Has yogurt ever made you reevaluate your life plans?
It did for Koel Thomae. She was enjoying a trip back home in Australia after spending a few years traveling the Western U.S., eventually settling in Boulder. She was walking home from the beach with her now-husband, when she stopped into a corner shop and spotted a tub of yogurt with a bright passionfruit topping. She tried it, and it set off a series of events that led Thomae to the top of a $170 million yogurt company, Noosa Yoghurt.
The meteoric rise of Noosa may indicate it’s been a bumpless, quick ride. But it really starts when Thomae was a child.
Thomae grew up in Australia. Her mother, an American, and her father, a Canadian, were both entrepreneurs who made the switch to owning their own businesses later in life. That resonated with Thomae.
“My dad did a lot of different things in his career, and he ultimately started his own wildlife guiding company,” Thomae says in her thick Australian accent. “My mum started in education and she sort of pivoted into having her own craft business. … So I think I had parents that maybe had started on a more traditional path and were willing to sort of pivot and create their own destiny.”
Happiness was the motivating factor for her parents’ career moves, Thomae says, and the idea that one shouldn’t become stuck in something they don’t love doing was ingrained in her from childhood.
“I think that really gave me that freedom to do a lot of different things and not get caught up in the mainstream rush of ‘you have to know what you’re going to do for the rest of your life at 17 years old,’” Thomae says.
So at the end of her time in college, Thomae, “like most good Australians,” went on what’s known as a walkabout — an extended trip to various places outside Australia to “travel and work and really just have fun.” Thomae made stops in Eugene, Moab and Missoula before arriving in Boulder in 2000. By the time she’d been on her walkabout for four years, she was working at an IT company and the weight of unfulfilling work was beginning to weigh on her.
“I sort of just did some soul searching as to what I wanted to do with my life and IT certainly was not it,” Thomae says. “As I was really thinking about what I [wanted to do], it all came back to food.”
Being in the natural-foods bubble that is Boulder County proved advantageous for Thomae’s move into a career that highlighted a passion for food she’s had since she was young. Despite being completely indiscriminate about the type of job or company within natural foods she was looking for, Thomae says it took three years to actually break into the industry and get a job. Quickly, though, she worked her way up to a supervisor position at IZZE, the Boulder-based beverage company. It was during her time there that she took the trip to Australia where she tasted the revelatory yogurt — rich, tart, sweet. It barely tasted like yogurt, and it was like nothing she had eaten before, even though it was right there in her home country.
“I think when you’re an ex-pat, you definitely become a little more excited about the things you find in your homeland, probably because you know you’re not going to be able to eat them again for another year,” Thomae says. “Later that day, I was telling my mum about the yogurt and she said, ‘Why don’t you call the yogurt company? And I’m like, ‘What, and tell them that their yogurt’s delicious?’ She said, ‘Yeah, why not?’”
So Thomae called, and she told the owners she was interested in bringing the yogurt to the U.S., given her experience in the industry in Boulder County. There was no deal made that day, and so for the next two years, she worked at IZZE, still thinking about that yogurt.
“I did my own little mini-thesis on yogurt and what was going on, tasting everything I could get my hands on to see if I could find something close to this yogurt, and there just wasn’t anything,” Thomae says. “So fast forward to 2007, I’m heading back to Australia and my boss at IZZE says, ‘Will you please call this company back because you’re driving us crazy. You need to figure out something with this yogurt because you won’t stop talking about it.’”
Thomae reconvened with the Australian yogurt makers and, after a few beers, left with a loose agreement to share the recipe and some of the technical bits on how to produce it. Getting to that point seemed like a milestone, but it’s really when the obstacles began. Learning the rules and regulations of producing dairy products was the first hurdle.
“The state health inspector is a very dry man, and he basically sent me packing,” Thomae says. “He said, ‘You know what, until you understand the pasteurized milk ordinance (which is a massive document which governs everything around dairy), you have no business thinking about starting a yogurt company.’”
Thomae, an admitted CliffsNotes user, says the document made her want to cry. Yet, she decided a better process would be to find a partner in the dairy industry who had a better understanding and experience with dairy production in the state. That man was Rob Graves, a fourth-generation farmer outside Fort Collins. Thomae cold-called Graves after seeing that his farm produced the dairy for Spruce Confections. Thomae then visited Graves at the farm, but figured her motives seemed a little out there without a sample of the yogurt.
“So I had my mom ship some of the yogurt from Australia. I can’t even remember how we got the product through customs,” Thomae says. “So, very determined, I went back out once I had the yogurt … and so Rob tasted the yogurt and he literally was just like, ‘This is not yogurt,’ and we decided to go into business together.”
Graves, whose farm was already producing milk, had some key infrastructure already built into his business: a production area, distribution channels to grocery stores and means of transportation. That helped expedite Noosa’s growth. Meanwhile, Thomae and Graves sold five-gallon tubs of the yogurt at Boulder and Fort Collins farmers’ markets, where people clamoring for samples constituted “a mob scene.” At a time when most yogurts, and nearly all food products, were boasting low-fat and alternative ingredients, Noosa came in full-fat, whole milk and, clearly, people responded immediately.
Scaling up provided new challenges — what equipment to buy, how to ensure quality, how much to produce. Thomae says she relied on her former colleagues at IZZE and other producers in the area as a resource, which is indicative of how the broader Boulder County food scene supports young businesses like Noosa.
“It just doesn’t exist other places,” Thomae says of the support from Boulder County food businesses. “I travel across the country and people talk about relocating their businesses to this county because of the success they see of other brands and how quickly they can make that transition [from local to national].”
In 2014, Thomae and Graves sold the company to equity firm Advent International, but they still own a significant minority stake and produce the product on Graves’ farm. Perhaps more importantly for Thomae, she now gets to eat the yogurt more than once a year.
“I’m just grateful that I stopped in at the corner shop and followed my stomach and my dreams,” she says.