Dairy-free ice cream might still be an oxymoron to some, but the numbers show that cow’s milk options are on their way out. Plant-based milks and products are exploding in growth, and not just for the lactose intolerant, either. Hannah Hong and Mollie Cha are more than familiar with this reality, as founders of the plant-based ice cream company Must Love, they’ve been looking for a necessary twist on frozen desserts for years now. Hong and Cha are both lactose intolerant, and can remember when the sole alternative for their allergy was the rare soy milk option.
“We’ve both been lactose intolerant since our early twenties, so we’ve been consumers of the non-dairy world for a long time now,” Hong explained in a phone interview earlier this year. “One night after dinner Mollie made me banana ‘nicecream,’ which is frozen bananas that you put into a food processor or blender, and I like to say this is our lightning striking moment. I immediately understood the consumer insight behind it, because we are the consumer. It’s non-dairy, made with literally just bananas and some almond milk in that first recipe. It’s good for you, made with real fruit, and has the luxurious mouth feel of soft serve. To us it was such an amazing idea, like why is no one packaging this?”
Luckily, trying to figure out how to package new food ideas was already what these two did, working on the innovation team at Bolthouse Farms. After meeting during undergraduate at Berkeley, the pair became fast friends due to their involvement in the college business fraternity, Delta Sigma Pi. They described their connection as “friendship at first sight,” and have built the connection for over a decade, even when living in different cities, by being in each other’s weddings and eventually moving just down the street from each other to work on a business together.
When Hannah took a job at Bolthouse, she recruited Mollie to work alongside her there, and their shared food innovation background made starting Must Love together a no-brainer. Initially launching as Hakuna Brands, with two bases of bananas and oats dubbed as Hakuna Banana and Totes Oats, earlier this year they decided to rebrand under one umbrella as Must Love. This new name helped them bring both flavor profiles together, as well as emphasize how their own friendship is an integral part of the company’s personality.
“The ‘nicecream’ moment was in 2016 and that’s when we started working on the idea,” Cha remembered. “And then in late 2016 Hannah left the job to work on it full-time, and we launched in retail in 2017. The point of Hakuna Banana and Totes Oat was to highlight the respective hero ingredients, but the banner of Must Love allows us to highlight those ingredients with Must Love Bananas and Must Love Oats. From a brand perspective, the shift allows us to continue to put our personality and story into the brand.”
Although they were giving up a little bit of momentum, particularly with the cheeky Lion King reference of Hakuna Banana, their relaunch as Must Love coincided with a national expansion into Sprouts stores across the country. For those who are still hesitant to try something new or outside of their comfort zone, this title also reassures newbies that venturing into plant-based or dairy-free ice cream doesn’t mean sacrificing any flavor.
“We thought hard about what our brand stands for and the emotional appeal we’re trying to elicit,” Hong said. “The personality of our brand, at the root of it all, is our friendship. So we decided to use Must Love because it embodies a lot about the love we have for each other as friends, the love for food that we share, and what we want to bring to consumers and have them feel when they’re eating our product. Especially in ice cream, taste is always going to be number one. So we want to highlight that this is delicious, you’re not making any compromises.”
And it isn’t just corporate speak when these two talk about how important deliciousness is to their brand identity. After picking up a few of their ice cream bars at Whole Foods, and stocking up on pints of several different flavors at Sprouts, I can personally testify that this vegan ice cream is just as good — if not better — than my traditionally-made dairy-based favorites. Even without a lactose allergy, the inevitable bloating or regret after eating dairy products simply isn’t part of the package when it comes to plant-based treats, and I can get a sweet, healthy fix without any remorse. That’s why they call it “nice cream” instead of ice cream, because it’s sweetened with fruit, without refined sugar, and is completely all-natural and GMO-free.
The flavors go well beyond just banana and oats, too. In the Must Love Bananas they’ve managed to do a take on “banilla,” (banana vanilla — you get it) chocolate and strawberry for chocolate-dipped ice cream bars, and banilla, choco choco chip, cashew cookie, peanut butter chip, and strawberry in pint format. For the Must Love Oats side of things, they offer novelty bars in crunchy peanut butter, chocolate, and vanilla, and pints that span peanut butter swirl, snickerdoodle dough, and double chocolate chip.
Consumers aren’t the only ones who are praising Mollie and Hannah’s work, either — they were recognized as Whole Foods Market’s Supplier of the Year in 2019, and Instacart named them one of the top five fastest growing non-dairy ice cream brands last year. With major companies in the space co-signing what their local LA brand is doing, the Must Love founders are gearing up for another big year as they move into their new brand identity. Plus, they’re thankful for the support of the community of female founders in LA who are in various stages of growth in the food startup space. And after a year of isolation, diving back into meeting other founders in person will be a welcome next step for the two friends.
“What’s been really cool to see is especially in the early food startup space, there’s a really great community of women founders,” Cha said. “They’re in various stages of growth, so we’ve been able to connect with a lot of food companies in LA that are run by women. We’ve really been able to lean on each other, learn from our experiences, and really grow that network and build community.”
Learn more about Must Love and their products here and look for them in any Sprouts store and select Whole Foods locations.