Conversation with Jenny Flanagan, Co-Founder Dairy-Free Down Under

Jenny Flanagan DFDU

With the Naturally Good Expo happening at Sydney’s Darling Harbour on June 2-3 2019, the event organisers caught up with Jen to talk about our whirlwind journey since officially launching at the same event a year ago. If you’re in Sydney, come visit us at stand number “i09”.

 

 

1. Why, when and how did you become interested in producing a dairy free ‘dairy’ substitute? Probably a HUGE question, but I guess it’d be great to get a bit of background about why you are, and were so passionate about this, prior to launching your brand?

Jen: Dairy-Free Down Under was born from our desire for our family of five to all sit around the table and enjoy the same meal, despite one of their daughters’ intolerance to dairy. We wanted to create quality, tasty, dairy-free alternatives that truly catered for all meals.

We went to work to develop a range of vegan cheeses, sauces and dips that could become easy substitutes for dairy-free eaters, vegans and flexitarians, but could slip through unnoticed for those without dietary restrictions.

Our family wanted a melting style cheese for pizza nights, parmesan for spaghetti nights and cheese style slices for lunches, so we started with this in mind.

Dairy-Free Down Under’s growing product range includes mozzarella and cheddar-style shreds, cheddar-style blocks, mozzarella slices, cheddar slices, cashew cream cheese, cashew parmesan, aioli, mayo, sour cream and cheese and cracker snack packs.

We had a few struggles during the research and development phase, but it has already proven incredibly successful.

We give everyone a seat at the table – it doesn’t matter if you’re dairy-free, vegan, flexitarian or lessatarian.

Dairy-Free Down Under’s products offer almond, cashew, soy and coconut options to cater for various allergies – all products are also GMO-free.

Dairy is linked to skin and digestive issues as well as many other health concerns, so it’s no surprise that health-conscious consumers tend to avoid it.

Since launching the brand in March 2018 after three years of research and development, our Gold Coast-headquartered Dairy-Free Down Under has grown multi-fold, reflecting the demand for dairy-free and vegan products in Australia.

 

2. Following on from that, how, when and why did that journey culminate in the launch of Dairy Free Down Under? 

Jen: Naturally Good Expo in April 2018 was a huge turning point for us – it represented our first official public launch, even though we spent more than three years researching and developing our range of dairy substitute products.

We’re big believers in being “face-to-face” with our customers. Our stand at the Naturally Good Expo last year was literally inundated with interest from buyers, retailers and distributors during the entire show. We had five people on our stand, but even so, there was barely a moment for a toilet break. The event gave us the confidence to really back our brand and focus our energy and resources on making it the best it could be. The feedback we received played a huge role in informing our product development. You can’t pay for that level of market research.

Upon our return, we immediately started working with a local PR expert to ensure that we established clarity on our vision and communicated it with our customers. It’s not enough just to achieve wins – we’ve also got to talk about them. We’re a proud, family-owned, Australian business and it’s important that we share our story and our philosophy about food inclusivity.

We’ve been very fortunate to gain incredible media exposure from TV, radio, print and online media. We’re very proud of the community we’ve created online via Facebook and Instagram. Every ripple of communication matters, so we’re staying as close as we can to our customer to ensure we’re responsive to their needs. Many of our products have been developed following requests from our customers.

We also were very honoured to win the Emerging Business category of the Gold Coast Business Excellence Awards for 2018. There were so many impressive companies, we really didn’t think we were in the running. While it might have appeared that we were an overnight success, winning the award was a reward for many years of hard work. We owe it to our team – there isn’t a single staff member out of our 30 employees who isn’t passionate and dedicated to our journey.

 

3. How much – and fast – has the business grown since those early days? And has that growth rate surprised you in any way?

Jen: Thanks to our participation in the Naturally Good Expo, we secured our first distributors and now, a year on, we are in more than 900 retail and fast food outlets.

We’re now in independents like IGA, Foodstore, Flannerys, GoVita and Healthy Life, as well as Costcos. We’ve had huge interest from fast food chains, including Zambrero, which launched our vegan sour cream to their 180 restaurants on November 1 last year to coincide with World Vegan Day. Our rapid growth is a sign of the times with veganism on the rise and more people move away from dairy and embracing healthier or more conscious lifestyles.

We’re lucky that this isn’t our first Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) business – we also own cut fruit wholesaler Family Fresh – so from the beginning we’ve been geared up to manage and scale our growth. Developing Dairy-Free Down Under was also a way for us to diversify. Having survived the GFC, we wanted a branded product that could future-proof us and provide us with the resilience required to survive and thrive in this competitive economic landscape.

Another event we participated in during 2018 was the Gold Coast City Council’s Buyer’s Showcase event during the Commonwealth Games, which helped introduce us to international markets and as a result, we were able to begin exporting within our first year of launching Dairy-Free Down Under.

As a direct result of these introductions and the back-up support by both Trade Investment Queensland and the Gold Coast City Council, we’ve now been exporting since late October 2018.

Each month, our export orders are growing. This is particularly helpful for our cash flow as we simultaneously build on our distribution within the Australian market. We’re now in Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore.

 

4. What do you think the ever-increasing demand for your products tells us about the direction Australians are heading in, in terms of dietary preferences and the swing towards veganism?

Jen: There is a growing niche for non-dairy and vegan-friendly food and very compelling health and humanitarian benefits associated with these lifestyles.

At Dairy-Free Down Under, we’re all about food inclusivity. Everybody deserves a seat at the table and the freedom to enjoy healthy versions of their favourite foods.

Turning a blind eye, or worse still, being judgemental or intolerant to those with dietary restrictions is actually going to make you appear “behind the times” and outdated.

There’s too much politics happening in the area of food – people need to accept that the world is changing and if you’re not providing vegan, dairy-free, gluten-free and GMO-free options, you’ll be left behind. It’s not just about health and ethics – taste counts too. It’s not acceptable to serve food that tastes like cardboard. That’s why our tagline is “a delicious choice”.

Customers who value their health tend to make more conscious buying choices, so it’s also important for them to buy locally. There have been similar products available from overseas manufacturers, but we are the first Australian company to successfully develop and commercialise dairy-free cheese alternatives on a large scale.

 

 

5. Lastly, for a health food/product retailer wondering if veganism is just a ‘passing fad’ like a whole lot of other ‘diets’, as someone with first-hand experience of this market, what would your advice be? 

Jen: We predict plant-based diets and veganism are only going to increase – it might seem like a passing fad for those who don’t understand the deeper meaning behind it, but it’s definitely not a fad. Ignore it at your peril!

Businesses like Dairy-Free Down Under make a huge difference in the accessibility of dairy-free products and they’re helping more people make the switch to dairy-free or plant-based diets.

The vegan community is very united, passionate and strong. As more documentaries and films are being released about the meat industry and more glowy influencers come out as vegan, more will get on-board the plant-based movement. Even if they’re not 100 per cent vegan, many people simply aspire to eat more plants because it’s better for their health and the environment.

I think we could all be more inclusive by creating meals that are vegan-friendly or dairy-free at social gatherings so people feel like they’re part of the gathering and not expected to eat something that doesn’t make them feel good either mentally or physically. If more people show genuine interest about “why” people choose to eat the way they do, rather than focusing on the “what”, we believe it would result in increased food harmony and acceptance. It doesn’t have to be complicated, after all, diversity is the spice of life!

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