Since launching just three years ago, Freaks of Nature has managed to break into all the major retailers. And it’s expanding.
After winning the Start-Up of the Year accolade at the Grocer Gold Awards in June, the company extended supply of its free-from desserts into 1,000 additional Morrisons and Tesco stores.
“We are now the biggest supplier of plant-based hot eat desserts into UK grocery,” founder Peter Ahye tells Food Spark. This growth is driven by the fact that the appeal of the products is not limited to one region of Britain.
“We see higher sales in the south, but that’s only because of the concentration. If you look at hotspots, we continue to be astounded that one of the fastest-selling areas for us is in Scotland,” adds Ahye.
Using the premium end of retailers’ own-brand desserts as a benchmark – particularly M&S – his focus is on recreating the taste of traditional puddings – just without the dairy, eggs or gluten.
“There’s no point me trying to reinvent the wheel,” as he puts it. “We’re sticking with products that people recognise. We’re not going wild and whacky.”
The hunt for alternative ingredients
Freaks of Nature divides its offering into three ranges: cold desserts, like the chocolate caramel cheesecake; hot puds, including include lemon sponge and cherry Bakewell; and yogs in blueberry and strawberry flavours.
“Because we’re using ingredients that are as unrefined as possible, we’re finding that we’re getting a really good flavour profile,” says Ahye. “Our sticky toffee pudding now, I defy anybody to eat it and go, hold on a minute, that’s free-from or plant-based.”
Cocoa-inflected items have proved the most popular with consumers, whether its double chocolate ganache, hot chocolate fudge or chocolate caramel cheesecake, all of which have an RRP of £2.
“This is not about cheap and cheerful ingredients, it’s about a more discerning consumer who wants better ingredients and no nasties in their food,” remarks Ahye.
To remove dairy, Freaks of Nature has turned to plant-based milks, which tend to be waterier than cow’s milk. Effectively mimicking the right mouthfeel is a challenge.
“To get creaminess, the only thing that’s really doing the job properly is coconut at the moment,” says Ahye. “We are working with doing some trials with oat cream as well to see if that will work, but it’s all about fat content.”
Rice is another potential alternative for dairy. Flaxseed, meanwhile, works as an egg replacer, providing emulsification and aeration, as does aquafaba (chickpea water).
Ahye is constantly on the lookout for new options, however, going to two or three trade shows a year in the UK and Europe.
Freaks of Nature has its own dedicated manufacturing facility, which allows it to go from product development to listing in a shorter time that those relying on third-party factories. This has also made the business more attractive for retailers, firstly because it allows for scalability and secondly – and perhaps more importantly in the current climate – because it means greater allergen control.
Three of the company’s desserts are free from all 14 major allergens – lemon sponge, sticky toffee, and chocolate fudge – though it is careful to note that these are made in an environment that handles nuts.
Being able to claim that a product doesn’t include any of the 14 major allergens is an attractive claim, especially as both consumers and industry are becoming more educated about health concerns. This is driving exploration at Freaks of Nature into how it might remove nuts too, though this could entail a significant overhaul. Currently, cashews form the basis of the cold puddings and the yoghurts, while almonds feature in the cherry Bakewell.
This difficulty is compounded by the fact that the company wants to rely predominantly on natural ingredients, making its labels as clean as possible
“We’ve now got a flour blend that works amazingly well in these products that is naturally gluten-free,” notes Ahye.
Finding its feet in foodservice
While retail is where Freaks of Nature started, in the past few months it has also been exploring the foodservice arena. Its products are now listed on supplier Vegetarian Express, and Ahye has piqued the interest of several pub and restaurant chains with his Christmas product development: a Christmas pudding that is plant-based and free from the top 14 allergens.
“The foodservice guys are trying to remove complexity in back of house,” notes Ahye, pointing out that it simplifies the supply chain if chefs can order just one pudding for all dietary types – including those who don’t avoid anything at all.
This means the desserts have to be good enough for the mainstream consumer, which has always been the core goal of Freaks of Nature. The competition is growing, however, with premium dessert makers Gu releasing a trio of coconut-cream-bolstered cheesecakes earlier this year that do not use animal products or nuts – though they do contain soya.
Plant-based specialists Gato and The Coconut Collaborative both offer free-from puddings too, as does Pudology, which partnered up with wholesaler Brakes last month in hopes of making almost half its business foodservice related.
Danone, meanwhile, has branched into oat-milk-based yoghurts over in the States that are nut-free, soy-free, vegan and gluten-free, sold under its So Delicious brand.