We caught up with Angela Chou, Founder of I Am Nut OK, an artisan vegan cheese company based in London. Starting with a range of 3 spreads, I Am Nut OK have branched from cashew-cheeses to soy-cheese, pates, and butter. 100% plant based and handmade, I Am Nut OK’s journey started in 2017 with American-Italian couple Angela and Nivi. I AM NUT OK’s aim is to make everyone’s mouth water when they think of their products. More daring than dairy, your taste buds will love their unique flavour combinations.
The purpose of article series ‘Product | People | Potential’ is to feature and showcase the very best UK start-ups with grand potential, truly inspiring businesses that are shaking up their sector. We capture and share the stories behind the name. We collate authentic peer to peer real talk, while celebrating the growth and success thus far and gather a glimpse of what’s ahead.
Angela: Hi, my name is Angela Chou, and I am the founder of I Am Nut OK. We are an independent vegan cheese company based in London. Last September, we moved into a new unit and are now able to produce at 5x our previous capacity. I Am Nut OK is unique because we sell a mix of different products including vegan cheeses made from fermented cashew nuts. We also have soya-based cheeses, butters, pâtés and more. We develop our products in-house, so they have a unique flavour profile and are not trying to be a direct imitation of the dairy world; instead, we are creating new foods and combine flavours we think are exciting and taste great! Our business shows people that when they go vegan, they don’t have to necessarily look for dairy imitations but can discover new alternatives.
Angela: In December 2017, my partner Nivi and I were living in a flat in London and we wanted to start a business as a source of income and something fun to do together. We both have design backgrounds, but I am vegan, and Nivi was converting to veganism. We started out making cheeses in our little flat and then started selling at markets. We weren’t prepared for this to be a long-term business and so we have certainly learnt a lot of things and we recognise that we could have used more planning before we started!
Angela: Yeah, definitely. Right now, our biggest challenge is definitely managing people because when we started the business, we did not think far ahead for how we would manage our team. We are learning on the job because we don’t have management experience. Learning to handle sick days, personal issues, disciplinary action and finding the right people are all challenges we have faced. My advice would be to implement a structure for management even before you think you need it as you won’t always anticipate the next challenge and it is much easier to have a structure in place before a problem rather than trying to implement one afterwards.
Another point is creating a community within a growing company and how to pass on the passion for the business onto the team. We still don’t have this down all the way, but as a food business, everyone is very passionate about food, and we try and engage with people that way. We organise regular team lunches where everyone cooks a dish and brings it to share family-style. It has really helped people bond. Right now, we’re working on how to impart the values of the company to everyone in an engaging way. Creating a ‘company culture’ is much harder than expected, as most people on our team come from working in hospitality where the turnaround is very high, and we want to focus on keeping people for as long as possible – and that means keeping them happy.
We found that people really want to be listened to and will be happy if they feel they are valued. As we are such a small company, every single person is very important to us and has the power to have an impact on the company. Everyone has different interests and skills, and people really appreciate when you’re able to incorporate some of those into their role. For example, one of our new warehouse team members is interested in sustainability. We’ve found a way to incorporate aspects of sustainability research into their role so they can have a direct impact on the company.
Angela: When we started, it was just Nivi and I, so we made all the products. Now, we are a team of 9 so we have grown really quickly. I created all the recipes and so I have passed this on to our Kitchen Manager which is great as now I can focus on being a manager and head of R&D. My goal is to step back a little from the kitchen and focus on growing the business.
Angela: It has been tricky because we started at such a small scale, and we started selling in markets so didn’t think of sales cycles and marketing too much. When we started there was not really any artisan vegan cheese around and so we were lucky that there wasn’t much competition. Though this meant we didn’t have a strategic approach, we got direct feedback from customers and so we would hear what worked well, what wasn’t popular etc. I think you need a mix between what people want and what you want to make. People don’t know they want something if they don’t know it exists, so we were able to create the demand for that by showing people what was good. A lot of our success also had to do with how passionate the vegan community is and all the support we got through word of mouth!
Angela: There have been numerous challenges because our products didn’t exist, and we had to figure everything out on our own. To learn to make vegan cheese, there aren’t many resources. There was a lot of trial and error. The challenges would be how to scale-up to making it at a commercial level, and the equipment, machinery and tools needed. We are still in the process of trying to expand our product range, scale-up even more and doing this in an efficient way.
Angela: We have thought about seeking investment, but we always wanted to be at the right stage before we even considered it. It links to my previous point of how to do things; we didn’t feel ready to approach investors yet. We know a lot of small business owners and have heard a lot of horror stories regarding investors, so we are really cautious. If someone came along with the same vision and understands the value of our business instead of someone who is trying to jump in on the vegan market or trying to steer us their way. We really value our creative freedom.
Angela: Exactly, we started with no money and all the money we have made has gone back into the business. We have been able to get to where we are without investment, and we are fortunate to be in a trajectory where we can choose to stay independent. We have been approached a lot, but we are lucky that we only have to consider the person and not the money.
Thank you for your time, Angela!