Dairy-free vegan products ring bells ‘down under’
Dairy-Free Down Under is the classic overnight success story that was years of trial
and error in the making. Samantha Schelling reports on this vegan dairy operation.
FOR Jenny and Kevin Flanagan it was simple: any new product sand business had to reflect their ideals, and they wanted to work with people who shared the same principles. Having run their value-added fresh-produce business since the mid 1980s, the Brisbane couple have spent the past few years investigating different avenues to diversify. Kevin said, “Our Family Fresh business supplies fresh cut fruit to Woolworths, but there can be challenges with seasonality in that, so we kept trying different things for a few years, experimenting to see what worked.” Five years ago they found “what worked”. After more meticulous R&D and endless knocking on doors, they launched their new dairy-free vegan products in March 2018. Six months later the business had grown ten-fold. And in November 2018, they won the Gold Coast Business Excellence Award for Emerging Business.
IT BEGAN WITH RESEARCH
“After one lot of research I was talking to a distributor who asked if we could do cheese. I thought ‘no’, but did a bit more research, and then went and talked to our staff. I said in a team meeting that we were going to make dairy-free cheese. Well, they thought I was going nuts!” With their years of food experience behind them, the Flanagans developed a vegan cheese, finally testing the market at the 2017 Naturally Good trade show in Sydney. “We were blown away by the interest we received in the products, but people really didn’t like the packaging. However, it looked like we were onto something, so we came back and rethought how to go ahead with the name, the packaging, and so on.” After a year of reworking, they hit 2018’s Naturally Good with an organic-looking package under the new label of Dairy-Free Down Under for their initial vegan cheese. “We got absolutely smashed! We had five people on the stand for two days and didn’t even have a chance to go and get a water. It was just crazy. We got interest even from people overseas wanting to know about us, yet before that, we were struggling to get distributors; no-one really wanted to talk to us. That show was a turning point.” It was also a relief, as the large investment for the family business showed signs it would pay off. “It’s a big risk, but we always believed in the product and we did our research. It was still a relief, though.”
Since then, Dairy-Free Down Under has been picked up by a range of independents across Australia – including Drakes Supermarkets, Cornetts Supermarkets, Chapleys, Farmer Joe’s Market, and more than a thousand IGAs – and, in the latter half of last year, Costco. Jenny said, “I think they’ve all really taken it on board because the products are Australian, and they really like the idea that it’s Australian made. “We know our customers would like us to be in Coles and Woolworths as well, and then we could compete directly with imported vegan-dairy products stocked there. We’re working on that, but in the meantime we’re really happy with the relationships we’ve built with independent supermarkets and health food stores nationwide.”
On top of that, the interest in Dairy-Free Down Under’s expanding range is growing quickly in hospitality. Kevin said, “We’ve picked up Zambero’s Mexican chain, which has been really exciting.
Around October, Dairy-Free Down Under received its first export order. “We’d been dealing with Austrade who said it’d take a minimum of probably three years before we’d be able to export, so we weren’t getting too excited about it. Then, when the Invictus Games were on here on the Gold Coast, we went to a couple of events. One guy spotted the products. At a meeting three months after that first interaction, the proposal came in. I never thought we’d be exporting already.” DAIRY-FREE DEMAND The initial countries are in the Middle East and Asia. With many people in those regions being lactose intolerant, the Dairy-Free Down Under cheeses, sour cream-style and mayonnaise-styles hold appeal to those with special dietary needs. Jenny said, “There are more of us with specific dietary needs these days. These products cover a lot of bases: our cheese is very low in saturated fat, being three per cent fat compared with a normal cheese at 23 or 25 per cent saturated fat. It’s lactose free and gluten free. Another major market is the 18- to 40-year-old health conscious cohort, while the ready-to-eat cheese-and cracker combinations have also been a hit.
Kevin said, “The distributors were hammering us nearly every second day about those. They were meant to be ready 12 months earlier, but this was just a case of getting across hurdles. We had some special packaging made, but they made it out of the wrong material. We had a machine made for that, but the whole thing didn’t work, so it pretty much put a 12 months’ hold on things because we had to buy a new machine, new packaging, new everything. But you’ve got to be in it to win it, haven’t you? So we just kept going.”
All manufacturing is done in-house and Dairy-Free Down Under handles as much as it can of other areas in-house as well. For instance, their son did all the artwork on the revamped packaging they took to the highly successful 2018 Naturally Good trade show. Kevin said, “He doesn’t have any background in that, but everyone on our team is so passionate about wanting this to succeed.
They can see where we’ve come from, and they can see the wheels turning, and they know they’re a big part of it. We’ve got a little bell here, every time we get a new customer, the bell is rung!” Staff now number 35, and processing is beginning to become more automated. “A lot was hand done, but that’s changed as more orders come in,” Kevin says. What hasn’t changed, though, is the focus on quality. Besides being Australian made and sourced, the most important factors for Dairy-Free Down Under are whole-food ingredients that are GMO-free. “We try to keep the product as clean as possible, without having nasty E numbers in it,” Jenny says. “We have one of the cleanest labels in the world.” Many vegan dairy products tend to use oil bases, such as coconut, but the Flanagans prefer using plant-based milks. Reaching their current range was the result of hours and hours of R&D. But that doesn’t stop the Flanagans continually trying to improve. “And we always listen to feedback. It’s important.”
“I’d just like to thank all the independents across Australia, who got behind our brand and have really taken us on board, and then the Mexican restaurants who took us on too. “We haven’t done much with marketing; where we are now is just showing the need for this sort of Australian product that’s filling a niche. I think also, even though the vegan community is only a small part of our market, they are the ones driving it, and it’s awesome that they’ve done this because they love that it’s actually Australian.” The Flanagans’ goal is for Dairy-Free Down Under to become a household name in Australia: “It has been great. And it’s only going to get more exciting, we think, because there are so many products that we can create.”