The Irish Couple taking Frozen Goodness Global – The Nobó Story
Bó, or cow as Gaeilge, is present in the vocabulary of every Irish primary-school goer. Surrounded by cow-filled fields in Connemara, the elusive name for Brian and Rachel Nolan’s coconut milk, avocado and honey based take on ice-cream came to them. Packed full of flavour, dreamily creamy and smooth, the only thing absent from their tubs of frozen goodness was dairy – Nobó was born.
Being named one of only 13 Irish food companies to land the top accolade of three gold stars for and a total of eight stars across its product range at The Great Taste Awards this year, unsurprisingly the couple behind hugely popular Nobó are on a high in 2016 and looking further afield to continue their dairy-free ice-cream adventure. However, at the beginning the concept of Nobó was a bold one, in a market which was traditionally skeptical of ‘free-from’ and ‘alternative’ products.
‘Do what you love and you will never work a day in your life’, etched across memes and motivational posters the world over, seems like mere fantasy to most. Converting your passion into your paycheck is by no means an easy task but the rewards are worth it, as the ambitious couple would discover on a journey that would take them across the globe and back.
As ‘two great believers of doing what you love in life’ and the couple were no strangers to diving into the unknown to follow their dreams even before the idea for Nobó was hatched. Having already left Dublin for New York to further their respective careers in digital advertising and real estate finance, immersion in the most extensive and eclectic food scene in the world led to their shared love for food coming to the fore. Always on the hunt for the latest neighbourhood gem, here Rachel and Brian nurtured their food passion and invested in broadening their horizons – ‘we chose to spend what money we had on eating out together, determining that the shared memory and experience was of much greater value than a material possession.’
With this love for food, the knowledge that they wanted further exposure to the food industry and a ‘romanticised idea of running a country guest house’, Brian and Rachel took a gamble. With support from their family and youth on their side, a lack financial ties and a sense of adventure, the couple upped and left the Big Apple for the rolling hills of Tuscany. ‘Deciding to leave a great job and amazing company in NYC was probably one of the scariest things I’ve done’ recalls Rachel. ‘It felt like such a leap of faith and telling others our decision was probably the hardest part. We knew what we wanted to do and why, but we also knew it sounded a little mad!’
Arriving in Bologna Airport with ‘one Ryanair sized bag each and no idea of how long we would stay or how it would all turn out’, the couple worked 15 hour days in a Tuscan guest house in exchange for room and board. Remembering the experience as one of the best times of their lives, the industrious duo fine tuned their ambitions during their Italian adventure and the pieces began to fall into place – ‘It confirmed that we wanted to work in or with food in some way and that we worked well together and wanted to start a business as a team. We decided however that a guest house and restaurant wasn’t the right thing for us (for now!)’
The couple returned to Ireland in 2012 and put their heads together to come up with a viable food business. Growing up in a health-focused home, Rachel has a keen interest in nutrition and tried eliminating dairy from her diet, making almond milk at home instead, long before it was the go-to mylk.
We have always believed in eating to feel good, and that food should provide pleasure and enjoyment and that the best kind of food (and treats) should not only make you feel good when you’re eating them but afterwards too. We really wanted to prove that it was possible to create something very pure, from simple, healthy wholesome ingredients that would also taste amazing.
Ice-cream was an indulgence which didn’t sit right with Rachel or Brian afterwards and having toyed with the idea of a children’s health food product in New York, they recognised a gap for all ages in the Irish market, with few dairy-free alternatives available here just four years ago. Their home became their test kitchen, but they discovered small batch perfection by no means meant a marketable product.
Taking a product from home kitchen to mass production was the biggest obstacle faced by Rachel and Brian, and one which persisted as they worked for nearly 2 years perfecting a scale-able product for mass production. Seeing how positive the reaction to their frozen goodness at weekly farmer’s markets was fueled their belief but was simultaneously frustrating as they struggled to meet the increasing demand at each market -‘ we knew it would work if we could just find a way to make more of it,’ Rachel recalls. Even now, plans to expand the Nobó brand to include a wider variety of healthy products are approached with this hurdle of scale-able quality in mind.
In 2012 a friend happened to be applying to the Foodworks program, a Bord Bia, Teagasc and Enterprise Ireland initiative and encouraged Brian and Rachel to do the same. The program aimed to discover Ireland’s next global food entrepreneurs to develop innovative products for export and with just one day to put together a proposal before the deadline, the couple managed to submit a successful application. The support they received from Foodworks kept the dream alive during the early days when getting off the ground seemed so difficult. ‘This stage felt the hardest part of starting up for us as we were full of belief and drive but to the outside world we had nothing tangible.’
Going forward, it was Supervalu’s Food Academy working with the Dublin City Local Enterprise Office who would place great faith in a product that wouldn’t necessarily be on top of the Irish consumer’s ‘must-try list’ – ‘An ice cream alternative made from coconut milk and avocado takes a little bit of getting your head around, but SuperValu immediately saw the potential and shared in our passion for our product’ says Rachel. From a start up grant in their first year to ongoing mentoring from food industry experts such as James Burke and Tadhg O’Donovan, Food Academy and LEO managed to make the Nobó dream a reality.
The gamble has most certainly paid off, as has Rachel and Brian’s, which is attested to by the black sticker now adorning tubs of Nobó of all flavours, with Irish Salted Caramel and Fresh Lemon flavours brandished with the coveted 3 star Great Taste Award rating. These accolades propelled Nobó into the foodie consciousness putting the focus primarily on Nobo’s outstanding flavour, rather than pigeon-holing it as a health-food product. As the Great Taste Awards are blind judged by a panel of industry experts from the Guild of Fine Food, this recognition was a defining moment in the Nobó story.
“It’s one of our proudest achievements in business. As two people obsessed with food, it was so important that we not just developed a healthy version of ice cream, but one that tasted as good, if not better than its dairy equivalents.”
Just four years on and you can pick up a tub of Nobó in all reaches of the country. Between Irish supermarkets SuperValu and Dunnes and independent food and health stores, Nobó has approximately 300 stockists in Ireland, with a break into the Northern Irish market coming from stocking a number of Spar stores. Across the Irish Sea, Wholefoods has recently embraced Nobó and even further afield 54 Spinneys and Waitrose stores bringing frozen goodness to the balmy climates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
This success naturally has required great commitment and dedication, with Brian overseeing all logistics and finance and Rachel looking after all aspects of marketing to keep Nobó’s growth going. The arrival of their son Sam has naturally changed the business dynamic, but the couple have made the transition to parenthood smoothly. They have had to prioritise their time, pulling back from weekend Farmer’s Markets to make family time, even bringing Sam to meetings when he was a baby.
As they have kept the Nobó team small with just one other employee outside of manufacturing, they are in complete control of new product development and are partial to teaming up with like-minded health-focused ventures like Staple Foods for pop-up nights, Nobó 99’s at Greenbeards and smoothie bowls at Bloom Festival. However, for now, a permanent Nobó premises is not on the cards but expansion into a wider range of healthy products is the next step – ‘We have always set out to be a health food brand, as opposed to an ice cream company, and so we have some exciting plans around other products outside of the frozen category that we are working on at the moment’ reveals Rachel, although the new Limited Edition Nobó flavour remains top secret!
Nobó would appear to be gaining a cult following with health food nuts and the everyday ice-cream lover alike and the brand shows no signs of slowing down. As for the future of Nobó, international expansion is the goal – ‘Export has always been a large part of our plan, and so we hope to expand in both UK and further afield in the coming months and years’. It seems there will be no rest for Rachel and Brian in the near future with their eyes fixed on the prize of taking Nobó global and leading the way for Irish start ups at home and abroad. If the last four years are anything to go by, they will surely dedicate their all to achieving this dream.
‘Like all small business owners, the part that takes a lot of getting used to is the reality that you are never really ‘off’. There is no such thing as leaving your desk on a Friday at 5pm and switching off until the following Monday’ Rachel admits. ‘It becomes a huge part of your life and that’s the reality. In saying that, and having both spent many years on the other side, we absolutely wouldn’t have it any other way.’
For more information on Nobó click here.
Growing up with the name Darina, I was constantly asked if I could cook like my namesake. With that (and greed) as the ultimate motivators, I quickly realised that home-baked goods make excellent bribes and an obsession was born! With bachelor’s and master’s degrees in law I undertook a PhD, but a preference for cookbooks to textbooks persisted. As a (self-confessed!) demon in the kitchen, I am the only person to have contested both Masterchef and the Great Irish Bake off, which fuelled my desire to set my focus on food in a serious way. Working with The Taste allows me to satiate this craving and marries my food fascination with my love of writing and ranting. Follow me as I share my food adventures and hopefully inspire others to indulge their passion for cooking and food in the process!