Anyone who has ever traveled overseas with bulging backpack, a crinkly map, and a vague sense for where the nearest youth hostel might be is likely to have encountered an Australian or ten along the way. In Australia, the extended “walkabout” is a cultural tradition for youth seeking to explore the world before settling down.
Like her fellow compatriots, Koel Thomae, founder of Noosa Finest Yoghurt, chose the United States as the site of her walkabout in her early 20s. Though she grew up in Queensland to an educator-turned-entrepreneur mother and a biologist father, Thomae holds dual U.S.-Australian citizenship.
“My mom is American, so that made the Western U.S. an easy place to do a walkabout.” After several years on her own, “there was a guy involved,” and Thomae soon found herself in Boulder, Colorado, a mecca for those passionate about eating, cooking, and natural foods. Rather than go back to Australia, she chose to stick around and find work.
But she didn’t land in the food sector immediately.
A CAREER-CHANGING DISCOVERY
”I was working in an I.T. job in a cubicle having the soul sucked right out of me,” Thomae laughs now, looking back. “I realized if I was going to stay in the States, I had to figure out what I really wanted to do.” As someone who’d always loved cooking and eating food, pursuing a new job in the natural foods space felt like the right fit. She landed at Izze, the natural soda upstart, and stayed for 4 years, working her way up to supply chain manager. (The company has since been sold to PepsiCo.)
In late 2005, she went to visit her mother Nancy back in Australia and made a startling discovery: Down the street from where her mother lived on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, she found a locally-made yogurt (spelled yoghurt in Australia, hence Noosa’s use of that spelling) that blew her mind. The clear packaging and nostalgic passionfruit flavor grabbed hold of her, so she purchased the yogurt and brought it home to her mother’s house.
Then she ate it.
“It was a revolutionary taste moment that stopped me in my tracks,” Thomae recalls.
Despite the fact that she ate yogurt during her youth in Australia, Thomae says, “It wasn’t like any yogurt I’d grown up with or any yogurt I’d been eating in the U.S.” Her mother -- an educator for the deaf turned entrepreneurial crafter of Australian souvenirs -- encouraged Koel to contact the company, which she did.
MAKING THE PITCH
The young company was owned by the Mathewson family, a family content to continue selling yogurt at its existing scale. So Thomae returned to Boulder, and her job at Izze.
But she couldn’t shake that taste experience. She talked about it so much, in fact, her boss at Izze urged her to contact the Mathewsons again. She did.
Thomae returned to Queensland and, “over a long lunch with several beers, as is the Australian way, I told them theirs was the most delicious yogurt I’d ever eaten and I’d need to eat it more than once a year.” She then asked the million dollar question: Would they agree to license the recipe to her?
“From that lunch,” Thomae says, “a business relationship was created.” She returned to Boulder, and delved deep into the nitty-gritty of bringing the business to life, realizing quickly that complex U.S. dairy regulations presented a series of complex hurdles she wasn’t yet prepared to take on herself. She cold-called a dairy farmer named Rob Graves, who came on as her business partner. In 2010, they launched Noosa Finest Yoghurt in Whole Foods Markets in the Rocky Mountain region.
Today, the company’s products are available in all 50 states with annual revenue projected to top $100 million in 2015.
Noosa is a honey- and cane sugar-sweetened yogurt, in flavors from vanilla, coconut, and tart cherry to passion fruit, mango, peach and plain. (That’s just a partial list.) The once-seasonal pumpkin will soon be available year-round.
Which is the company’s bestseller? “Blueberry,” answers Thomae simply. “Consumers have a desire to try new and unique things but tend to default to traditional flavor profiles.”
The company sources its milk locally, from Colorado farms located within an hour of its Bellvue production facility.
Texturally, Thomae calls her yogurt: “A perfect intersection between a traditional, thinner-style yogurt and Greek yogurt, which can be incredibly thick and almost paste-like in texture.” Kosher gelatin is added as a stabilizer.
Thomae credits her parents both for encouraging her along her current path and for serving as positive professional role models throughout her life. “The biggest thing,” she says now, “is looking back and seeing that support from my family to do what makes me happy.”
“When you talk to most entrepreneurs,” she continues, “they’re doing something they’re very passionate about. There’s a lot of bloody hard work, so you need that passion-point to survive.”