, you’ve got almond milk, you’ve got soy milk, all these low-acid plant-based milks. What else is low-acid that’s not an allergen?” Richards asks. “And that’s how we came up with banana milk.”

Banana-flavored milks, both dairy and nondairy, were available, but Richards wasn’t interested in competing with those products, which he says “taste like a piece of candy you don’t want.” He wanted a banana-based milk with a milder but still pleasing taste, which he describes as “kind of a banana nut bread or Bananas Foster-type flavor.”

Development was by trial and error. “I got quinoa, pea protein, oat flour, all sorts of stuff from the Whole Foods down the street, trying to figure out what would mix with bananas.” He microwaved bananas with one thing after another, and “I spit out every single one of those combinations except for the bananas and the sunflower seed butter. I knew it was a home run.”

A packaging supplier for an almond milk company referred him to the University of Minnesota, where scaleup equipment was available. One of the biggest challenges in developing the formulation, Richards says, was “setting an upper limit as to how much banana you could use” so that the product didn’t taste like “a big glass of banana puree.”

He found contract manufacturing, which wasn’t easy. “It’s really difficult to find good low-acid manufacturing. I would say that when you’re starting up, what you’re looking for is anyone who will run your product for you.” So he “signed up with the first group that would take my money.” And it worked out.

Breaking into retail wasn’t easy either, but it helped having a new product. “We were really grateful early on to have an innovative product like the banana milk, because everybody was just doing almond at the time.” A big coup came when Costco, which had discovered Mooala in Central Market stores in Texas, emailed him expressing interest; they started carrying it shortly afterward.

Mooala’s plans include the introduction, in the near future, of aseptic product, which will allow it to be distributed through Amazon and other channels.

“When you have Costco emailing your website and asking how to get product,” Richards says, “you know you’ve got something special.”

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