Rachel Nolan enjoys the sweet taste of success with NoBó newspaper-free candy brand
When Rachel Nolan left her top-flight position working with Condé Nast – the editor of Vogue – she knew she was looking for a more fulfilling career. However, she probably hadn’t considered that her next move would see her build an international brand on the backs of frozen avocados.
His new business started small. About eight years ago, Nolan and her husband Brian set up their first stall at the Marlay Park food market in Rathfarnham.. Nolan had developed an ice cream – made with avocados instead of milk, intended for Ireland’s growing vegan population.
Nolan has fond memories of those early days – from waking up in the early hours of the weekend to make a new batch of avocado ice cream in her kitchen, to the patrons who supported her and Brian’s. These early clients provided the motivation and support that helped NoBó (a play on the word no and the Irish word for cow) to become the international brand it is today.
“There were a few clients who really believed in us – and it was pretty powerful,” says Nolan. “There was a guy who bought us a few bathtubs, then came back and handed us a € 50 bill.
“I went to give him change, but he said, ‘Just keep it. He said he wanted to put this into the business, that he believed in what we were doing and felt like we were on to something big.
“He was just a young man in his twenties,” she adds. “It was times like that, where at the end of the day you just think, ‘This is amazing.’ People can be an incredible support.
Strengthening this early support was essential in bringing the NoBó brand, which now also sells dairy-free chocolate, to where it is today. Its ice cream is available in flavors such as fresh lemon and salted caramel, while its chocolate is available in flavors such as crunchy mint and orange.
Maintaining the brand’s ethics, despite the challenge of other big rivals, has proven to be essential.
“There is integrity in the brand,” says Nolan. Investors and large international retailers agree.
Earlier this year, Nolan and her husband secured backing from food-focused investment fund BiaVest, formed by two of Ireland’s top food executives, former Valeo Foods Ireland boss Hilliard Lombard, and Java Republic founder David McKernan. The investment will help NoBó accelerate its growth into new products and new international markets, said Nolan, who adds that access to expertise has already proved invaluable.
“It’s really exciting for us,” says Nolan. “We’ve had so many ideas about where we want to take the brand and the innovations – it really allows us to accomplish them.”
Nolan says NoBó will now look to launch its European expansion in the Netherlands, where it already has an online presence.
While Europe will prove to be important, Canada is fast becoming an important market for NoBó – and in fact, it is already its largest. It recently secured a new Canadian distributor, Horizon, and a breakthrough listing with Wholefoods Canada, owned by Amazon. It will start selling there in “the next week or two,” says Nolan.
“The Wholefoods deal is a bit of a showcase,” she says. “This is the kind of ad you want to get because you can attract more ads. There is a great opportunity here for our chocolate.
It’s not just a hit list that has Nolan’s tasting success. NoBó opens a point of sale in Ranelagh. He plans to open the store around the end of October.
Nolan says the new space, designed by his brother-in-law’s architectural firm, Sketch Architects, will be more than just a NoBó outlet. It will also be an office and a chocolate R&D laboratory for limited outings.
“It’s an exciting space for creativity and all the things we’ve talked about over the years,” she says. “We can all channel them into this space. ”
Growing up in Dublin, Nolan was known for his taste for chocolate. His father, Tom Flynn, worked for Cadbury.
“When we had birthday parties we used to buy boxes of Cadbury chocolates and hang them on the tree in our garden,” she says.. “We used to have this huge chocolatier that I was sort of known for.
“He was a huge fan of chocolate. Uunfortunately he passed away before we started this business. We often think about him and how we ended up with a chocolate business.
After school, Nolan studied Communication and Media at DCU before moving to Los Angeles for seven months in 2005 for her first stint at Condé Nast, as an editorial assistant. After this fate, she returned to Dublin to complete a Masters in Advertising at TU Dublin (then called Dublin Institute of Technology).
After DIT, Nolan worked for almost two years with McConnells Integrated, the Dublin advertising agency. However, the desire to return to the United States – this time to New York – remained a priority for Nolan and her husband Brian.
Nolan first joined the Weight Watchers marketing team in New York, before joining Condé Nast Digital in 2010. She worked with Vogue.com and dealt with high-end clients such as Burberry, creating digital content. and advertising campaigns.
Despite the glamor of working with such brands, she felt unsatisfied. Neither she nor her husband, who worked in finance, could shake the desire to start and share a business.
The couple used to talk about product concepts in New York City, and settled on the food sector. So, in 2011, the couple decided to pack their bags and move to Italy, to work in exchange for a room and board in a guesthouse and restaurant in the Emilia-Romagna region, near Bologna.
The experience was crucial, says Nolan, helping the two understand the ins and outs of a family business.
“People had a perception of us, so telling them we were moving to Italy to go work in a restaurant… well, I think people thought that was a little crazy,” she says. “It was very different from an office job in New York.”
In 2012, after six months at the guesthouse, Rachel and Brian returned to Dublin. Inspired by nutrition, a variety of diets, and the experience of the New York City dining scene, Rachel noticed that Dublin had limited dairy-free options. The duo started playing around with various ideas at home.
Initially, Rachel sought to develop a line of strawberry or chocolate almond milk. “Shelf life has proven to be a challenge there,” she says.
Shortly after the unsuccessful attempts with almond milk, Nolan came up with the idea of freezing a chocolate mousse she made from avocados. After a little help with branding, NoBó was born. The Nolans had their first business.
Having started life in the food markets of Marlay Park and Dun Laoghaire, the business flourished.
NoBó obtained a place in the Food Works program supported by Bord Bia. There, Nolan realized that the ability to scale the business would be tied to how much the business could consistently manufacture. The Nolans set out to find a manufacturing partner for NoBó’s avocado ice cream – a challenge she admits was not easy.
“Finding a partner has been the biggest obstacle in bringing it to market,” she says.
Shortly after securing his ice cream maker partner in Co Wicklow, NoBó has taken a big step. He got his first nationwide listing with Supervalu in 2014 and quickly made international moves to the UAE and Canada.
Another big moment for NoBó was the launch of its dairy-free chocolate about three years ago. It went to the heart of what NoBó was – healthy treats and the reinvention of classic junk food.
Boosted by an early storage contract for Circle K outlets, chocolate now accounts for around 70pc of sales.
“The chocolate has passed the ice cream. We are seeing tremendous growth on this side of the business, ”said Nolan.
During Covid, they were first hit by supply chain challenges, but quickly rebounded. In fact, says Nolan, Covid has led major retailers to support and stock more Irish brands.
“I think there are great opportunities,” she said. “Between Brexit and Covid, the focus is on local suppliers. It’s a great time, and we’re really trying to grow our distribution so that we can take advantage of it and be in more stores in more areas.
As Nolan seeks to strengthen NoBó’s presence in all markets, she is aware of an ever-increasing challenge.
Big food companies are now embracing vegan items. Mars launched a line of vegan chocolate under its Galaxy brand, while Ben & Jerry’s ice cream parlors also launched a line of non-dairy products.
Nolan says NoBó will continue to innovate, an important pillar of the business. She has plans for nut butter products, as well as stocking whipped ice cream at her new outlet.
“Innovation is the starting point of our brand. We were doing something very different, ”she says. “We look forward to continuing to drive this innovation. “
Despite the new retail unit, winning over large investors and securing an exciting listing with Whole Foods Canada, Nolan still feels like NoBó is at the start of his journey. Having reflected on growth over the past eight years, she knows where she wants NoBó to be next.
“Brian and I have a vision for NoBó to be a global brand, a major player in the health food business,” she says. “This journey is really just beginning. Now that we have the resources in place, it’s really exciting to be able to go. “