When Rachel Nolan left her high-flying job working with Condé Nast – the publisher of Vogue – she knew she was looking for a more fulfilling career. However, she probably didn’t envisage that her next move would see her build an international brand on the back of frozen avocados.
Her new venture started off small. Around eight years ago, Nolan and her husband Brian set up their first stall in Rathfarnham’s Marlay Park food market. Nolan had developed an ice cream – made using avocados instead of milk, aimed at Ireland’s growing vegan population.
Nolan has fond memories of those early days – from waking up in the early hours of the weekend to whip up a fresh batch of avocado ice cream in her kitchen, to the customers that backed her and Brian’s vision. Those early customers provided the motivation and support that helped NoBó (a play on the word no and the Irish word for cow) become the international brand it is today.
“There were a couple of customers who just really believed in us – and that was quite powerful,” says Nolan. “There was a guy who bought a couple of tubs off us, and then just came back and handed us a €50 note.
“I went to give him the change, but he said ‘Just keep it.’ He said he wanted to put that into the business, that he believed in what we do and felt we were onto something great.
“He was just a young guy in his 20s,” she adds. “It was the moments like that, where at the end of the day you just think ‘This is amazing.’ People can be such amazing support.”
Building up that early support was critical in getting the NoBó brand, which now also sells dairy-free chocolate, to where it is today. Its ice cream is available in flavours including fresh lemon and salted caramel, while its chocolate is available in flavours including mint crunch and orange.
Maintaining the brand’s ethos, despite the challenge from other larger rivals, has proven essential.
“There is integrity in the brand,” says Nolan. Investors and big-name international retailers agree.
Earlier this year, Nolan and her husband secured backing from food-focused investment fund BiaVest, formed by two of Ireland’s leading 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, says Nolan, who adds the access to expertise has already proven invaluable.
“It is really exciting for us,” says Nolan. “We have had so many ideas of where we want to take the brand and innovations – this really allows us to accomplish them.”
Nolan says NoBó will now look to kickstart its European expansion through the Netherlands, where it already has an online presence.
Though Europe will prove important, Canada is set to be a significant market for NoBó – and in fact it already is its largest. It recently secured a new Canadian distributor, Horizon, and a game-changing listing with Amazon-owned Wholefoods Canada. It will start selling there in the “next week or two”, Nolan says.
“The Wholefoods deal is a bit of a showcase,” she says. “It’s the kind of listing you want to get, as you can attract other listings. There is a big opportunity there for our chocolate.”
It’s not just a blockbuster listing that has Nolan tasting success. NoBó is opening an outlet in Ranelagh. It plans to open the store toward the end of October.
Nolan says the new space, designed by her brother-in-law’s architecture practice Sketch Architects, will be more than just a NoBó retail outlet. It will also be an office and a chocolate R&D lab for limited releases.
“It’s an exciting space for creativity and all the things we talked about over the years,” she says. “We can channel all of them into that space.”
Growing up in Dublin, a taste for chocolate was something Nolan was known for. Her dad, Tom Flynn, worked for Cadbury.
“When we had birthday parties, we used to get boxes of Cadbury chocolates and hang it from the tree in our garden,” she says. “We used to have this massive chocolate tree that I was kind of known for.
“He was a massive fan of chocolate. Unfortunately, he passed away before us starting this business. We often think about him and how we ended up with a chocolate business.”
Following school, Nolan studied communication and media at DCU before moving to LA for seven months in 2005 for her first stint with Condé Nast, as an editorial assistant. After that spell, she headed back to Dublin to complete a master’s degree in advertising at TU Dublin (then called the Dublin Institute of Technology).
Post-DIT, Nolan worked for nearly two years with McConnells Integrated, the Dublin advertising agency. However, a desire to return to the US – this time to New York – remained high on the agenda for Nolan and her husband Brian.
Nolan initially joined the Weight Watchers marketing team in New York, before moving to Condé Nast Digital in 2010. She worked with Vogue.com and dealt with high-end clients such as Burberry, creating digital content and ad campaigns.
Despite the glamour of working with such brands, she felt unfulfilled. 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, and settled on the food sector. So in 2011 the pair decided to pack in their jobs and move to Italy, to work in exchange for room and board at a guesthouse and restaurant in the Emilia-Romagna region, near Bologna.
The experience was pivotal, says Nolan, in 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 it was kind of crazy,” she says. “It was very different from a desk job in New York.”
In 2012, after six months at the guesthouse, Rachel and Brian returned to Dublin. Inspired by nutrition, various diets, and the food scene experience in New York, Rachel noticed that Dublin had limited dairy-free options. The duo started playing with various ideas at home.
Initially, Rachel looked at developing a range of strawberry or chocolate-flavoured almond milk. “Shelf-life proved a challenge there,” she says.
Not long after the failed attempts with almond milk, Nolan had an idea to freeze a chocolate mousse she made from avocados. After a bit of help on the branding, NoBó was born. The Nolans had their first business.
Having started life in Marlay Park and Dun Laoghaire food markets, the business thrived.
NoBó secured a place on the Bord Bia-backed Food Works programme. While there, Nolan became aware the ability to scale the business would be tied with how much the company could manufacture consistently. The Nolans set about to find a manufacturing partner for NoBó’s avocado ice cream – a challenge she admits was not easy.
“Finding a partner was the biggest hurdle in terms of getting it to market,” she says.
Not long after securing its ice cream manufacturing partner in Co Wicklow, NoBó made a big step. It secured its first nationwide listing with Supervalu in 2014 and soon made international moves in the UAE and Canada.
Another significant moment for NoBó was the launch of its dairy-free chocolate around three years ago. It cut to the heart of what NoBó was all about – healthy treats and the reinvention of classic junk food.
Boosted by an early contract stocking Circle K outlets, the chocolate now accounts for around 70pc of sales.
“The chocolate has overtaken the ice cream. We see huge growth on that side of the business,” Nolan says.
During Covid, they were initially hit by supply chain challenges but soon bounced back. In fact, says Nolan, Covid led to large retailers supporting and stocking more Irish brands.
“I think there are great opportunities,” she says. “Between Brexit and Covid, there’s a lot of focus on local suppliers. It’s a great time, and we are really trying to grow our distribution so we can take advantage, and be in more shops in more areas.”
As Nolan looks to bolster NoBó’s presence in all markets, she is aware of an ever-growing challenge.
Big food businesses are now embracing vegan items. Mars launched a range of vegan chocolate under its Galaxy brand, while ice cream makers Ben & Jerry’s has also launched a range of non-dairy products.
Nolan says NoBó will continue to innovate, an important pillar of the company. She has plans for nut butter products, as well as stocking whipped ice cream at its new retail outlet.
“Innovation is where our brand started. We were doing something very different,” she says. “We are eager to keep driving that innovation.”
Despite the new retail unit, winning over big-name investors and securing an exciting listing with Whole Foods Canada, Nolan still feels like NoBó is at the beginning of its 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, to be a significant player in the health food arena,” she says. “That journey is really only starting. Now that we have the resources in place, it is really exciting to be able to go for it.”