Hakuna Brands – We All Scream for (N)ice CreamBy Scott Schulkin
Hakuna Brands is seeking to carve out its place in the ice cream aisle by offering all-natural, plant-based (n)ice creams.
When I walked into the Women Founders Network Fast Pitch Competition this past October, I made a “bee-line” for the Hakuna Brands booth. I had just had a long and arduous day as a first year MBA student (just kidding) at UCLA Anderson and was in desperate need of ice cream samples. Wearing pink t-shirts emblazoned with cartoon bananas stood Hannah Hong and Mollie Cha, the founders of Hakuna Brands. Their radiant smiles and warm personalities were only matched by the delightful flavor and texture of the two (n)ice creams I tasted: Hakuna Banana Strawberry and Totes Oats Real Real Chocolate. Hakuna Brands’ (n)ice creams are non-dairy, plant-based ice creams using either banana or oat milk bases and all-natural ingredients with no added refined sugars or sugar alcohols. The flavor was delicious, but what took me by surprise was the texture – it felt exactly like real ice cream! For anyone who has had non-dairy ice cream before, they know that this is rarely the case. Non-dairy ice creams tend to be icy or lack the smooth, comfort-food quality that separates ice cream from lots of other desserts. I visited the various other contestants’ booths and while there were numerous interesting companies and founders, I was rooting for Hannah and Mollie to win the competition…which they did! They won $25,000 that day, just one of a string of wins that they enjoyed in 2019 – including a $100,000 prize from Stacy’s Rise Project. A few weeks later I ran into them at another event hosted by UCLA Anderson and was fortunate enough to be able to sit down with them to discuss Hakuna Brands and their individual journeys.
Before Hakuna Brands
To say Mollie and Hannah are close is an understatement. Hannah and Mollie met at UC Berkeley as undergrads, in fact, Hannah recruited Mollie into a business fraternity on campus. Post-graduation, the pair lived together in San Francisco while Mollie worked in investment banking and Hannah worked in consulting. After a couple years, the two went in different directions, Mollie worked for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, WA and Hannah worked for PwC in Los Angeles, CA. Each would then seek their MBA’s; Hannah attended UCLA Anderson with aspirations of transitioning from consulting to consumer-packaged goods (CPG) and Mollie attended MIT Sloan. Post-graduation, Hannah took a role as a brand manager on the Innovation team at BoltHouse Farms’, learning about various food markets and experimenting with new products and ideas. In typical fashion, once Mollie graduated from MIT, Hannah tried to recruit her to Bolthouse Farms because of its scrappy, entrepreneurial and innovative culture. Ultimately, Hannah was successful in recruiting Mollie (Hannah didn’t mention that Mollie was her best friend in the hiring process) and the two began their journey in the CPG world. The pair credits this experience with teaching them everything from new product development, production, strategy and marketing – the building blocks for the eventual launch of Hakuna Brands.
Side note: This shouldn’t come as a shock, but each were each other’s maid of honors in their respective weddings.
Building Hakuna Brands
Both Mollie and Hannah became lactose intolerant as young adults and one day Mollie made Hannah some banana ice cream by freezing a banana and mixing it in the food processor. Hannah loved it and the experimentation in the kitchen began. From January to October 2016 the best friends experimented with recipes at home; in the process they purchased literally thousands of bananas and dodged the suspicious eyes of supermarket shoppers as Hannah and Mollie’s carts were filled with bananas. Once they finalized the recipe, Mollie and Hannah put together a presentation deck (as all good MBAs do) and began the daunting task of trying to sell their product. They visited numerous local natural food stores in the Los Angeles area, speaking to as dozens of store buyers and managers. In January 2017, an interested buyer requested they visit the office. With their ice cream in clear deli-containers (think hummus containers) and kept frozen by dry ice and a cooler, Hannah and Mollie gave him a sample of their Hakuna Banana Blueberry flavor. And just like that, they had their first buyer!
Shortly Hakuna Brands would be in 20 local natural food stores. Their first year goal was to get a meeting with Whole Foods. In February 2017, that “meeting” took the form of the two being “allowed” to send samples to Whole Foods. The pair drove to the Whole Foods offices and dropped off a cooler containing the ice cream, dry ice and 1-page instructions of how to unpack the homemade cooling kit. Offered a pilot in 10-12 Los Angeles Whole Foods, the duo knew they’d have to increase their production capacity and distribution network. So, as resourceful entrepreneurs, they purchased a van and retrofitted it with a freezer, utilizing the car battery to keep the freezers cold. Using a shared commercial kitchen, Mollie and Hannah worked tirelessly producing and delivering the ice cream. They ended their first year in 40 stores in Los Angeles. Fast forward 2 years and Hakuna Brands is in over 500 stores across 15 states and are looking to expand to the East Coast.
Consumers are becoming increasingly health-conscious and environmentally conscious and this will continue to drive significant change to many industries – even ice cream. Analysts estimate the global non-dairy ice cream market will swell to $1 billion by 2024, and the United States is expected to make up 40% of that market. Hakuna Brands is determined to grab a share of that pie (bad dessert joke). Competition is fierce in the ice cream industry, large incumbent manufacturers like Haagen-Dasz, Breyer, Ben & Jerry’s offer multiple non-dairy flavors and there are dozens of smaller non-dairy ice cream brands and flavors in stores. Hakuna Brands is trying to carve out its slice of the market with its alternative bases and commitment to all-natural ingredients. It will be interesting to see how Mollie and Hannah navigate the competitive landscape.