High50 Entrepreneur James Averdieck of Coconut Collaborative: You can turn a niche into big business

The founder of Gü desserts, James Averdieck, felt guilty adding more sugar to the nation’s diet and is hoping his new business, sugar-free, dairy-free coconut yoghurt, will be as successful

Chocolate has made James Averdieck rich. Specifically Gü, those delicious little pots of chocolate soufflé that come in ramekins and can almost pass at dinner parties for home-made. He sold Gü to Noble Foods in 2010 for £32.5m.

After a stint as a brand consultant, James was looking for a new project. When he came across coconut dessert company Bessant and Drury, he saw a growth opportunity: more than 13 million people are lactose intolerant in the UK.

He bought a controlling stake last year. Along with partners Steve Bessant and Ian Drury, they came up with the brand name The Coconut Collaborative.

Although Averdieck says the company is still “tiny”, its turnover this year will be £1.5 million and the yoghurt is sold in Waitrose, Ocado, Tesco, Sainsbury and Whole Foods.

A niche today can become a big business tomorrow

Even though the market for his product is currently small, there is a well-known competitor, CoYo. But James claims his product is creamer and tastier, and doesn’t feel that anyone has yet cornered the dairy-free coconut yoghurt market.

“It’s a great niche and you can turn a niche today into quite a big business tomorrow. I started Gü from nothing.”

He uses the same design agency that Gü does, and has gone for “a quirky art deco look, which is simple and appealing” for the branding.

There is a somewhat biblical feel to it: the tagline “free from dairy, but not temptation” runs under a picture of Adam and Eve either side of a palm tree. The website talks about “our mission to spread the coco-love far and wide”.

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Averdieck – who turns 50 this year and plans to celebrate on a beach in Thailand – is keen to point out that he pays farmers a fair price of £1.20 per coconut. “The big coconut-producing countries are the Philippines and Indonesia, and we buy from a plantation in Sumatra in Indonesia,” he says.

“All coconut palms grow within 30 miles of the sea. It takes five years to grow a tree, but as they are harvested all year round there is no shortage of coconut trees.

How sugar-free coconut yoghurt is made

However, Averdieck says this business is very different from his previous one. Gü was all about a complete calorie-laden indulgence, whereas The Coconut Collaborative is about being healthy and sugar-free yet still desirable.

“I worked out that [at Gü] I was adding about five million calories a week to the nation’s diet,” he says, admitting that he did feel a bit guilty.

This new dessert is a healthier option: no sugar is added, as coconut milk is naturally sweeter than cow’s milk. “We add live cultures to the milk and a rice starch to bind it together; four hours later it turns into yoghurt, [so] it is made in the same way as dairy yogurt.”

The product has a shelf life of 25 days from when it’s made to its eat-by date.

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Although not proven scientifically, there are schools of thought that say coconut fat is good for your brain. A Florida physician, Dr Mary Newport, believes a spoonful of coconut oil each day can help prevent Alzheimer’s.

Averdieck’s success has not been without mistakes. He tried to branch out into Italian ice cream while at Gü, “not because of the beautiful packaging or the taste, but because I fancied the woman selling it and therefore thought it was a great idea.

“It cost me a fortune, was not profitable, and I soon got out of ice cream.”

James Averdieck’s top tips for starting a food business

  1. Have a really good product that is different but tastes good. If the retailers get behind your business, it can grow very quickly.
  2. You don’t need an army of people to work with you if you have a good product.
  3. Stand out from the rest of the crowd with your branding and look visually interesting.
  4. Get people talking about you by creating a following on social media.
  5. Start small. London is a great place to start as most food trends start in London. If you get into Whole Foods Market you can get a good following.