From IT to oat milk, Bjorn Oste started working with his oat milk-inventing brother Rickard in the 1990s to build Oatly, the hugely successful, Sweden-born oat milk company, known for its quirky marketing campaigns, and more recently for selling out in major grocery stores at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. It even outsold hand sanitizer at one point.
Oatly is in many ways a poster child for the alternative dairy movement despite oat milk being the new kid on the block — both soy milk and almond milk date back to the 13th century — with a passionate following. It started out focusing on food service, namely barristers at coffee shops wanting to offer consumers new dairy alternatives, and later became a retail product. Now it has several versions of the milk product and also ice cream, which I’ve tried and YUM to the strawberry! Oatly appears to have kept competition at bay — not sure I know many (any?) other oat milk brands, do you? — and its brand marketing really is on point; the website and social channels are actually fun to read. It has also renewed its focus on sustainability and environmentalism over the years, including producing a sustainability report.
I met Bjorn at the excellent Sustainology Summit in New York last November, thanks to the Swedish-American Chamber of Commerce, and invited him to be a guest on the podcast, to dig into the development of this amazing business and also his own thinking about the food system. He isn’t a strict vegan but he has some very strong views about the traditional dairy industry, and is extremely candid which makes for a fun conversation!
We recorded this just as the pandemic was kicking off and before that oat milk rush so you’ll hear limited conversations about that but what’s really cool is how he answers the question I try to ask all guests, which is how they view the future food system in 2050. A lot of what he says now feels extra relevant given the challenges Covid-19 has presented and the ways in which the food system has had to adapt.
We also talk about his new food ventures, which include Good Idea Drinks, a healthier drink brand with a focus on reducing the onslaught of diabetes in this country. And we hear about how he transitioned from IT to food in the 1990s. This is an extra special and slightly longer edition of Future Food, but please hang in there as there are a lot of great insights!
As always, thanks so much for listening.
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Want more relevant episodes? I spoke to the founder of pea milk producer Ripple Foods who also heralded from another industry entirely. Listen here.