Dishing With… Amy Ramm (founder of Nada Moo!)

Amy Ramm is a graduate of my culinary school, The Natural Epicurean, and also the founder of Nada Moo!, a vegan ice cream company that she started here in Austin, TX, and that she has grown to multi-state distribution. She actually attended The Natural Epicurean way back when it was almost all macrobiotically based and — big news here — she recently sold her stake in Nada Moo! to focus on the next chapter in her career.

I sat down with Amy to talk about how she got Nada Moo! off the ground and into widespread distribution, what it took to keep it going, and where she’s headed next!

Below: Amy Ramm, holding a pint of Nada Moo!, the coconut-based ice cream product she developed over eight years ago.

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Tell me about the start of Nada Moo!

I was an aspiring artisan baker and pastry chef before I became a student at the Natural Epicurean. I was going down this path of learning how to put butter, flour, sugar, and eggs in everything and my sister was consulting with a nutritionist about her bad allergies that were getting worse. So she was going through an elimination diet and I was working with stuff that was very different. She came to me and asked me to change up some recipes so that she could eat them, but I wasn’t learning any of that in the training I was getting. So, I became more curious about how to do that. And I also realized that a lot of people were enjoying my baking work but who also may have had allergies without realizing it. So I decided to become a natural foods chef. At that time (ed., about 10 years ago), the Natural Epicurean was very much geared toward the home cook. I also studied Healing with Whole Foods by Paul Pitchford to learn more about healing foods.

Because of my sister, my specialty became recipe transformation – taking the wheat or butter out of something and make it still taste great. One day in May 2004 I was standing in my home kitchen, wanting to make a better version of a healthy ice cream and started pulling things off my shelf and slapped them in my ice cream maker. I took it to my friend Matt, who was one of the owners of the Daily Juice (now Juiceland on Barton Springs Road in Austin). Before he finished the first spoonful, he said “Oh, we’re going to sell this.” It was total serendipity. I didn’t set out to create a product for public consumption.

I thought we’d just sell it over the summer, and we had so much fun. Somebody took a sample over to Whole Foods and I got an e-mail from a regional buyer. That led to putting Nada Moo! into the flagship store they were opening March 5, 2005 (in downtown Austin). I had six months to come up with a name, packaging, a new ingredient sourcing plan, and a manufacturing plan. Nada Moo! was the first coconut milk ice cream brought to market, which was a key part of its success.

What were the challenges of scaling up a retail product like Nada Moo!?

If Google weren’t around, I might never have started this company. I used it heavily to figure out how to build up our production capacity. I knew I couldn’t make the ice cream in my kitchen any more. I needed what’s called a co-packer to produce it. Also, I needed to buy the ingredients in large quantities below retail prices. I had experience making dog biscuits, so I had been down that road before of making products for retail on a larger scale. You don’t call the grocery store for that scale of buying – you call the distributor. I made some deals with Whole Foods and Wheatsville (ed., an Austin food co-op) to help me source ingredients. They gave me bulk discounts. In 2005, Whole Foods wanted it in all the stores in the region starting in 2006. That was when I knew we’d need to scale up again. I hit the Google machine to find a new manufacturing partner.

I found a maker who had the production capability I needed at 100 gallon batches, and who could pack at a larger scale. At that time I was driving the product to (local business) Amy’s Ice Cream at 11pm at night to put it into 5-gallon batch freezers. I was very lucky also to meet people who could help me do financial projections that would show how things would change as the company scaled up. At the beginning I was literally hand opening cans of coconut milk, which was an expensive process and a very expensive ingredient. In the first two years, I might as well taped a $5 bill to each pint of Nada Moo! because of the cost of production operating at such a small scale.

When I was buying the cartons, printing labels, and putting them on myself, I could do a couple thousand a day and it took all day at a cost of $1 per package. When I started working with the contract manufacturer, 125,000 units of printed packages was the minimum run for 27 cents each. I was later able to get a price of 13 cents per package by piggy backing on other orders placed by my manufacturing partner for other contracts they had.

So once you started working with the large-scale contract manufacturer, was it just a matter of sitting at home waiting for the check?

No way. You have to be on that line watching the manufacturing process. If you’re not there and mistakes are made, you have to eat that cost. You have to do your own quality control. It’s other people’s money you’re spending. It’s not a knock on the manufacturer – things can just happen.

Also you have to be there to vouch for fact that it was organic coconut milk that was used or that gluten free or Kosher standards are upheld. It’s worth it to have a production manager overseeing everything. I filled that role for a long time until we got bit enough. One time I didn’t make it to oversee production. Some coconut milks was used that had spoiled, but they made it anyway. They overnighted a sample to me and I knew right away. We lost $10,000 on that error. So you’re always managing and overseeing.

Was it less satisfying to be in that managing role than the ground-floor role?

I didn’t have a great desire to be a CEO. In about 2009, the more my job became projections, lawyers, and meetings with investors, the less I enjoyed it. I wanted to get someone else in to be CEO so I could handle the areas of the business that I would excel at, since running a business was not my background. In 2010, I started teaching part time and by 2011 it was clear I needed to do something else and transition to a new management team. It was clearly the right choice to me personally. If I couldn’t take Nada Moo! as far as it could go, that was fine. I feel so strongly that NadaMoo desrves to be the Ben and Jerry’s of its category.

Getting into the cancer fighting work and getting into Food and Medicine – it’s where my career was going before Nada Moo! I’m so happy with what I’m doing now.

So tell me about your new chapter.

I’m heading to the Food as Medicine Conference in Bethesda, MD in June. It’s a professional training geared for medical professionals. They gave me a scholarship to attend and I’m excited to bring that information back to town. I’ve been talking to Livestrong and the Sustainable Food Center about creating an advanced training program. Coming up with ways to help people with food and nutrition resources for people during those challenges is what I want to be doing and that’s what I’m excited about.

The conference is an immersion into nutrition, the food aspect of health, as well as how to cook. The Culinary Institute of America just did something similar out at the Greystone campus which was in the New York Times.

You have different needs when you’re a cancer patient. You also have symptoms you have to deal with, like nausea and inflammation. You also have to think about nutrition during treatment and after treatment. And a lot of that information is also really useful on the preventative side.

Do you see yourself starting a new business along those lines?

I’m certain there’s a for-profit business model that looks like coaching and teaching for disease management, but at the moment my interest is working in the cancer support community and learning about what the opportunities are. But I’d really like to take a break from running a business, just for a short time, I’m really excited about the ambiguity at the moment! My experience with Nada Moo! was “if it’s a good thing, people will be attracted to it.”

What advice do you have for people looking to change careers?

I am a big advocate for apprenticing and interning and volunteering yourself where you want to be and with the people you want to work with. The more you can build up your experience base – there are so many things that will come from that. Find someone who is doing what you want to do and shamelessly get in there. Remember that you still have to wash dishes. I did 13 hour days on the production line, even as CEO. It will help you understand the business, and help you know if this is what you want to do. Don’t be afraid to really stick your neck out. The way I got invited to the Food as Medicine conference is that I made a phone call and let them know I was interested and shared with them the work I was doing.

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