LOS ANGELES — The maker of Hakuna Banana and Totes Oats frozen desserts is uniting the two product lines under the new Must Love brand. Founders Mollie Cha and Hannah Hong said the new name reflects the startup’s expansion beyond its initial banana-based offering.
The two longtime friends developed Hakuna Banana, featuring a base of bananas, coconut milk and dates, several years ago following a fruitless pursuit of better-for-you plant-based ice cream alternatives. Varieties currently include chocolate chocolate chip, cashew cookie, peanut butter chip and banana vanilla.
“We had been searching for a non-dairy ice cream that we wanted to eat, but we found plant-based didn’t necessarily mean healthy,” Ms. Hong said. “The inspiration came from Mollie making ‘nice cream,’ the recipe you see on Instagram with frozen bananas in a food processor.”
The following year marked the launch of Totes Oats, which combines oat milk, coconut milk and dates, and was created in collaboration with Whole Foods Market. Flavors include peanut butter swirl, double chocolate chip and snickerdoodle dough flavors.
“Hakuna Banana is banana-forward for sure, and we love it … but it’s a little hard to expand our flavor profiles with the banana base,” Ms. Hong said. “For instance, you wouldn’t make a mint chocolate chip with banana. It just doesn’t taste good. We were looking for a neutral base that we could expand our portfolio with and help with innovation. Oat milk was the perfect vehicle for that.”
Both product lines represent the founders’ philosophy and demanding ingredient standards, Ms. Cha added.
“As we’re looking to grow both brands, it made sense to bring them together under one brand identity because they really complement each other,” she said. “The brand stands for plant-based, everyday indulgence. It’s obviously a better-for-you option because we eliminate a lot of the refined sugars by swapping out whole fruit to sweeten our nice creams.”
The new brand identity enables further innovation and expansion into new ingredients and categories. The founders hope to eventually launch plant-based, better-for-you options “in places where people usually don’t expect to find them,” Ms. Cha said.
Ms. Hong and Ms. Cha previously held innovation roles at Bolthouse Farms while it was owned by the Campbell Soup Co. Responsibilities there involved identifying whitespace opportunities and assisting in the ideation to commercialization of new products.
In the four years since launching, Must Love has received notable accolades and prizes, including Whole Foods Market Supplier of the Year and pitch slam winner at Natural Products Expo West. Ms. Cha currently is participating in a Tory Burch Fellowship, a year-long program supporting female entrepreneurs across various industries. Ms. Hong previously joined the inaugural class of PepsiCo’s Stacy’s Rise Project, which provides funding, mentorship and community to female founders of food and beverage businesses. Must Love, then Hakuna Brands, received the $100,000 grand prize.
“Having access to far more seasoned professionals than us who run the biggest brands, household name brands, in the United States and across the world, was incredible,” Ms. Hong said. “Not only did I get access to my two specific mentors but also cross-functional partners across the organization at PepsiCo and Frito-Lay. We were able to really do some strategic work, which as a small brand when you’re bogged down with day-to-day you don’t devote enough time to. I really valued that aspect of the program. And of course meeting the other female founders. That fellowship you have with other female founders can be really powerful. You can bounce ideas off each other and answer questions, even if you’re not in the same category.”
Last year, the brand was named one of the top five fastest-growing non-dairy ice cream brands by Instacart.
“I think that’s twofold,” Ms. Hong said. “One, more people are shopping on Instacart, so more of our consumers are on there. But second, more consumers are coming to us because they’re looking for a better-for-you indulgence.”
Ms. Cha added, “One thing that’s hard for us in this category and as a small brand is we benefit a lot from that exploration of people wandering into the ice cream aisle and seeing what’s on sale and maybe reading a label. We hoped, and I think through the research from Instacart, is people are still having those same behaviors but shifting them online.”
Must Love products are sold in approximately 700 stores nationwide. The transition to the new label is underway, with the rebranded packaging already on shelves at Sprouts Farmers Market stores.