We caught up with Andrea and Mike Jessop, CEOs of Moo Free, following their recent brand overhaul to find out how they coped with food intolerances as a couple and new parents. Thankfully, the husband and wife team were able to turn their dairy sensitivity and gluten intolerance into a business that has helped thousands of other sufferers enjoy chocolate again, especially at Christmas and Easter!
How difficult was it to be in a dairy AND gluten free relationship when you first got together?
We were already together, and both individually discovered that we had different intolerances later on in our relationship. At the time, free from sections in supermarkets didn’t exist, so we had to cook everything from scratch, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing as we ended up having a much healthier diet. As you can imagine, it was also difficult to dine out because options were limited, and restaurants didn’t cater for free from diets as well as they do today.
How did you learn to marry your eating habits over the years?
At first, we found it quite difficult altering our recipes to be gluten- and dairy-free. We would seek out the gluten alternatives in health shops, but otherwise we were quite limited in our selection. Fast forward to present day and it’s now much easier thanks to the free from sections in all supermarkets. Mike is lactose intolerant and can fortunately take medication to help with this, meaning he can have some dairy. Sadly, this isn’t the same for a gluten intolerance, so I’m the most difficult to cater for. Going on holiday can be particularly challenging and often involves packing an extra suitcase filled with gluten free foods.
What made you look into dairy intolerance as the possible cause of your baby's eczema?
When my son was a baby, he suffered with eczema, but also had a constant blocked nose. Like any Mum, I researched this and discovered an interesting article relating to dairy allergies. We took the article to our doctor who said we could try to cut out milk and prescribed soya baby milk – this was in the early eighties when soya milk wasn’t readily available. Within two weeks, his eczema cleared up and his nose stopped running, which was quite remarkable.
What did you both do before you decided to sell chocolate over the internet and what prompted the shift in career?
Mike and I both studied at Reading University together. When leaving, I started as a web and marketing manager for a children’s charity and Mike had a strong background in computer science and experience in web development. We both used our transferable skills to create Moo Free!
The transition in career happened gradually over a long period of time and, initially, we began by selling chocolates online. More and more customers were asking for free from options, particularly around seasonal occasions like Easter and Christmas, so we started to research different suppliers who could meet these demands. We were surprised to learn that there weren’t any currently on the market, so we set to work on making our own; this was back in 2008.
We started with a few Easter eggs, using a milk alternative chocolate, which flew out the door and were incredibly popular. By Christmas we were inundated with emails asking for the same in an advent calendar and other products. It was then that we knew we needed to invest in machinery and quality ingredients to make this a permanent option for our customers.
We spent the first two years researching and tweaking our recipes, to make sure they didn’t just taste delicious, but were also great quality and sustainable. During this time, we discovered a lot about pesticides and insecticides and how it affects workers in third world countries due to the constant exposure. We were already eating organic foods and grew our own vegetables. We were also keen to recycle, so we kept true to our own values when it came to setting up Moo Free.
Why were you so driven to be the people behind the change in the market to provide free from products to those with intolerances, especially children?
Speaking from experience, we didn’t want our son to miss out on seasonal chocolate because of his allergies, but as soon as we started to hear the stories from others, we knew we had to provide a solution. We pride ourselves on being knowledgeable about the market, which is why our dairy dodging choccy bars cater to many diets. All of our chocolate creations are gluten, soya and dairy-free, making them naturally suitable for vegetarians and vegans too.
Allergies are becoming more recognised in the UK now, with over 20 per cent of the population being affected by one or more allergic disorders (M. L. Levy, 2004), and people are starting to act as they educate themselves on the affect certain foods may be having on them. There are also new allergies appearing which, despite being quite common, aren’t necessarily officially recognised yet, such as coconut, so it’s important to be sensitive to these.
We often see those who are lactose intolerant usually suffering with other allergies as well. We’re dedicated to offering an alternative chocolate treat and, as a free from brand, it is important for Moo Free not to add ingredients that have the potential to introduce more allergens. This can include ingredients such as oat and barley. Oat milk, whilst labelled as gluten free, can still affect those who may be extremely sensitive to gluten, so we avoid these ingredients.
Were you worried about starting a new business in a recession? If so, what kept you going through such a difficult time?
Everyone probably has their concerns when starting a new business, but we decided to start ours during the recession, which meant getting financial support was very difficult. We ended up re-mortgaging our house for the second time because we were so determined to get our chocolate out into the world, especially for children at Easter and Christmas time.
From our research we also knew that nobody else was doing this and there was a strong customer base who needed us to deliver. We, of course, couldn’t have done it without our family and friends, who helped us develop our thinking, concepts and ideas, whilst also sampling dozens of products to make sure we got it right.
Fortunately, we were in it together, so could share the challenges we faced knowing that we both had a strong passion to make it work and bring tasty, ethical, free from chocolate to the masses.
How did the brand fare during the pandemic?
I’m sure I speak for many when I say we’ve had a number of highs and lows during the pandemic. Our business strategy pre-COVID was to concentrate on the UK market, rather than overseas, due to the uncertainty around Brexit. We felt there was plenty of room for growth on home soil, but then the pandemic hit, and our plans came to a halt. Like a lot of companies in the first lockdown, we had no idea what was going to happen. The supermarkets understandably prioritised everyday essentials which affected us. Fortunately, we were able to quickly recover and as soon as our team returned to work in June we were flat out making Christmas and then Easter products. Our sales shifted to our online site and thanks to our loyal customers, we were able to make it through some difficult months.
Since then, we’ve launched a number of new products including our white chocolate range, which includes Mini Bars, Buttons and White Chocolate and Raspberry Truffles. Vegan white chocolate is notoriously hard to get right, but after spending many years perfecting the recipe, we’ve had incredible feedback and it is already one of our best-sellers thanks to its delicious taste and texture.
We’ve also continued to launch new seasonal products for Christmas and Easter, such as our white chocolate advent calendar, white and ‘milk’ chocolate mini eggs and our Choccy Eggsplosion Easter Egg.
Why is it so important to you that children with intolerances are able to have the same as everyone else at Easter and Christmastime?
Every child deserves to have an Easter egg that won’t make them unwell (unless, of course, they’ve eaten too much of it!) and the same for Christmas. It’s these occasions where children can feel particularly left out. It’s our mission that children with allergies and intolerances don’t feel this way, not just during seasonal occasions but for the everyday as well. I can remember when my son had his first Easter Egg and it tasted nothing like chocolate. It’s these personal experiences that continue to motivate and drive us further.
As a business, we have very strong ethics surrounding equality, diversity and sustainability – not just within the products we create, but for our wider community as well. We partner with local charities to provide work experience and permanent roles to those with disabilities where possible within our company. We’re incredibly proud of our Moo family and believe everyone deserves a chance – this, to us, is how it should be.
How has the recent boom in veganism impacted your brand?
The boom in veganism has impacted Moo Free very positively. We started as a free from brand, which meant our products naturally fell into the vegan sector, but we’re incredibly proud that our products are 100 per cent vegan, with absolutely no traces of milk.
Vegan chocolate is all we know and focus on – we’re not distracted by making dairy versions of our products and because of that we’ve spent over 10 years perfecting our recipes, so we can offer a variety of popular flavours including salted caramel, vegan honeycomb, orange chocolate, mint and more.
We’re also very conscious of the cocoa we use for our products and make sure we source not only the ingredients that will make our bars taste great, but that it’s also ethical. Our Everyday and Mini bars are made from UTZ/Rainforest Alliance cocoa and our Premium range uses organic cocoa sourced from the Dominican Republic, which is produced to high ethical standards. All of our packaging is fully recyclable, and we’re registered with the Vegan Society.
This year, 500,000 people signed up to Veganuary, highlighting its popularity. This shines a spotlight on brands like ours where people may be trying us for the first time. It’s always great to see a returning customer.
Why did you feel it was important to change your branding and how do you think it will impact the future of Moo Free?
We have ambitious plans for the future and lots of exciting new products that we are working on. Whilst it’s key for us to provide free from chocolate to children who have allergies or who are intolerant, we also recognise that it’s parents and adults who buy the products and eat them too. We wanted Moo Free to appeal to everyone which is why we decided to give our branding a makeover. Each of our products tells a story, which you can find on our website, and we felt that our old packaging didn’t do this justice. Our new packaging helps to reflect our uniqueness as a team and a brand and we feel Moo Free is now much more recognisable and inclusive.
LoveRaw launched in 2013 and veganism back then was way less prevalent, however, it's taken off massively in recent years and more and more people are experimenting with vegan or vegan based diets. Even if they’re not fully converting to veganism they’re trying out “flexitarian” diets and cutting down on meat and dairy products or eating vegan for a certain number of days a week. One thing we want to make clear is that our products are enjoyed by non-vegans just as much as vegans. Our mission is purely to make great tasting chocolate for everyone...