Today we’d like to introduce you to Hannah Hong and Mollie Cha.
Hannah and Mollie, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
Mollie and I (Hannah) have been best friends for 15 years and were finally reunited in Los Angeles after various separations because of grad school and work. After about four years of not living in the same city, we’re suddenly living a half-mile away from each other and working together every day. It was our dream come true!
One night after dinner, Mollie made for me something she picked up during her business school days. Something called “banana nice cream.” You can find recipes for this all over Pinterest and Instagram, but it’s frozen banana chunks blended in a food processer with a little almond milk or other liquid. It whips up to the texture of fresh soft serve and is incredible. When she made this for me, I immediately understood the consumer insight and need.
Mollie and I have both been lactose-intolerant since our early 20s and have been non-dairy consumers ever since then. But this nice cream transcended just the need for non-dairy. It also met a consumer need for wholesomeness in an indulgent category. It’s non-dairy, no refined sugar, actually really good-for-you because it’s made with real fruit. We went about trying to freeze that exact recipe (bananas and almond milk) and it didn’t go well. It actually froze into a solid block of ice!
But that was the start. We spent every night after work iterating on our home version Cuisinart ice cream maker until we got to something that was close to the consumer experience we knew we needed to deliver – a scoopable, indulgent texture. That was it for us! I immediately quit my full-time job and jumped into Hakuna Banana, Mollie joined me a few months later and we’ve been on this adventure since 2016!
We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
In 2017, we started self-manufacturing because we wanted to make sure there was retailer appetite for our product. We knew there was consumer interest, but retailers are key in pioneering innovative products. Our throughput started small – only 10 pints every 30 minutes! But it was enough to start getting on shelves at a few independent natural stores.
Encouraged, we invested in a small leased kitchen and upgraded our ice cream maker (20 pints every 10 minutes). Then, we won a Whole Foods region and all Sprouts in California, going from 30 doors to 150+ overnight.
We always planned on moving to a co-packer, but now it was urgent. We grew our manufacturing staff and started double shifts. Often it was just the two of us in the middle of the night. We had 16+ hour days and no weekends regularly for the better part of 2018 as we self-manufactured while searching for a co-packer. We joke that we’ve never been in better physical shape because of all the labor, but our faces looked very tired!
The time we spent self-manufacturing was challenging but important. If we went straight to co-packing with our concept, we would have ended up with a vastly different product. Because we’re are not made like typical ice cream, it was incredibly challenging to find the right partner. We ended up testing at four co-packers until we found one that would help us maintain our vision and quality standards. In early 2019, we fully transitioned to being co-packed. We recently qualified two additional co-packers to serve a wider geography.
The obstacles of self-manufacturing over two years helped us fully understand how to work with co-packers to have a scalable product. It was the hardest thing we’ve ever done, but well worth our investment because we have a truly differentiated product on the market that’s crafted with integrity.
So, as you know, we’re impressed with Hakuna Brands – tell our readers more, for example what you’re most proud of and what sets you apart from others.
Typical ice cream is made from a bag of powder-filled with refined sugar, cheap fillers, and/or artificial ingredients. This is then mixed with water, milk, or cream and then run through a freezer. Hakuna Banana and Totes Oats cannot and are not made like this.
Our products stand for real ingredients first and foremost. Hakuna Banana’s first ingredient is bananas. Totes Oats’ first ingredient is our proprietary oat milk. We sweeten with dates. Non-GMO, no refined sugar, 100% plant-based, and no artificial ingredients.
Because of our focus on our real ingredients, our nutrition fact panel naturally reflects a healthier profile. We are generally a good source of fiber and potassium, lower in fat that most ice creams (both conventional and plant-based), and lower in calories.
A healthier recipe is one half of the equation that makes us unique. The other is actually delivering on an indulgent taste and texture profile. We deliver on the indulgence that consumers seek from this category through fun and familiar flavors. We offer real value to consumers – our pints are pretty heavy when you pick them up because we don’t pump them full of air (i.e., overrun). Our fun, familiar flavors and low overrun texture create that satisfying texture that consumers are craving from their ice cream occasion.
So, what’s next? Any big plans?
Our big goal for this and next year is to be a nationally distributed brand, bringing you nice cream goodness coast to coast! We’re currently distributed in natural and specialty channels along the West Coast.