Meet our Entrepreneur of 2016: Koel Thomae
Aussie inspiration led to yogurt sensation
Koel Thomae’s entrepreneurial success story reads like a classic dairy tale romance.
Girl meets yogurt. Girl falls in love with yogurt. Girl brings yogurt home.
Everybody falls in love with yogurt.
Eighteen flavors and $100 million in sales later, it’s fair to say that Noosa Finest Yoghurt is still the love of Thomae’s life, and more people are falling for it every day.
“Our mission was to create delicious yogurt that was like no other on the market,” she says. “We’ve been told by our fans time and time again that after one taste of Noosa, you’re hooked.”
That’s exactly what happened to Thomae.
Born to an American mother and a Canadian father, Thomae grew up in Queensland, Australia. She landed in Boulder as a young adult, dabbled in IT and finally followed her love of food and all things natural to soda maverick IZZE. While visiting her mom in 2005, she happened upon a yogurt (spelled yoghurt Down Under) mixed with passion fruit puree that grabbed her taste buds and wouldn’t let go.
The Mathewson family, which made the creamy delight in Australia, had no interest in global yogurt domination. But Thomae’s persistence ultimately paid off.
Once the recipe licensing was in place, she needed to find someone with the requisite dairy expertise. Enter fourth-generation dairy farmer Rob Graves of Morning Fresh Dairy in Bellevue, just northwest of Fort Collins, who Thomae cold-called after spotting his farm on a flier at a coffee shop.
“After some convincing – and after sampling a taste of the yogurt I wanted to create – he agreed to go into business with me,” Thomae says. “I’m so lucky to have found Rob. Milk is not just (his) livelihood but almost a religion. He prides himself on producing high-quality milk, free of artificial hormones, pesticides and preservatives. So he was the perfect match for me, and he was critical to helping get Noosa off the ground and making it what it is today.”
In 2010, the pair started making Noosa in small batches – the first four flavors were honey, blueberry, raspberry and mango – and landed Whole Foods as their first customer.
“That same spring, we debuted at the Boulder Farmers Market, which was instrumental in creating a loyal following and viral word of mouth,” Thomae says. “Colorado is a mecca for the natural foods industry, and I think people here are more open to trying products that might be a bit unconventional. The support we’ve gotten from yogurt lovers in Colorado has really been essential to our success beyond our home state.”
Noosa’s astounding early success caught Thomae and her partners completely off-guard.
“We thought we were being very bullish when we built our first yogurt-making plant, and after only the first year, we were in catch-up mode to keep up with our growth,” she says. “In some ways, I think this may have helped us remain focused on doing what we do best. I think that is a great piece of advice for people getting started: Stay focused on your core product and build out a strong national presence before you start thinking about line extensions.”
In 2014, private equity firm Advent International acquired Noosa, but left its leadership team intact. The move has been critical to Noosa’s growth, Thomae says, allowing the company to finish a $20 million expansion to its Bellvue facility.
“In terms of my role, I have always been very-hands on with Noosa, and that has not changed,” she says. “I’m still involved in the day-to-day activities of managing and building the brand, including marketing, and also focus on flavor innovations and Noosa’s future product pipeline.”
With Noosa now sold in 25,000 stores, Thomae is constantly on the hunt for the latest food trend or flavor inspiration.
“During my recent food trek through high-dairy consumption cities – Copenhagen, Paris, San Francisco and New York – I saw savory and spicy yogurt combinations all over,” she says. “This inspired me to experiment with Noosa’s tart and sweet foundation with notes of heat, which led to the development of Blackberry Serrano Noosa, our first ‘sweet heat’ flavor.”
So convinced is the Noosa crew of “sweet heat” as the next big food trend, it’s even trademarked the term, Thomae says. Blackberry Serrano, originally rolled out just for the Colorado faithful, will see nationwide distribution this summer. And that’s just the beginning.
“When you start to think about adding light spicy heat to sweet – the combinations get exciting,” Thomae says. “Further down the pipeline, we plan to continue to deliver innovative flavors and push the boundaries of flavor combinations. No matter what, we will always focus on delivering a best-in-class taste experience.”
Noosa by the Numbers
Original number of flavors: 4
Current number of flavors: 18
Current sales: $100 million
Number of employees: 150
Number of Noosa lids used to make a Colorado state flag displayed in downtown Denver: 6,000
Number of stores that carry Noosa nationwide: 25,000
Ranking among yogurts in Colorado (based on sales): 1
Number of wild blueberries in each 8-ounce cup of Noosa’s best-selling flavor: 80