One half of Moo Free, Mike Jessop, gives us his story on how he started one of the UK's leading vegan chocolate brands…
Q. What’s the story behind Moo Free Chocolates?
Moo Free began in 2004 when myself and my wife Jessica started selling specialist chocolates online.
It wasn’t long before parents were contacting us desperate to source dairy-free Easter eggs and Advent calendars for their children. We searched around the world for chocolate manufacturers that were making these products, but found none. This left us shocked and bemused.
So, in 2008 we re-mortgaged our house, bought some small machinery and ingredients and began to learn all about making chocolate. Over the next few years we began to work out how to create a dairy-free chocolate that actually tasted like quality milk chocolate.
Finally we had the great flavour we were looking for and at the end of 2010 we launched Moo Free Chocolates. As well as being dairy-free, all our chocolates are gluten-free, lactose-free, casein-free, soya-free and certified vegan.
Q. How difficult is it replicating the milk chocolate taste without using milk or gluten?
When we came up with the idea to try and make our own dairy-free ‘milk’ chocolates there were only a few dairy-free ‘milk’ chocolate bars on the world market. At the time these products were being made using either soya or carob as a substitute for milk.
I found that soya milk has a harsh after taste that was difficult to get rid of, so we decided to try using rice milk instead. This tasted much better but it still took 2 years of experimenting and force feeding hundreds of volunteers with chocolate samples before we got the quality ‘milk’ chocolate flavour we were looking for.
Many ingredients include wheat which presents a very large problem when we try to create new flavours. You would not believe some of the things that wheat flour is added to. Actually, if you suffer from an allergy or intolerance then you probably would!
Q. What obstacles have you had to overcome? What are the ongoing difficulties?
The main problem for Moo Free was funding. We started the company in the middle of a recession at a time when banks had gone from throwing money at people to not lending to any businesses unless they were already making millions of pounds.
To make chocolates cheaply and in large quantities we needed larger machines, bigger premises and more staff. It has been a very slow, time-consuming and personally exhausting and expensive process to get Moo Free to where it is today, and we quite literally had our house invested in it.
We almost went bankrupt several times in the first few years – if we had, we would have lost everything.
Q. Have you seen demand increase in recent years? Why is this?
Demand for our chocolates has always been high and every year the demand seems to at least double.
We suspect that there are a few reasons for this, but I think the main reason is that we are finally seeing better diagnoses and awareness of food allergies and intolerances.
Q. How careful do you have to be with cross-contamination?
Preventing cross-contamination is our number one priority. There are no milk, gluten or soya products allowed in our factories. In fact, all food and drink products are banned from the isolated production areas.
We don’t make any products but our own, which are all free-from the same things. Any ingredients we use that we don’t make ourselves are tested and certified free of allergens.
We have our products tested for allergens several times a year, even though there should be no chance of any cross-contamination.
Q. Do you find people without intolerances buy Moo Free as well?
Our ‘milk’ chocolate taste is very important to us and we believe that we have created the best tasting dairy-free ‘milk’ chocolate on the market.
Many people send us stories about family members who have tried our chocolates, to then find that they actually prefer Moo Free to regular milk chocolate bars.
We even have stories of husbands stealing their wives’ Moo Free chocolates too!
Q. What next for Moo Free?
Well that’s easy. Lots and lots of Easter eggs. We’ve got three flavours this year which are Original, Bunnycomb and Cheeky Orange.
By April we will be moving on to making advent calendars, selection boxes and a brand new chocolate product for Christmas. Look out for us appearing in even more shops this year.