Koel Thomae is the founder of noosa yoghurt, located on-site at a Colorado dairy farm. noosa distributes nationally to over 25,000 stores and is committed to bringing yoghurt to consumers in new and exciting ways and always sourcing quality ingredients. We recently spoke to Koel Thomae to learn more about noosa's story.
Tell us a little about the background of noosa. How did the company get its start?
I (Koel Thomae) founded noosa in 2009 with Rob Graves, a fourth-generation dairy farmer with a Colorado farm where we still make noosa today. The idea for noosa came to me during a trip home to Australia to visit family, when I purchased a locally made yoghurt at a corner shop. This taste sparked an obsession that would ultimately change my life and lead to the development of noosa. Without any contacts in the dairy industry, I found a flyer in a local coffee shop and cold-called Rob Graves. Rob decided to take me up on the offer and we worked tirelessly together to bring noosa yoghurt to life. noosa yoghurt is a creamy and delicious yoghurt like no other. We make it in small batches on a family farm in Colorado using farm-fresh whole milk, wildflower honey, and purée made with real fruit. From vanilla to strawberry rhubarb to passion fruit to blackberry serrano, we have 18 delicious flavors sure to please any palate.
Can you talk a little bit about the trends in food overall (and yoghurt more specifically) that are helping to drive noosa’s growth?
Choosing to make noosa with whole milk at a time when low-fat, Greek yoghurt was flying off shelves was a major risk, and now full-fat dairy is a well-established movement in food that is now trickling down to the masses. We are future-proofing the brand by staying in front of culinary trends and innovating for quality, over quantity. The yoghurt category is beginning to move into new eating occasions (snacking, desserts) and new dayparts (indulgent, savory, and us with sweet heat). noosa offers the flavor variety and sizes to satisfy all of the Premium Yoghurt shopper’s needs and we continue to stay true to our mission: to make bloody good yoghurt. Recently, noosa has gotten into the indulgent flavor category with its new salted caramel flavor – perhaps a perfect articulation of salty and sweet found traditionally in the ice cream aisle. While the rest of the category is trending more savory, we are thinking about savory differently. Blackberry serrano, a flavor blending sweet and spicy flavor notes to create a “sweet heat” experience, is a new flavor that’s driving the sweet and spicy trend in food, with more flavors to follow this year.
Your website and customer engagement on social media seem to indicate that noosa is a great place to work. How did you build noosa’s culture, and what makes it a special place to work?
Rob and I are still heavily involved in the noosa business, and we each bring our own personal values to the noosa culture. I think I bring passion, creativity, and fun to the everyday. I love great food and as an adventurous eater myself, I encourage the team to be adventurous with new products and flavor ideas. Rob is on-site at the farm and production facility every single day, sharing his knowledge of dairy and making great yoghurt, and always looking for ways to improve noosa processes and products. At noosa, our company culture is very special and we truly work as a collaborative team especially when testing new flavors. If the entire group does not agree on the flavor, it will not go to market until everyone is in 100% agreement. We live and breathe noosa and everyone is truly passionate about the brand and developing a yoghurt that not only they love but know consumers will too!
I see that noosa was acquired by a private equity firm in 2014. What has that experience been like, and how have you been able to integrate the two cultures?
In 2014, we welcomed private equity firm Advent International to the noosa family. Since then, they have played a critical role in growing our company, allowing us to put noosa in the hands of more consumers everywhere. For example, we recently finished a $20 Million expansion to our current facility in Bellvue, CO in order to keep up with demand. Since 2014, our executive team has remained in place, and we still retain a significant minority stake in the company. In terms of my role, I have always been very-hands on with noosa, and that has not changed. I am still involved in the day to day activities of managing and building the brand through marketing and innovation.
noosa seems to be committed to sourcing locally and using the highest-quality ingredients. Can you talk about what that commitment means to noosa?
We’re located on-site at a Colorado dairy farm, where our yoghurt is made, and we focus on the best of the best ingredients: the freshest whole milk sourced from family-owned dairy farms within an hour’s drive of where we make the yoghurt. We truly believe that noosa yoghurt is like no other yoghurt on the market today. At the time we entered the marketplace, not many other yoghurt companies were using whole milk in their products. Our mission is to create the finest, best tasting yoghurt in the world, and we source our ingredients with great care. We believe that you can taste the difference in each bite of delicious, wholesome noosa yoghurt. Our unique flavor combinations (key lime, passion fruit, and strawberry rhubarb) also bring yoghurt to consumers in new and exciting ways and our great taste is a testament to our laser focus on sourcing quality ingredients.
noosa has been growing pretty quickly—how have you been able to keep up with customer demand, while maintaining the quality the brand is known for?
When we first started out, we were making yoghurt in small batches and were fortunate to have the premier natural foods retailer, Whole Foods, as our first customer. That spring and summer we were also selling and sampling at farmers markets and managed to create a groundswell of support from the local CO community, to garner another key retail win with King Soopers. From there, our next big tipping point came when Target approached us in 2012 to test in their SuperTarget stores. Within four months they expanded us nationally, and we have been trying to keep up with capacity growth ever since. Today, noosa yoghurt has strong national distribution in over 25,000 stores. We recently finished a $20M dollar renovation to our facility to upgrade and streamline our production process, but we still make everything on-site and taste every batch so we know every customer is getting the same noosa. Our commitment to making top quality has not changed since day one.
What are some advantages of working for a middle market company, and especially a middle market food company?
Some advantages for working for a middle market company are the opportunities to truly engage with our customers and make them feel special. For example, social media gives us the perfect platform to interact with our very local fans on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. At noosa, the taste of our yoghurt is paramount to converting new fans, so we use experiential events as an opportunity to sample new (and classic) flavors. Though noosa is like nothing else out there, we’re aware of the fact that we compete with every yoghurt on the shelf. The consumer now has a wide array of yoghurt options and since the yoghurt eating occasion has grown beyond breakfast alone, we even compete with other snack and dessert options, but we’re unique in our approach and in the way we operate, true to our roots on a dairy farm in Colorado.
You currently have a blackberry serrano flavor to celebrate noosa’s home state of Colorado. Have you thought about a Vegemite flavor, to highlight the company’s Australian roots?
We literally use our guts to come up with new flavor combinations. I’m always on the hunt for the next big thing and during my recent food trek through high-dairy consumption cities (Copenhagen, Paris, San Francisco, New York) I saw savory and spicy yoghurt combinations all over. This inspired me to experiment with noosa’s tart and sweet foundation with notes of heat, which led to the development of blackberry serrano noosa. We believe that “sweet heat” is the next big food trend - so much so that we even trademarked the term. Blackberry Serrano is just the tipping point of “sweet heat” combinations that noosa has planned for consumers. In June, you can expect to see some more interesting combinations from us that play up unique and delicious “sweet heat” flavor pairings. Vegemite is definitely an acquired taste. My mum is American so she was more likely to feed me peanut butter over vegemite so I tend to enjoy it in small doses. We ran a vegemite April Fool’s post a few years ago and actually had some fans wonder where they could find this new flavor before they realized it was a joke. Never say never, right?
What’s next for noosa? What are you most excited about?
We plan to continue to deliver innovative flavors and push the boundaries of flavor combinations. Our flavor development process is a bit unconventional. Rather than do traditional consumer testing, we opt for internal “taste treks” to discover what’s new and exciting in culinary and dairy trends around the world. No matter what, we will always focus on delivering a best-in class taste experience. To continue to be successful, we’ll stay focused on what makes us unique and special, which is our dedication to making fresh, great tasting yoghurt.