How I Started a
Dairy-Free Yogurt Brand For Kids
Hi! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello! I’m Jess Harris and the founder of Little Bandits which is a free-from yogurt brand for kids and families. We have just launched with a range of coconut yogurts into selected ASDA stores across the country. All our yogurts are dairy-free, low sugar and plant-based.
With food allergies being 5 to 8 times more prevalent in children than adults, no single brand is strongly leading the children’s free from food category offering little by way of choice to consumers. Driven passionately that no child should miss out, we want to change that and become the leading dairy-free brand for kids.
What is your personal story and how did you come up with the idea?
My background is not in food, I’ve worked for over 22 years in International Development, supporting charities in their partnerships and fundraising so its been a huge learning curve for me. Essentially and like so many other entrepreneurs, I founded Little Bandits to meet a personal need.
Like so many children, my son Jonah has food allergies. As he was growing, I was looking for more healthy convenient options and realised there were no kids brands offering families healthy food that was free from, playful and delicious. Realising there were thousands of parents facing the same challenge either because of allergies or because they were increasingly moving towards plant-based diets, I was determined that Jonah’s diet should not mean he missed out on fun, convenient treats so I decided to make some myself and Little Bandits was born.
What challenges did you face when creating your product/service?
It’s been a real rollercoaster journey so far. Given I have no previous knowledge or experience in the sector, it has taken me so much longer than I thought it would to get to market. I made the decision to focus on yogurts pretty early on following some research I did with over 240 allergy mums who identified yogurt as a product they wanted for their kids and couldn’t easily find.
The supermarket kids’ dairy alternative yogurts are often made with soya and have a significant sugar content. For those that are allergic to dairy, there is a 60% chance they are also likely to be allergic to soya too so the brands out there offered little choice to us and many like us. Then I looked at the dairy kids yogurt category and was shocked at the levels of sugar. So it felt clear there was room for some disruption in the category and a challenger brand to bring a dairy alternative and low sugar offering to the market. All our yogurts average 50% less sugar than their dairy counterparts.
I made a decision early on to outsource my product development in an attempt to get to market quickly however looking back I was very naive. The biggest challenge by far was finding the right manufacturer that not only had the technical capability to manufacture our yogurts but had the right equipment to produce in child’s portions and most critically, could produce in a safe environment.
At a very minimum, I was after a site that didn’t handle dairy. I was quite clear I didn’t want a ‘may contain’ label on our products. I was selling reassurance as much as a quality product. On top of this, I was also only focusing my search in the UK given the uncertainty around Brexit. So it was a tall order and made it very tough.
During this time we also saw our first direct competitor enter the market. At first I was gutted but then I soon realised that this was actually a good thing as it was going to help build a category with a new demographic. It also helped me understand what I needed to do to differentiate Little Bandits – what was our point of difference, how could we stand out on shelf and can we taste better? In fact one benefit from taking so long to find a manufacturer is that we’ve benefited from consumer feedback and managed to tweak our recipe along the way. One of the biggest changes was fortifying our yogurts not only with calcium, vitamin B12, vitamin D but also with iodine – a first to market.
Who is your target market?
Our yogurts are for big and little kids alike but we have three types of customer;
With allergies on the increase with approximately 1 in 40 children affected by cows milk allergy. So allergy families are certainly a key market for us. We were so happy that we could produce our yogurts in a dairy, soya and nut free environment and our ingredients are free from the top 14 allergens.
Our second demographic are those that identify themselves as flexitarian of which there are 25.2m in the UK today. Those health conscious families that are actively trying to reduce their dairy intake.
Lastly there are now 600,000 vegans in the UK so we are also aiming to serve those vegan and plant based families that need Little Bandits.
As well as ensuring these customers are able to access our products easily, we are working hard to be available in nurseries, schools and health sectors and support these institutions in broadening their offering to children with special diets.
How do you market your business and which approaches have been the most successful?
We had planned to run in-store sampling but COVID has meant this was simply impossible. We’ve therefore refocused our marketing spend to online marketing with ASDA, engaging micro-influencers on social media and collaborations with brands that reach our target demographic.
Word is spreading well within the allergy community and we are currently pulling together a group of brand ambassadors that can help us in our marketing as we grow. We’re also exploring targeting sampling out of store, Facebook ads, inserts with like minded brands and other more creative ways to incentivise and drive shoppers to ASDA.
Since you launched, what has worked in not only attracting but retaining customers?
As above the target customers for Little Bandits are first and foremost allergy families that need our products but we are also hoping we offer a great choice for those families that are looking to reduce their dairy intake or are moving to a more plant based diet and ultimately any family looking for an alternative, low sugar, convenient dessert.
The benefit we have with the first group is that when a new product is found that the community likes or has been looking for, word spreads pretty quickly. Little Bandits is really the only low sugar, dairy alternative yogurt on the market that is firmly branded for kids but that offers calcium, vitamins B & D and iodine – all crucial for child development especially if they aren’t eating dairy normally. We knew this was critical for parents to make the transition from dairy and give us a try.
Ultimately Little Bandits isn’t just my brand, it’s for every parent out there who has struggled to find what they need and to make their child feel included. We listened when parents said they couldn’t’ find yogurts and we will continue to listen to what products they want next. Consumer feedback is critical for driving growth.
What kind of culture exists in your company, and how did you establish it?
I’m so happy that I was joined recently by a co-founder, Lucy Orton. Lucy has already run her own successful free from desserts brand, Pudology and comes with huge experience. We are also both mums juggling our family commitments and the business. The culture that we have and will continue to have is a culture of flexibility, trust, openness and an understanding that family still comes first.
What are the most important lessons have you learned on your business journey?
There are sooo many lessons I’ve learnt along the way and mistakes I’ve made. I hadn’t realised just how expensive this business was going to be but there is not much I could have done about that. I’ve surrounded myself with people who knew more than me and that has been invaluable including getting a mentor early in my journey. I’ve also a strong network of fellow food founders that are super supportive and it has been critical to the business.
I learnt pretty quickly that I didn’t want to do this on my own but finding the right co-founder isn’t easy. I was very fortunate to meet Lucy at the time I did as I’m not sure I would have launched without her on board. So one piece of advice I would give to anyone starting out is to be brutally honest with yourself and what you need to give you the best chance of success. It can be a lonely journey on your own.
What is your favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
There are extreme highs and lows along the way but the highs are pretty special – the obvious ones of seeing your product on shelf, seeing your brand in a publication for the first time but when you get awesome feedback from customers and you realise you’re making a difference – that is priceless and makes all the hard times worthwhile.
What is your LEAST favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
The constant uncertainty of whether your business will take off and the financial pressures that you face on a daily basis can be unsettling!
What books, podcasts or other resources have inspired and influenced your business journey?
My favourite podcast at the moment is Brand Growth Heroes as they always have very inspiring individuals and businesses on. I am constantly listening to this one and learning so many things to apply to the business. They also help you realise you’re not the only one making mistakes and you can bounce back from them. Other ones include Love what you do: Conversations of inspiration and The Blue Plaster Podcast and Good Foodies.
Where do you see your business 2-3 years from now?
IIn the next 2-3 years I would love Little Bandits to have secured its position as the leading dairy free brand for kids and families so having a strong penetration in dairy alters and be a brand that parents rely on. Ultimately I want it to be a brand that kids grow up with.