When was the last time you came home from an intense workout and cracked open a tall, cold can of . . . chocolate milk?
“Never” would be an appropriate answer. But a pair of Boston entrepreneurs hope to change that this month, with a new brand of canned chocolate milk called Slate.
If starting a company to disrupt dairy consumption habits seems a little strange, it’s worth noting that the fast-growing yogurt company Chobani, founded only in 2005, has about $1.5 billion in annual sales. And last year Land O’Lakes launched an “accelerator program” in Minnesota for dairy entrepreneurs working on products such as organic ice creams and new kinds of cheese spreads.
Slate cofounder Josh Belinsky acknowledges that “when you tell people about your chocolate milk startup, they laugh.” Especially because he and his cofounder, Manny Lubin, began their careers working at tech startups. The Northeastern University alums bonded over a shared affinity for chocolate milk. But they found it perplexing that it wasn’t a beverage adults drink regularly. As Lubin puts it, “You wouldn’t walk into a business meeting carrying a container of kids’ chocolate milk.”
So they started interviewing fellow millennials — as well as older adults — about why they didn’t drink chocolate milk.
“We asked questions like ‘Do you like the taste?’ and ‘When was the last time you had one?’ ” Lubin says. “Most people said they couldn’t really remember. So the next question we asked was, ‘Why?’ ”
The same issues kept coming up, Lubin recalls.
The first was brand. “Everything is marketed toward kids,” he says. “There’s TruMoo, Yoo-hoo, and so on.”
The second was lactose intolerance or sensitivity. “Lactose can make people feel off or slow,” Lubin says. (He and Belinsky say they are lactose intolerant.)
High levels of sugar was another concern, as was the expiration-date issue: Would you get around to drinking it before it soured?
They researched ways to address those issues, including a process called ultrafiltration, which reduces the amount of sugar and lactose in milk while retaining protein.
Putting the product in a can and using steam to sterilize it would also stretch its shelf life.
Belinsky and Lubin decided to start a company in May and began the process of raising about $100,000 from individual investors. They hired a consulting firm to help them formulate the final product.
The duo went through about 100 iterations of the three flavors that Slate will be launched with: Classic Chocolate, Dark Chocolate, and Mocha Flip, which contains 150 milligrams of caffeine — about the same as in a Starbucks grande cappuccino.
They say the product will stay drinkable for about a year.
And it uses the natural sweetener monk fruit to maintain the right level of sweetness.
The brand Slate, Belinsky explains, suggests “giving milk a clean slate. People don’t like the level of sugar or lactose in real milk. We want to give it a refresh or a reboot.”
They know they’ll be competing against big established brands like Nestlé and Danone (which owns New Hampshire-based Stonyfield Farms). But Belinsky contends “millennials want to support brands that are the underdog, and they like the startup approach to things.”
“It seems like everyone is reimagining ‘milk’ these days — coconut milk, oat milk, almond milk, soy milk, and now real milk without the lactose,” says Jen Faigel, executive director of Commonwealth Kitchen, a Boston nonprofit that supports food entrepreneurs. “Nut milks were a crazy niche product a few years ago, but now they’re mainstream. Shelf-stable milk is a new one. It seems like an interesting innovation, although it requires a lot of consumer education.”
And educating consumers about how the product is different requires time and marketing money. Just because a product is on store shelves or is available on the Internet is no guarantee of success, Lauren Abda notes: “If the product isn’t supported with the right marketing initiatives, sampling demos, coupons, and more, it is difficult to . . . get consumers to try something new.” Abda runs Branchfood, a Boston-based community for food entrepreneurs, and she has been following Slate’s development.
Abda notes that while coffee brands such as La Colombe, Starbucks, and High Brew have successfully sold cold coffee in cans, “it remains to be seen how consumers react to drinking milk from a can, and what the drinking occasion will be.” After the gym? As a dessert alternative?
Among the company’s early investors is Stu Klane, a retired food broker who lives in Canton and has relationships with many of the region’s supermarket operators.
“Most young entrepreneurs don’t know how to sell the product into a supermarket chain, and they don’t have any money,” Klane says. “Those are the two things that stop young entrepreneurs. When I go and invest, I help them.”
In the past, Klane helped expand distribution for brands like Boca Burger and Chobani. “Everybody has a Greek yogurt now — all the brands have it,” he says. “But there’s a void for what Josh and Manny have got. Nobody has this.”
Slate is planning to launch a funding campaign on the website Kickstarter this month. It’s aiming to raise $10,000 from interested customers so they can do an initial production run of Slate’s three flavors and begin shipping product in the summer. The campaign will offer a six-pack with two of each flavor for $20. (That’s about $3.30 per 11-ounce can.)
Is there untapped demand for chocolate milk in a can? They’ll soon find out.