From IT to dairy free, meet the leaders of ‘free from’ chocolate

Posted on 10 Apr 2019 by Maddy White

A few years ago, the ‘free from’ area of the supermarket was a mere shelf, now there are dedicated aisles for it. Moo Free is a vegan chocolate business based in Exeter who has taken full advantage of this accelerating market, we headed to South West England to find out more.

Automated machinery at one of the Moo Free sites in Exeter - image courtesy of Moo Free.
Automated machinery at one of the Moo Free sites in Exeter – image courtesy of Moo Free.

As more and more people look to dodge dairy and gluten in their diets, the free from market has become a lucrative one, sales in the year to September 2018 grew by 37.5%, according to Kantar Worldwide.

And it is a competitive business, as many as one in six (16%) food products launched last year in the UK had a vegan label, this doubling from 8% in 2015.

One business that was ahead of this surging popularity was Moo Free, an award-winning free from chocolate manufacturer.

Earlier this month, we sat down with co-founders and couple Mike and Andrea Jessop at their HQ in Devon.

“I was working in web development and Mike was a computer programmer. We had all of these ideas for websites pre-2000 and so we started by creating a website for organic products,” Andrea says.

“We were like a mini search engine for where you could buy organic products,” Mike adds. “But Google had only just started, and no one really understood what search engines were, people were saying do you sell this, and we were like ‘no we just tell you where to buy it.'”

A free from focus

The business then developed to focus on free from chocolate, the initial plan was to create the recipe for the chocolate, outsource the manufacturing and sell the products online.

“Our background is in IT”, Mike says, “We are good at websites, we didn’t know anything about manufacturing.”

Having this expertise meant that the couple knew how to optimise search engines to be at the top of web searches for dairy free and vegan chocolate, so that they would never be short of exposure or orders.

What the co-founders didn’t count on, however, was that no chocolate manufacturer could guarantee zero risk of contamination of ingredients like soya, lactose and gluten in making products for them.

“People don’t realise that a soya allergy can be extremely serious, it is like a nut allergy, we couldn’t have any risk of contamination in our chocolate,” says Mike.

Developing and scaling dairy free chocolate

Developing the chocolate recipe took around two years to perfect the duo says. “We used rice milk as our dairy alternative as no one was using it in their free from chocolate. We tried it and we thought it worked, so we then spent those years further developing it to make the taste more creamy.”

Moo Free produce free from chocolate in Exeter - image courtesy of Moo Free
To align with their three core principles; quality, ethics and fun, the business sends zero waste to landfill – image courtesy of Moo Free.

The first year of production saw milk chocolate Easter eggs, a world-first back then for the free from market, made manually, which sold out immediately. “They were test eggs and we sold them online,” says Andrea.

The following year retailer Waitrose contacted Moo Free and wanted to put in an order for the Easter eggs, something the business had no capacity to do at the time.

“We started in the recession, no banks would lend money to us to invest. We were this big start-up growing like crazy, we were doubling in size every year. They had gone from recklessly lending money to giving it to no one,” he said.

A couple of years later and with some money from a crowdfunding round, Moo Free started to scale up. In 2010, the company was registered, simple machines were bought and a few thousand Easter eggs were made.

Mooving forward for Moo Free

Fast forward to 2019, and Easter this year has seen the business complete the production of half a million free from Easter eggs, with manufacturing having also just commenced for this festive season’s 750,000 advent calendars.

Andrea and Mike Jessop are pictured - image courtesy of Moo Free.
Andrea and Mike Jessop are pictured – image courtesy of Moo Free.

Today across the two Exeter-based sites, in one shift The Manufacturer saw 20,000 small chocolate bars being made, 5,000 larger bars, and 7,500 bags of milk chocolate drops manufactured.

These are to be exported to their customers in over 40 different countries.

All of Moo Free’s organic chocolates are made using natural, high quality ingredients including single origin, organic cocoa mass from plantations in the Dominican Republic.

As the manufacturer’s chocolates are made from raw ingredients, the business can be certain that there are no traces of dairy, gluten or soya.

Mike also tells me that he coded the firm’s ‘Moohub’ system from scratch, this offers the business full transparency of its operations.

“It tracks everything from stock in, sales, to stock out and ingredients. We know exactly which product has gone where, even say a bag sugar, which exact products that sugar went into. I wrote it in spreadsheets, the hub took over one year, it was a lot of data and we enhance and edit it all the time.

“We are still doubling in size” he says. The goal for the dynamic team now, Mike says, is “to become the world leader in free from chocolate, and we will achieve that.”