This month we’re catching up with Lou Dillon, who graduated Food Science MSc in July 2019. She recently launched her small-batch, craft-brewed kombucha brand called Twisted Kombucha and made her first sale.
Lou developed the concept for Twisted Kombucha through the Food Product Development and Processing module of her course, which focuses on food analysis and food microbiology as well as product development and quality control.
She then took part in Foodie Founder (our one-day workshop that guides students and graduates through the process of launching a food or drinks business) and Launchpad (our intensive 12 week summer programme which gives passionate early-stage entrepreneurs the knowledge, tools and support needed to fast track an idea into a viable startup venture) which has put her on the path to business success.
In addition to her academic studies, Lou gained entrepreneurial knowledge while taking part in several business programmes with us here at Accelerator. We are really excited to hear that Lou is now trading her Twisted Kombucha at several markets across the capital and has recently been stocked in The Grocery, an organic and natural food store based in Shoreditch.
We recently caught up with Lou while she was doing a sampling session, to learn more about her product, stages of development, how Kombucha is made and what advice she would offer other students when looking to launch a food or drinks business.
Why did you start producing kombucha?
I started brewing Kombucha using a scoby named “Henry” which was passed on through a good friend who suggested it to aid some niggling digestive issues. I was working as a Nutritionist in the NHS and slowly found my own health was deteriorating, with long hours and unhealthy work environment, so decided to leave and head back to uni to study Food Science. I’m a foodie at heart. And during the study of the MSc I rediscovered my passion for brewing kombucha.
What is kombucha?
Kombucha is a fermented drink made from sweetened tea and a specific culture known as a SCOBY. Scoby stands for ‘symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts’. The bacteria and yeasts convert the sugar into ethanol and acetic acid. The acetic acid is what gives kombucha its distinctive sour taste.
Are there health benefits to drinking kombucha? If so, what are they?
Yes! Kombucha has many outlandish claims, but the ones that can be validated by science are related to the probiotics. All fermented foods such as yoghurts, sauerkraut and kefir all contain live microorganisms. As kombucha is the product of fermentation, probiotic bacteria are produced. I extracted Lactic Acid Bacteria from my culture in the lab at London Met, they are probiotics known to survive digestion through the stomach acid. At specific concentrations, this type of bacteria can help to balance the gut microbiome in humans and improve digestion.
Also, kombucha is high in antioxidants, which protect the bodies from oxidative damage caused by free radicals. Tea, especially green tea, is rich in a group of antioxidants called polyphenols. Kombucha also contains small amounts of vitamins and minerals, which are produced when the yeast breaks down the sugars, including vitamin C and B vitamins B1, B6 and B12.
Tell me about the production process and how long it takes to produce a batch?
Kombucha is made by introducing a SCOBY into brewed black and green tea, and sugar. The mix is left to ferment between 10-20 days. The result is a fizzy drink that can vary from sweet to vinegary, depending on how long it ferments. Fruit, herbs and spices can be added for a second fermentation, to add additional flavour.
Tell me why you decided to call it Twisted Kombucha?
After trying to name it something which resonated with me and my values, it was obvious that there are other products around the world with similar names, related to the theme of holistic wellness, yoga, raw, live and healthy. So I just picked the name twisted after a quick decision needed to be made to make labels and get it into the market. You can spend ages thinking of good product names but in the end kombucha literally is tea with a twist.
Tell me about your experience of the Foodie Founder programme last year and what you learnt from it?
Claire Brumby who facilitated the Foodie Founder was amazing; she was very knowledgable and motivating and able to explain the processes as they should unfold. She helped with planning the structure of the journey. I learned about creating a product, testing, validation, legislation, brand creation, sales and pricing etc.
I still keep the notes I took from this workshop to review and it helps get my mind focused again when I get stuck in a muddle. And when you are trying to launch a food business you will have many muddles.
Tell me about your experience while taking part in Launchpad last year and what you learnt from it?
Launchpad has helped enormously, The 12-week summer programme is structured in a way which got me thinking about how to validate and test my product, and how the financials work and also an insight into how startups work. It provided a great source of information and support for my business. It helped me to think about all the fundamental stuff needed to set up in business; from market research and identifying the gaps in the market, to then getting customer acquisition/buyers, and getting a large production made to sell at a festival during the summer.
Continuing on from Launchpad, the team at Accelerator is still helping this learning process, as they run regular courses which help with understanding the finances, marketing etc. and they’re always there to ask questions. And also have a good laugh with on some social nights when it’s time to let your hair down.
Tell us how you got your product into The Grocery?
I went there with my product and talked to Raouf, the store manager, although he didn’t drink kombucha and was a little reluctant at first as he already has a lot of kombucha stocked. He said he would let the staff taste it and wait for their feedback. They obviously liked it as he contacted me and said he would be interested to give it a try. I think he recognised my passion for the product and the unique value proposition of it being an all-natural, batch produced product and so he wanted to help out a new startup.
Where else are you currently selling Twisted Kombucha?
I sell twisted in local farmers markets such as Alexandra Palace, Stroud Green, Winchmore Hill, and the blue house yard. It is also available in a café in Muswell Hill called Stella’s Room. I have now made a deal with the Muswell Hill billy brewery to rent a workspace so now I can start to scale production out of my kitchen. So will be hitting up all my local cafes and restaurants.
What advice would you have for other London Met students looking to start a food/drinks business?
My advice is you need to be dedicated and passionate about what you produce. Because you have to keep pushing through barriers to get it to the stage of product development, trading standards, the legal part, and the operations, trying to find suppliers who only have huge MOQ’s (Minimum order quantities)
Also, while keeping an eye on the long term goal you can only do it by making really short term goals, all those small steps count. And you have to force yourself to make time for yourself and switch off. I am finding this the hardest thing to do – I have a life/work imbalance right now – But keeping this in mind is important. You need to be keeping your mental health stress levels down while enjoying the journey.
Want to start your own drinks business like Lou?