A tale of of dairy farm drive-bys and international yogurt smuggling, plus why Noosa comes in a clear container.
You could almost say that the Noosa yoghurt brand was born in a single bite. Almost.
In 2004, Koel Thomae traveled from Colorado to Australia to introduce her beau—now husband—to her family. They escaped for an afternoon to Noosa Heads, a beach on the continent's Sunshine Coast, and snagged a unique snack at a corner shop: a transparent tub of yogurt complete with a pop of passionfruit on its bottom.
"A few minutes later, I was back at my mom's apartment having my first taste and you know, it really was a taste moment that just stopped me in my tracks," Thomae recalls now. "It was just so bloody delicious and unlike any yogurt I had ever tasted."
But while most people might have moved on from the moment—or maybe bought a few more tubs to enjoy along the trip—Thomae couldn't let it go. She picked up the phone, called the company that made the yogurt, and asked for a sit-down meeting.
You should know, in 2004, Thomae was working as a supply chain coordinator for Izze, then a start-up beverage company in the days before it was bought by Pepsi.
In other words, as Thomae will readily admit, she had no clue what she was doing.
"I said to them, 'have you ever thought of doing anything outside of Australia?'" she says. "They said, 'no, we're far too busy.'" So she left with promises to stay in touch.
Back at home in Boulder, Thomae was on a mission. She tried nearly 100 yogurts, in a variety of flavors and from different brands, in search of something, anything, that would satisfy her craving for the velvety-smooth Queensland Yoghurt she'd eaten in Australia. But even the thickest, creamiest Greek yogurt—which was relatively new to the yogurt scene at the time—couldn't come close. To say Thomae was obsessed would be an understatement. "I was earning a yogurt Ph.D.," Thomae laughs now.
By the time she returned to Australia in 2007, her boss at Izze begged Thomae to "do something with this yogurt," she says. So Thomae set up a second meeting with Queensland Yoghurt and, after three hours and several beers, she walked out with a sealed-with-a-handshake agreement the company would license its recipe to her.
Thomae kept her day job. But at night, she spent hours researching how to start a dairy business. She quickly learned that "the dairy industry is highly complex, very regulated—and I knew nothing about dairy," Thomae says. "I was in over my head."
So, "I pivoted from this idea of doing it on my own and finding a great milk supplier to wanting to find a great dairy partner," she says. But again, she was stumped. "It turns out there are a lot of things you can learn about and find on the Internet, but finding a dairy partner was not one of them. It's not something you can just Google."
A few literal drive-bys of dairy farms led her to Morning Fresh Dairy Farms and its owner Rob Graves, who agreed to a meeting—in which Thomae showed up without a single sample of yogurt. "I think he literally thought I was crazy," she laughs. But he agreed to see her a second time and—with samples of the whole-milk yogurt in hand, which Thomae had her mother smuggle in from Australia—Graves signed on.
"So two complete strangers bonded over this yogurt-unlike-anything-else and went into business together," says Thomae. Graves handled the production, while Thomae went to work designing packaging and branding, paid for with seed money Thomae acquired when Izze was bought by Pepsi. (Of that, Thomae says, "all of a sudden, I had this money I never expected to have, and to me, it was my opportunity. I said to myself, 'if I invest it all and it goes to zero, I'm going to go out and get another job.'")
The pair were prepared to disrupt the industry. It was 2010, when low-fat and no-fat yogurt had taken center stage. Noosa is made with whole milk—in other words, it's got fat—and is full-flavored, with chunks of fresh fruit lining the bottom of each container. To boot, Noosa yoghurt is available only in eight-ounce containers—eight-ounce transparent containers. "No one else was in a clear tub," Thomae says.
Whole Foods (in Colorado) was Noosa's first retail customer. But Whole Foods, like many other stores, balked when it saw the packaging. After all, an eight-ounce tub takes up a lot of shelf space—and shelf space is super competitive. "I remember having that first meeting with Whole Foods," says Thomae. "They were like, 'we hate your packaging.' They were so blunt. But we were like, 'thank you for your feedback, but that’s the packaging.'" In fact, even if Thomae and Graves had wanted to change the containers, they couldn't—they had purchased equipment specifically for those packages without doing a retail presentation, and they couldn't afford to change it.
But like Thomae's initial experience with the recipe, Whole Foods soon forgot about the packaging problem after a first taste. Noosa was brought into Whole Foods. Then Target. Rite Aid Pharmacy. Walgreens. Wal-Mart. Giant Eagle. Publix. Harris Teeter. Food Lion. BI-LO. Earth Fare. Winn-Dixie. You get the picture. Now, it's everywhere.
Asked for the secret to her success, Thomae says there's not one single ingredient. Instead, it's a recipe of desire, luck, and a little bit of not letting fear get in the way.
"I was someone highly motivated by delicious food," she says. "That was where it all started, my very selfish desire to want to be able to eat this [yogurt] more than once a year." But Thomae also recognizes that without the unexpected money made from her shares in Izze, and her lack of fear of failure, Noosa yoghurt wouldn't have been.
"I knew I was going to have to work hard and I wasn't afraid of that," Thomae says. "I think it was the intersection of all these things and timing, and that's something you can't predict. But it's amazing what you can do when you find these things and are willing to work hard." If you're willing to work hard, she says, no matter your food startup idea, you can find success. "Keep your day job, realize you may not see your friends as much, and—maybe in this day and age—turn down your social media usage so you're not bombarded with everyone else's fun," she laughs. "But you know, figure out a way. Ask yourself the question: are you willing to work hard enough to prove this concept out?" With a yes, she says, "you can grow a company."