Building an oat milk and coffee brand with funk and the planet in mind

Oat milk has become one of the go-to alternative milks on the market, with over $200 million in sales last year. It edged out soybeans and is in slot #2.

UK based Minor figures hopes to take a slice of that pie with their barista-style oat milk, which comes in quirky packaging featuring the brand’s CEO and core team.

“I think people would look at me and think I’m a little weird. And that’s okay,” jokes Stuart Forsyth, an Australian entrepreneur who was one of the co-founders of the popular KeepCup before venturing into the world of oat milk.

Along with the fun and whimsical Minor Figures brand, the company wants to take a more eco-friendly approach. Given Forsyth’s track record with the KeepCup, which was designed to reduce waste in cafes, that’s no surprise.

That’s why Minor Figures is becoming a B Corporation, has decided to invest in carbon offsets to be carbon neutral, and offers an organic oat milk product (in addition to its conventional offering for more cost-conscious customers).

Oats, which are sourced from various suppliers across Europe, have always been processed in the UK and Australia for the respective markets. Now, as they expand across the United States, they hope to manufacture closer to their customers here in America.

Building this global brand, however, took time. Forsyth, along with his brother and sister, spent years building KeepCup, slowly bringing it from Australia to the European market. This gave them the opportunity to spend quite a bit of time in the specialty coffee industry, learning its ways.

When Forsyth arrived in London in the late 2000s, he recalls that the specialty coffee scene was very small: you could probably count the number of specialty coffees on your hands, he says. Since then, London’s specialty coffee industry has boomed – and in recent years demand for alternative milks has also exploded. Interestingly, Forsyth started Minor Figures in 2014 with co-founders Jonathan Chiu and Will Rixon to sell cold brew coffee, not necessarily oat milk (though they’re becoming synonymous these days).

Working with Raw Material, a London-based social enterprise, they sourced premium coffees for their ready-to-drink cold brew. Raw Material, which operates much like a specialty coffee middleman or trader, is committed to reinvesting all of its profits back into the coffee-growing community. Forsyth chose to work with the group, he says, because they felt it was a better option than fair trade, putting more money in the hands of producers and streamlining the sourcing process for them to London.

For nearly 5 years, Minor Figures grew slowly, with profits flowing back into the business and raising small capital from family and friends. The company only recently hired an investor – who drank coffee with his oat milk at a New York cafe. “He contacted us, said he wanted to know more and was in London shortly afterwards. It was not planned at all.”

With around $10 million in investment, the company was ready to expand its reach and make a bigger push on its oat milk, not coffee this time. And then the pandemic hit in 2020: with most cafes closed, Minor Figures had to focus on online sales and groceries rather than cafes.

“It was a really tough time. We all took on additional roles in the business, juggling different responsibilities. No one was sure of their job. But we survived. And now, looking back, we’ve built a pretty resilient team,” says Forsyth.

In the process, they continued their journey to becoming a B Corp and are now carbon neutral through carbon offsets, which Forsyth says is benchmark. In fact, they invited consumers to help them decide which projects to support through an informal survey on their Blog – all of which have to do with the coffee community in one form or another.

“Overall, I think companies have a responsibility to do something about climate change. We cannot simply pass this responsibility on to consumers. We also have to do something and lead the way.

Oat milk has been documented as one of the most environmentally friendly alternative milks on the market – it takes less water than almonds, is easier to find and can appeal to a wider base of consumers (due to soy and nut allergies). Traditional dairy, says Forsyth, is more of a “zombie,” “government-backed” industry. And with Gen Z and Millennials pushing for plant-based diets, he sees alternative milks as the way forward.

Unlike other oat-based offerings that have multiple gums and binders, Minor Figures has tried to keep their formulation simpler: water, oats, oil, and salt primarily. Designed with coffee in mind, Forsyth says they wanted something that would enhance the flavor of coffee, without altering it.

Nevertheless, the oat milk market is currently competitive and crowded. So Minor Figures chose to stand out with an unusual brand image: instead of the go-get it and hustle culture, each of their items – either on the oat milk box or the ready-to-drink cans – features a drawing participating in more casual activities: having a coffee, blowing bubbles, skateboarding. Forsyth says their social networks are like “a friend’s feed. Everything is unmarked and pretty.

Although it adopts a slower, more laid-back vibe, the company has ambitious goals, one of which is to achieve zero carbon by reducing emissions. “The compensation, we realize, is not perfect.”

But being optimistic about the environment isn’t just a moral stance, he says. “It’s critical for business going forward.”

That might sound like a lofty goal for a global company that ships goods. But Forsyth says he likes to live by the advice his mother gave him: “Bite off more than you can chew, then chew like hell.”

About Jeffery L. Parker

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