When a brand starts growing, it also needs to start growing up. A good idea at the outset might create the momentum required for it to take off, but that idea often needs to be refined, the right people need to be found and the right processes need to be developed to keep the momentum going. And that’s exactly the situation LILO desserts finds itself in, says the new general manager Sam Guernier.
“It’s a pretty cool brand,” he says, and the experienced marketer and FMCGer liked what the three co-founders – Cleo Gilmour, Russ Haines and Alex Worker – were doing.
Guernier says they all came up with the idea of making New Zealand fruit the hero of a new plant-based grab-and-go cheesecake in separate ways. Gilmour was working in marketing in China and saw how highly prized New Zealand fruit was, while Haines and Worker were also living in China and saw that cheesecakes were a massive thing there, so much so that convenience stores would often promote their cheesecake flavour of the day.
They all returned to New Zealand before Covid and Haines and Worker started making cheesecakes in Mt Maunganui. Soon they met Gilmour and decided to join forces.
As it says in the LILO (which stands for ‘last in, last out) manifesto: “The more we looked into our fruit system, the more we discovered an outdated focus on perfection for export. No splits, no faults, no blemishes, it said. Only perfect fruit could leave New Zealand shores; and a huge percentage (over 10% of certain varieties) of fruit that stayed went to waste.”
Gilmour started calling up individual orchards to see if they would be interested in supplying what they call ‘glitch fruit’ for a product that could help turn their potential waste into revenue. LILO now sources cherries, plums and apricots from Central Otago, lemons from Gisborne, and blueberries and kiwifruit from Te Puke (its main product is cheesecakes, but it also sells a party pack of dried fruits).
“First and foremost you need a tasty product,” says Guernier. “You can be as purpose driven as you want but if it doesn’t taste good no-one’s going to buy it … What we’re doing is small-scale but it’s nice to have a message there behind us with the fruit that creates some differentiation.”
He says there has been a shift to more mindful eating and a desire to know more about where our food comes from and one of the most common responses at tastings is that “it tastes great and it’s great that it’s made in New Zealand”.
Guernier admits it is a slightly unusual product to be making here given cheesecake is not a huge part of New Zealand’s dessert culture. “When I thought of cheesecakes in New Zealand, I thought of Sara Lee. It was a frozen thing that Grandma would bring out after dinner.”
But if they can create a new category here, he’s confident they can make it work elsewhere.
LILO got a major boost in 2021 when it won New World’s FoodStarter competition, which gives young, promising New Zealand food brands a $70,000 leg-up by offering distribution, office space and a range of business expertise. The brand launched into around 20 New World stores about six months ago and is now available in over 50, as well as some Huckleberry and Farro Fresh stores.
“We’ve had overwhelmingly positive feedback from customers. I spend a lot of my day answering comments on Facebook and responding to messages saying ‘we love you’ and asking where they can find us, and if we’re doing bigger formats, different flavours or multi-packs.”
The team hasn’t pushed too hard in terms of promotion because it wanted to grow its retail footprint and make sure the products were widely available. Its manufacturing partner Rangiora Bakery has recently invested in a new cheesecake production line, so it’s now ready to scale up and start spreading the word. Guernier says building something big means going beyond cheesecakes, hence the subtle but important change to LILO ‘desserts’. And it might also mean downplaying its vegan attributes.
At supermarket tastings, he says some customers would tell them the cheesecakes were delicious, but they could change their tune once they were told it was plant-based. And supermarkets that put LILO cheesecakes in the vegan fridge have had lower sales because so few customers shop there.
“You’re talking to 1% of the market if you’re a vegan product, when really this actually tastes so bloody good you can’t tell it’s plant based, so we try not to lead with that now.”
Tie me up, dye me down
While the brand’s modern hippie aesthetic and tie-dye heavy website certainly make it stand out from the pack, Guernier admits it is also liable to give you a migraine, so they’ve simplified the packaging and are in the process of refreshing the brand.
It is currently working on creating a twin pack of frozen cheesecakes (this extends the shelf life from one month in the chiller to one year in the freezer) as well as a family size option.
“Stores want to order and forget, not watch for dated stock,” he says. And this move to frozen could also help customers who haven’t been able to find LILO cheesecakes because they’ve been looking in the freezer, rather than the chiller.
The company is looking to push into the Four Square network to try and hit the metro market; those customers who might want something sweet after lunch, or head to the store to pick up a meal and dessert on the way home from work.
Petrol stations and fast food chains are also good opportunities, he says, and many of them are looking for plant-based dessert options (that taste just as good as non-plant-based options). He points to Hell Pizza selling EatKinda’s cauliflower ice cream or Burger King’s Hershey Pie as good examples of that model working well.
LILO is currently working with MPI to get an export licence for China, “but nothing is easy over there” and he says it could take them a year to get it. A pilot in the US, where you can get a slice of cheesecake at almost every diner and Whole Foods has a whole aisle dedicated to chilled grab-and-go desserts, is also on the cards. And it’s already working with a distributor in Australia, which has a slightly more advanced grab-and-go and ambient dessert market than New Zealand.
There’s a big to-do list and some big questions to answer, but for now, Guernier says the team is taking heart from all the love they’re being shown – from suppliers, manufacturers, retailers and customers.
“Everyone loves cheesecake. It’s a universal truth.”