Consumers are becoming increasingly health-conscious. And increasingly environmentally conscious. And have an expectation that coffeeshops offer a plant-based alternative to cows milk. As much as they expect those coffeeshops to have free wifi. Plant-based milk alternatives have graduated from consumer trend to consumer expectation. So much so that plant-based milk alternatives have become a $2.95 billion market. A 54% rise in 5 years, according to the market research firm Mintel.
The six most popular plant-based milks almond, soy, coconut, pea, rice and oat milk.
Almond milk is the most popular plant milk, according to market research firm SPINS. It has about a quarter of the calories of cow’s milk and about 96% less saturated fat. Soy milk is the only nondairy milk that is comparable to cow’s milk in terms of nutrient balance. One cup has 6 grams of protein, 105 calories and about 89% less saturated fat than cow’s milk. Coconut milk is naturally sweet and has about half as many calories as cow’s milk and has 5 grams of saturated fats (about the same amount as cow’s milk) with no healthy unsaturated fat. Pea milk, made from yellow split peas, is high in protein (8 grams per cup) and unsweetened versions contain about half the calories of cow’s milk, and just half a gram of saturated fat. Rice milk, made from brown rice, is naturally sweet. It has slightly fewer calories than cow’s milk (115 versus 146 per cup), and no saturated fat.
But by a mile, Oat milk is the fastest growing plant milk, growing 182% since last year, according to SPINS. And it is a great alternative to whole milk. One cup of the most popular brand has little saturated fat (0.5 grams) and slightly fewer calories than whole milk (120 versus 146). The global oat milk market size is expected to reach USD 6.45 billion by 2028, according to a new report by Grand View Research, Inc. It is expected to expand at a CAGR of 14.2% from 2020 to 2028. We LOVE oat milk.
The reasons for its rise are many. More people are moving to urban areas, there is an increasing diabetic population globally, a rise in lactose intolerance, and rising concerns about food safety. In addition, there’s an increase in cardiac diseases, diabetes, obesity, and vitamin deficiency. And fun fact: oats are also more sustainable than almonds, soy, and coconut. It ticks all the boxes.
Barista’s love oat milk too. It affects the taste of espresso-based drinks much less than other plant-based alternatives (if at all). Also, and as importantly, baristas love oat milk because it steams well. So no need to forego latte art making skills.
The problem with oat milk, though, is the price. It’s an expensive added cost to your coffee order. Which then excludes a large part of the coffee drinking population. This is one of the areas where Ghost Town Oats plans to make a difference.
Specialty coffee industry veterans Michelle Johnson (The Chocolate Barista), Ezra Baker (No Free Refills Podcast), and Eric J. Grimm (Glitter Cat Barista Bootcamp), have combined their 40 plus years of industry experience to create Ghost Town Oats, a brand that will championing diversity and inclusion in the world of specialty coffee.
We spoke to co-founder, Michelle, to find out more.
Please introduce yourself to the readers
Hey! I’m Michelle R. Johnson, co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer of Ghost Town Oats. This year marks my 11th year working in the coffee industry (I say I’m “coffee adjacent” now that I’m in the plant-based industry!). A few out there know me as The Chocolate Barista, but I’ve also held positions at Red Bay Coffee, Coffee Manufactory, Barista Hustle, Sprudge, as well as consulted for Califia Farms Australia. I’ve done a little bit of everything – barista, manager, consultant, education, sales, marketing, journalism, and have built communities on and offline throughout my career. One of my most recent accomplishments was becoming the first Black woman to qualify and compete at the United States Barista Championship in 2020.
What is Ghost Town?
Ghost Town Oats is an oat milk created by baristas for everyone! We say we’re redefining the culture of oat milk and what that really means is that we’re creating a culture of our own; one that’s hyper-inclusive of different backgrounds, lifestyles, and varying attitudes around trying something new when it comes to plant-based products.
Tell us about your co-founders
We have Ezra Baker, who has his hands in a little bit of everything but focuses mainly on operations and the production side of things. He’s one of New York City’s coffee OGs having done everything from coffee sales to retail management and quality control. He also co-hosts a podcast on Sprudge called, No Free Refills with Tymika Lawrence. As a Q-grader, Ezra is our team’s resident taster and put his final stamp of approval on our current oat milk recipe!
Then there’s Eric J. Grimm, who you’ll either know also from cutting their teeth in the New York coffee scene behind the bar and managing large-scale events or as one of the people behind Glittercat Barista. They work on creating meaningful relationships with our partners that extend beyond simply providing oat milk. As we continue to grow and build the Ghost Town community, Eric will be at the forefront of that.
Finally, we have our CEO, Josh Rudolf, who’s completely new to this world of coffee and plant-based milk. He hails from the tech industry and with that comes a decade plus worth of experience in being a part of the building process of taking a company from its earliest stages to tech giant. He’s integral in making sure we scale responsibly, plus we work closely together on fundraising and creating the foundational framework that will ensure Ghost Town’s long term success.
Why did you decide to launch Ghost Town?
Josh reached out to me in 2020 to share his feelings that something was missing in the current plant-based milk market and there was a void he thought we should work together to fill. It didn’t take more than five minutes into the conversation before I knew how a new oat milk brand could differentiate itself.
I’m intimately familiar with how powerful marketing can be and have close ties to many of the marketing teams behind our competitors. No matter who I worked with, one thing was clear: inclusivity only went as deep as what you could see. Take it from someone who was used as the face for one of these brands. 😉 It surprised me that there wasn’t even an acknowledgement that communities of color have higher instances of lactose intolerance and therefore should consider plant-based milk – low-hanging fruit, if you ask me. But that was just the starting point in discovering the space we planned to take.
We acknowledge that incorporating plant-based products into your diet, in general, can be a process. Where I’m from, if a plant-based item doesn’t taste like the real animal thing, we don’t want it! So there was this recognition that most people aren’t too keen on trying something unfamiliar and perhaps we should create an oat milk that actually felt familiar, tasted and acted similar, and was just as versatile as the real thing. It reminded me of what being a specialty coffee barista is often like. We spent a lot of time educating customers on our quality standards, but the hospitality approach I took was to meet the customer where they were instead. It wasn’t my job to sell them on the 90+ complex Panamanian gesha if they came in for a vanilla latte. My job was to ensure it was the best damn one they’d ever have. That creates trust and a bridge for them to take the next step towards trying the gesha later on. We decided that’s what we want Ghost Town to be as an oat milk amongst other oat milks: a bridge.
We are proud of the fact that our oat milk doesn’t taste or feel like a far jump from cow’s milk (thanks to Ezra who still prefers it to oat). We’ve heard from many baristas that they can hardly tell the difference between Ghost Town and cow’s milk when made with coffee. We also appreciate the people, like myself, who still eat cheese and ice cream despite their lactose intolerance. Ghost Town is truly for everybody!
This is the market that isn’t being targeted by the current players in oat milk, essentially leaving them out of the conversation, albeit not totally on purpose. It is why we’re called ‘Ghost Town’ because our goal is to reach this ‘abandoned’ market and offer a premium, delicious dairy alternative that isn’t so different from what they might be used to.
You already have a pipeline of coffeeshops ready to stock Ghost Town. Why do you think there’s this pent up demand? If anyone else wants to stock your product, how do they reach you?
The demand has been WILD. Based on the feedback we’ve received so far from baristas, business owners, and cafe distributors alike, I believe it’s been high time for a product they can meaningfully connect with and receive more of a transparent view on what’s going on behind the curtain. While we’re pretty humble about who we are, it also can’t be understated there are literal industry leaders behind this brand – ones who’ve championed diversity, inclusivity, and inspired coffee professionals around the world! I think people are extremely stoked to support us and once they taste it, they can’t believe how well it steams, how great it plays with coffee, and how bomb it tastes on its own.
Right now, we’re available for coffee companies and food/beverage businesses to order in California, Arizona, and Chicago. We have plans to expand nationally by 2023 and internationally shortly after! For questions about stocking, becoming a distribution partner, or wholesale inquiries, email email@example.com.
At the time of answering this, how far are you from reaching your goal on WeFunder?
We have about $800k more in investments we’re looking to raise. This will help cover costs for future production runs, operational expenses, and lastly, establish payroll for ourselves!
The community round has been an exciting thing for us because it’s allowing everyone we know, especially those in the coffee community, to own a small part of this company. That’s huge for us since we were all baristas that played a big part in introducing oat milk to American consumers, making it the popular choice that it is today. Through investing on WeFunder, we can share our success with the very people using the product, and they can support knowing it’ll come back around! The minimum investment size is only $100 and those micro-investments definitely add up.
What difference do you think it makes that this is a barista-owned oat milk company?
Honestly, it makes all the difference. We have to acknowledge that plant-based milk companies have done incredible work supporting the coffee community – we ourselves have been on the receiving end of that support in various ways. But I think our approach to business, including go-to-market strategy, thoughtfully scaling, community building, and creating genuine a feeling that this product can be for you, is all directly informed by the fact that we’re not far removed at all from being full-time coffee professionals. Hell, we’re still pulling barista shifts here and there to get by.
So with that said, we’re always keeping in mind how best to serve and honor where we came from with Ghost Town; centering first and foremost, baristas and the barista experience, but still remaining hospitality-focused as we continue to heavily consider the general consumer. It’s all an accountability measure for us to grow responsibly and not at the expense of independent businesses and communities we are bred from.
What’s your business roadmap?
As mentioned above, Ghost Town Oats is officially available through certain cafe distributors in California, Arizona, and Chicago. It’s in our plans to expand that availability to other underserved markets in the States, as well as major ones like the Pacific Northwest and New York by the beginning of next year. The focus is on business-to-business relationships for now. We’re doing everything possible to avoid supply interruptions and that means taking our time with expansion.
That said, we’re building our webstore to sell oat milk and limited run merchandise directly to consumers. You’ll begin to see over time Ghost Town lifestyle products pop up – the “Lil Ghosts” are too cute not to rock!
In the next 1-2 years, we plan to infiltrate the convenience and grocery market. We think making our premium oat milk widely accessible will help further along mass adoption of plant-based products and reach more people. In about 2-3 years time, our goal is to introduce RTD products. We already have recipes in our personal arsenal we’re excited to test out on a larger scale.
Hopefully by year 5, we can start the real work of streamlining our own supply chain. Offering baristas and everyday people the opportunity to invest in us isn’t the only way we want to spread the oat milk market share that’s slated to value at $6.45B by 2028. We want to include Black American farmers in that and invest in them to start farming oats. If there’s anything we’ve learned from being specialty coffee professionals, it’s how possible it can be to create an equitable, transparent value chain. We won’t stop until we’ve reached these goals, and far beyond.
Michelle Johnson, The Chocolate Barista, is the first Black woman to qualify for US Barista Championship, a two-time Re:Co Symposium Speaker and the 2016 winner of the Sprudgie Award for the Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence.
If you’d like to be part of the Ghost Town mission, support them on WeFunder here.