The Californian vegan company making its mark Down Under

califiafarmsCalifornian vegan company Califia Farms has been enjoying success in Australia since breaking into the market in late 2017.

The plant-based milk and cold brew coffee brand has expanded across the country at Woolworths, Coles and independent grocers with an ever-increasing selection.

The backing of celebrity investors such as Leonardo Leonardo DiCaprio and Jared Leto has helped the company become one of the best-selling US plant-based milk and cold brew coffee brands.

Entrepreneur and founder of Califia Farms, Greg Steltenpohl, chatted to Inside FMCG about the vision behind his business and the expansion into Australia.

INSIDE FMCG: Why did you decide to set up Califia Farms?

Greg Steltenpohl: Long before Califia Farms, I believed in the power of whole food nutrition. In 1980, I founded and ran a fresh-pressed juice and smoothie company called Odwalla, which eventually became one of the largest fresh-juice companies in the U.S.

In 2010, the grower of Cuties – a brand of fresh mandarin oranges – came to me asking if I could juice the “uglier” fruit that wasn’t up to par with the aesthetic standards expected at retail. Knowing a thing or two about juicing, we agreed to partner, and Califia Farms was born by first making Cuties juice.

For years I had been interested in nut and alternative milks. In fact, at Odwalla we made a product called Future Shake that was made from almonds, oats and soy. While I made my own almond milk at home, I was disappointed with the quality of store-bought products. The taste and creaminess didn’t hit the mark, and the almond milk separated or clumped when added to coffee.

With the machinery already in place at our facility in Bakersfield, CA, we started experimenting with almond milk and rolled out our first pallets in 2012. Today, Califia Farms is one of the best-selling plant-based beverage companies in the United States, well-known for our great-tasting and innovative products made with whole food, real ingredients. In addition to almond milk, we now make a variety of plant milks made from almond, coconut, cashew and oat, and also offer nondairy creamers, cold brew coffees, probiotic dairy free yogurts and citrus juice. While our biggest distribution is in the U.S., we launched in the U.K. and Australia in 2017 with great success.

In my opinion, you can criticise the food industry, or you can just create something different, something better. At Califia Farms we are returning food to its original, nourishing purpose by offering good-for-you and good-for-the-world plant-based, vegan products that are truly delicious and deliver on taste, texture, functionality or nutrition.

INSIDE FMCG: The name doesn’t give away much about the product, why did you decide to call it that?

GS: California runs deep in the roots of our company and I had the opportunity to create Califia Farms from the ground up. I drew inspiration from the legend of Califia, the beautiful black Queen who has come to be known as the “Spirit of California.” While Queen Califia was a mythical figure, her name and Califia’s interpretation of her symbolise not only the bounty and spirit of California, but also the power of a multi-faceted culture, feminine empowerment, and its role in inspiring the health and wellness of the world.

The other benefit of our name is that it doesn’t constrain us into a specific product line or category. Over the past five or so years, we’ve earned the credentials and consumer trust to successfully cross into new plant-based categories, such as coffee and yogurt, and diversify our ingredient-base with coconuts, cashews and oat.

INSIDE FMCG: Why did you want to bring this brand to Australia?

GS: A growing trend of Australians are replacing traditional dairy with plant-based products for varied reasons including lactose sensitivities, environmental and personal health concerns, animal welfare and more. A recent study conducted by CSIRO revealed that 1 in 6 Australians have opted for plant based options. We believe our current range of products taps into the growing trend of alternative milks and supports Australia’s strong café culture through our blended cold brew coffees and Barista Blend line of plant milks.

INSIDE FMCG: Was it difficult to break into the Australian market?

GS: I think any new market has its challenges. The alternative milk category is growing more than 33 per cent more than year ago and Califia are contributing to 29 per cent of growth in the category. The benefit of coming into a market like this is that there’s a growing trend of Australians seeking plant-based, non-dairy products for varied reasons – whether they’re lactose-intolerant, prefer the taste or want to eat fewer animal-based products.

While this is not unique to Australia, one of the biggest challenges is matching supply and demand fluctuations however, the consumer demand for alternative milk/dairy free options continues to grow across the globe. We believe our current range of products taps into the growing trend of alternative milks, as well as Australia’s strong café culture.

INSIDE FMCG: How do you make your product stand out in this increasingly competitive market?

GS: With the health food industry continuing to grow, there are a number of ways you make your product stand out in an increasingly competitive market which includes;

  • Branding: The discovery of new products happens at the supermarket shelf. When we introduced Califia Farms’ Almond milk to store shelves, the only packaging available at the time were traditional cartons. Immediately, our iconic curvy bottle made shoppers stop and take notice – giving the category new energy and attracting new consumers for our retailer partners.
  • Innovation: Whether this is product functionality, lower sugar or certain ingredients, leveraging a brand’s own knowledge of the market is a simple way to position the brand as an authority. At Califia Farms, we’ve made a commitment to continuously improve our existing products based on research and consumer demand.
  • Media Platforms: It’s crucial for brands to have a consistent and engaging communications strategy across all channels, including social media, website, advertising and earned media. At Califia, we’re constantly coming up with fun and engaging campaigns with content to continually inspire and educate people on our brand, values and delicious plant-based eating.

INSIDE FMCG: Have you plans to add different product ranges?

GS: Tapping into Australia’s established café scene, we recently showcased two new dairy free milks at the Melbourne International Coffee Expo (MICE) – the Oat Barista Blend and Unsweetened Almond Barista Blend. The debut into the Australian market further diversified the market’s coffee offering and creates more options for the increasing number of people switching to a plant-based diet

We also aim to continue to grow Califia’s distribution to make product more accessible to Australians. In December, we launched into Metcash where our products can now be found nationally at local supermarkets.

INSIDE FMCG: Do you plan to use Australian celebrities/influencers to help grow the brand here?

GS: For our Australian launch, we partnered with Samantha Harris as our local ambassador to celebrate our entry into the market and serve as an integral part of the brand’s local identity. She not only embodies healthy eating but is also outspoken about body-positivity and represents the indigenous community, all of which is important to Califia Farms.

As part of our partnership, Samantha was featured in truly stunning photography that was shot at iconic Australian locations including Bondi Icebergs and Circular Quay, and used in various marketing materials including print, digital and social media. She also hosted a brunch in Sydney for local media and influencers to help build awareness for Califia Farms and delicious plant-based recipes.

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In addition to Samantha, we also worked with leading nutritionist Jessica Sepel who not only created healthy, plant-based recipes but also served as a spokesperson for the brand with media.

INSIDE FMCG: How did the backing of celebrity investors help the brand to grow?

GS: While it certainly doesn’t hurt to have celebrity investors, our brand primarily grew because of our truly delicious product. When Califia Farms first entered into alternative milk market, most of the exiting almond milks did not deliver on taste and texture. We changed the game by creating something different, something better; and also helped people realise that plant-based products and recipes can taste-great and not sacrifice on nutrition.  Today, we’ve gained and maintained that consumer trust and loyalty by consistently making products that meet or exceed their expectations.

INSIDE FMCG: What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learnt so far in business?

GS: Listen and watch how consumers interact with your idea or your product. I spend hours at different stores in different marketing watching people choose milk products and will ask them questions about their purchase – or lack of purchase. This observation and closeness helps you evolve the product so it continues to resonate with consumers.

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