Change It Up: In the latest of our innovation series brought to you by Everybird Coffee, Ben Fahy meets the couple behind ice cream sensation EatKinda
Back in 2019, Rocketlab’s Peter Beck chided New Zealand entrepreneurs for aiming too small. Why just create a million dollar company when you could instead create a billion dollar company, he suggested. Given that ambitious sentiment, he would presumably approve of 24-year-old Mrinali Kumar’s bold goals for EatKinda, a two-ish-year-old company that aspires to become the vegan Ben & Jerry’s as well as the most sustainable ice cream in the world. Oh, and it’s also made from cauliflower.
Beck was considered fairly weird for thinking rockets could be sent into space from New Zealand, and cauliflower ice cream sounds similarly strange, but Kumar says the company is off to a good start. She has just returned from a trip to the US and Australia for a series of conferences and meetings with potential retailers and the response was extremely positive.
“It’s good to know we’re onto something great,” she says. “There’s definitely interest in the cauliflower… It makes it intriguing, but it’s a great product. It stands up. And, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what’s in it if it tastes good.”
As part of its market research, the company has conducted blind taste tests and the results show that their ice cream performs very well against other well-known dairy-based ice creams like Häagen-Dazs, with tasters often unable to distinguish between them.
Just like trying to trick your meat-loving dad into enjoying some tofu by not telling him what it is, their strategy for taste tests in public settings has been to omit the main ingredient at the outset and instead just ask if they want to try a new product, she says.
“They try it, they love it, then you tell them it’s made from cauliflower. It’s the best. The funniest thing is when you do it to children. One kid who was eating the ice cream got told it was made from cauliflower and he went ‘ewwww’, and then right after that he started eating it again.”
While hiding vegetables in meals is a time-honoured parental tradition, hiding them in deserts is much less common. But the original idea for the business can actually be traced back to the needs of kids. Co-founder Jenni Matheson, a vegan for 20 plus years despite being surrounded by dairy farms in Taranaki, was raising her kids vegan as well. There were far fewer vegan options available than there are now, so she was always looking to create delicious vegan food for her kids and for their visiting friends.
While a vegan cheesecake made out of cauliflower was a failure, it led to a successful vegan ice cream recipe and around two and a half years ago, she brought that idea to a startup weekend.
“I had just finished a food tech degree in Palmerston North and I’ve been a vegetarian all my life,” Kumar says. “I really liked her idea, so I joined her team. We did very well in that competition and then very naively said we’ll give it a go and try to turn it into a business.”
Some common issues with vegan ice cream in comparison to dairy-based options are that they are harder, icier and lack creaminess, but the pair have been working on improving the formulation over the past two years and, as illustrated by the blind taste tests, she’s confident they’ve cracked it.
The original recipe also contained cashew nuts, and because they wanted to be sustainable and allergy free (and also not pay insane prices for their ingredients), they found a substitute.
The brand’s first real push into the market came earlier this year, when EatKinda partnered up with Hell Pizza.
“It was a six-week launch to see how it would go, and it went really well,” she says. “They ordered a set amount and it basically sold out in four weeks.”
The quirky product certainly fitted well with Hell Pizza’s ongoing quest for attention and the launch received nationwide, if not global PR attention, Kumar says. It’s also a smart play for quick service restaurants that are always looking to improve efficiency to stock a product that can be eaten by almost everyone, rather than having to stock a variety of options for different dietary requirements.
“It was good validation. People liked it and we were getting messages from people who were upset that it was sold out.”
Like a vegan version of Lewis Road Creamery’s chocolate milk madness, Kumar says people were even stocking up and putting them in the freezer.
Taste is always the most important thing when it comes to food, but sustainability is becoming increasingly important and “consumers are looking for it and paying more for it”, Kumar says. EatKinda’s approach is to use cauliflowers that would otherwise be wasted, due to cosmetic imperfections, size or oversupply at certain times of the year.
She says over 30% of the vegetables grown on farms around the world don’t make it to market and go into compost or landfills (Perfectly Imperfect, a social enterprise that sources and sells ‘ugly’ fruit and veges, estimates the number is even higher at around 45%).
EatKinda takes the cauliflowers that “aren’t pretty enough for retail” and it can also help with ‘flushes’, when a whole heap of produce is ready at the same time but there’s not enough demand for all of it. By working directly with farmers and also distributors like Perfectly Imperfect and creating a way to process and store the cauliflower so it can be used later, “it can be a benefit to the growers and a benefit to us”.
Existing cardboard ice cream tubs are usually lined with plastic for food safety reasons so they’re not recyclable or commercially compostable, but Kumar says proudly that its packaging partner will be able to offer EatKinda in Australasia’s first home compostable ice-cream tubs.
The company has been based at the Foodbowl in Auckland and Kumar says they have received grants and guidance from the likes of Agmardt, Soda Inc and Kiwinet. It is currently transitioning to a contract manufacturer in order to scale up and the plan is for EatKinda to be in supermarkets by the end of the year and for it to be sold at a similar premium to the likes of Duck Island or Ben & Jerry’s. It has launched mint choc bikkie, strawberry swirl and double chocolate flavours so far and while the recipe is just a “trade secret” at this stage, the company is looking into IP protection.
“Alternative proteins are a growing market segment. You can see that by the amount of products that are available now … but it’s not just for vegans; it’s a really good ice cream that happens to be vegan, and happens to be more sustainable.”
While she says there is an opportunity to expand the range eventually, it’s focusing on ice cream at the moment.
“We want to grow that and be leaders in that space. We don’t want to get distracted.”
Export is also on the cards and they are currently exploring the potential of markets like Singapore, the US and Australia.
“When you go overseas people are more open to more weird food ingredients. There’s so much more there.”
While she can’t share too much about the level of investment in the company, she says they are currently raising a pre-seed round in preparation for the launch into supermarkets and they will require more funding to head offshore.
“We’ve already got some investors on board and we’re looking for some more.” One of the investors is the packaging company that has developed the home compostable tub and there is also interest from other parts of its supply chain.
Kumar says the company has global ambitions and “wants to be the vegan Ben & Jerry’s”. While it is currently focused on its mission in this part of the world, she is open to the prospect of being acquired by a larger company eventually to help spread EatKinda further and take away market share from dairy-based competitors.
Kumar says she’s “technically” still a university student because she has put her studies on hold to focus on scaling up EatKinda. “I never realised how much time this would take,” she says. “It’s much harder than I thought. But we’re building a business and learning everything about business at the same time.”
While consumers tend to hate having to give things up, they do like having more options, especially if there’s no or very little sacrifice required to make a change. And as diets adapt and meat and dairy free substitutes are sought, EatKinda is hoping that it can provide joy with less of the guilt.