Bio-tiful Dairy has witnessed some impressive sales growth since the UK manufacturer of kefir cultured milk products started out six years ago, suggesting British consumers are waking up to the health benefits of the nutritionally-rich category. just-food’s Simon Harvey caught up with head of marketing Katie Norris to see what the company has in store.

After moving to London, Natasha Bowes, a former Russian figure skater, believed she saw a gap in the UK market for quality kefir milk products and in 2012 set about creating a business to fill that void.

Since she started marketing the Bio-tiful kefir milk drink in 2013, the company has experienced average annual sales growth of more than 250%, and last year the business surged by over 350% to realise a turnover of GBP4.1m (US$5.7m).

After introducing a number of new products, the latest being the launch of Bio-tiful Quark in February, Bowes and her team are now in the process of pursuing exports to western Europe. 

While kefir has been around for centuries and has long been enjoyed in Russia and other Eastern European countries, parts of Asia and the US, Bio-tiful head of marketing Katie Norris says UK consumers have been relatively slow to realise the benefits.

It is unclear why when kefir drinks contain live cultures and billions of gut-friendly bacteria, which, Bio-tiful says makes the product a more powerful probiotic source than yogurt. Kefir is also rich in a host of vitamins and minerals, including B2, B12 and D, as well as calcium and magnesium. It is also gluten-free, low in lactose and has no added sugar.

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“It’s just the fact that the UK has been a bit behind,” Norris explains. “I think it’s our attitude towards dairy and we’ve just grown up having a different mentality towards it. I think we have become trapped in this very sugary world, especially in England.”

Norris has been at Bio-tiful for two years since reaching out to Bowes after seeing the founder’s appearance on the BBC television programme Dragons Den, a launchpad for small business start-ups seeking investment.

Bowes was unsuccessful in securing investment for Bio-tiful on that occasion and Norris said she could not comment on any investments the firm might have received. She also declined to offer any earnings forecast for 2018.

Beyond targeting exports to western Europe this year and seeking to secure business in the foodservice sector, Norris says the company plans to focus on the wider dairy market through new products to add to its range of kefir milk drinks, baked kefir milk drinks known as Riazhenka, smoothies and kefir quark, which was the firm’s first venture into non-liquid dairy items.

“We want to be a dairy staple,” she adds. ”If you think of every dairy product out there, we want to create a version of that, that’s healthier, high quality and probiotic. If you think of the dairy shelves at the moment, we would always go down the natural, wholesome route. We are never going to be someone to create lots of flavours and add stuff to it, it’s all about the natural and genuine health benefits of a pure dairy product.”

Bio-tiful employs around 12 to 14 full-time workers spread across operations, sales and marketing, and has two production facilities located in Dorset and Wiltshire. Norris says the company is selling 130,000 bottles of its products a week from its entire range.

The company has gone from providing niche, organic and independent food shops to having listings in the major supermarkets, including Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Marks and Spencer, along with online retailer Ocado. 

Norris was coy on Bio-tiful’s plans for new products, and would only say: “We have very exciting NPD plans for the next three years as we strive to offer the highest quality, best tasting and most nutritious dairy products in the UK.”

It is also about to launch a major nationwide advertising campaign in May, with more retailer listings to announce in the next “couple of weeks”, Norris says. “Growth has been phenomenal, to be honest. If you look at our sales chart it’s literally been like that,” she says, gesturing her hands upwards. “We are in a really unique position, we were the fastest-selling UK dairy drinks company last year.”

That said, Bio-tiful is looking to move into markets beyond the UK and Ireland this year, although Norris would not be drawn into revealing specific countries other than saying they would be within western Europe, and ”potentially” further afield in the future. “The wheels are in motion now,” she adds.

Norris explained the difficulties in expanding too far geographically lay with kefir’s natural characteristics in that it has a relatively short shelf life of just over a month. Still, the company has received interest from customers in Australia and, closer to home, consumers are calling for the creation of new versions of its original kefir.

So with new exports markets on the horizon, Brexit could potentially pose a challenge to Bio-tiful going forward, but for the time being it is not a concern.

“At this point, we haven’t got massive concerns but we are very aware of it,” Norris says. “As we are looking to export, obviously it’s going to play a much bigger role, so we are just going to have to see how it plays out.”