Oat Milk Nation: How COVID Changed How We Drink
Before the pandemic, oat milk was on the rise — now it’s everywhere.
In March, as coronavirus began its spread, photos depicting the rapidly shutting down globe disseminated: Once bustling streets were now empty. Playgrounds were closed, crime scene-tape wrapped protectively around jungle gyms and swing sets. Supermarket shelves, once laden with goods, were now barren. There was panic that the supply line would be compromised, that shops might shut down completely, that the lockdown would be unimaginably severe. Doom-shopping hit its peak, and there was a run on staples as people began hoarding the things they absolutely couldn’t live without: Toilet paper. Canned beans. Yeast. Flour. Oat milk. Oat milk?
“Sales of oat milk have been increasing more than toilet paper and hand sanitizer,” Christina Dorr Drake told me when we spoke in late April, over the phone. Along with her husband, Russell Drake, and sister, Elena Zienda, Dorr Drake launched an oat milk company, Willa’s, this spring, just as the pandemic tightened its grip on the world. While most small business owners were sent into a tailspin as general economic uncertainty and consumer anxiety reached a peak, there were a few that were actually thriving — or poised to do so.
Willa’s was one of them. In many ways, Willa’s was in an extremely advantageous position for a company in its early stages: Not only were they producing a product that everyone wanted, but they were new enough that they still had the flexibility to pivot and adapt their business plan as needed. And that was, in fact, exactly what was needed; only instead of small tweaks, a comprehensive reimagining had to take place.
“We were about to go into a major production run and launch with a major coffee distributor,” Dorr Drake said. “We were getting ready for this huge launch where we were going to be sending out truckloads of products — and it was all focused on offices and food services. We were also doing events three times a week in offices and coworking spaces.” This was all pre-pandemic, of course, before everything became unrecognizable. “The point at which it changed,” Dorr Drake said, “was kind of slow and fast at the same time.”
The same thing could be said about the rise of oat milk, which was first introduced to the public at-large in 2016. Though some brands, like Pacific Foods, have sold it since the mid-1990s, oat milk only started reaching the masses here four years ago, when Swedish company Oatly brought its product to North American shores. But in that short time, oat milk has not only become a staple for many pandemic-driven shoppers, but also a much-demanded addition to coffee shops and grocery stores around the country. The recent announcement by Starbucks that it would begin carrying oat milk was met with great fanfare — the same thing happened in 2019, when Dunkin’ Donuts started offering oat milk and Trader Joe’s released their house-brand.
Non-dairy milks have been sky-rocketing in popularity for well over a decade now; whereas, in the ‘90s, it was a rite of passage for famous people to appear in a “Got milk?” campaign, now celebrities like Natalie Portman and Jay Z are investing millions into funding Oatly. Suddenly, being an adult who admits to drinking a glass of milk once in a while amounts to having a dirty secret.
Shame, unfortunately, drives a lot of the conversations around our food choices, and there is no small element of it involved in society’s move away from animal-based products and toward plant-based ones. For some, it’s related to personal health concerns: Milk might not actually be as beneficial as we're led to believe (shocking, I know), so opting for non-dairy milk feels like a way to stay nutritionally virtuous, something that goes hand-in-hand with the “clean” eating trend of the last few years. Then too, some people’s “milk shame” might stem from the knowledge that factory farming is a leading cause of climate change, and so they’re trying to do the right thing for the world by avoiding animal products whenever possible. They might not be prepared to go vegan, or even give up meat, but they can choose a plant-based milk, especially when it’s stocked at their favourite coffee shop, and taking over the dairy aisle of even the most run-of-the-mill grocery stores.
Oat milk, then, burst onto the scene at just the right moment to make an impact. It had another unexpected advantage too: People had been eager to explore the world of dairy-free milks for a while, but were also finding out that the most commonly found plant-based milks — soy and almond — had complicated aspects rivalling those of regular milk. Soy milk, for one, has caused concern surrounding potential health issues related to fertility and cancer; almond milk uses up vast quantities of water, and most almond farmers are over-reliant on pesticides. And that’s not even mentioning all the preservatives and stabilizers and additives put in commercial non-dairy milks. Oat milk, though, was touted as being different: the sustainable non-dairy option, free of excess sugar and preservatives. As healthy as eating a bowl of whole-grain cereal — healthier, actually, because there wasn’t any cow milk involved.
But, that’s not necessarily the case. “The most popular oat milks on the market are using ingredients that fast food restaurants are voluntarily taking off the menu,” Dorr Drake said to me, when explaining why she and her sister were inspired to start their own brand. “Most people think when they’re drinking milk made of plants that they’re actually drinking plants, but they’re actually drinking mostly sugar — and some very harmful ingredients.” She also said that the process by which most commercial oat milk is made — “stripping away the parts that have the fibre and the protein, so that you’re mostly getting oat sugar” — also challenges the idea that oat milk is more sustainable than other plant milks. “They’re not only stripping away the best parts of the oats, but that’s becoming food waste. We use everything, which was really important to us, because we’re all really interested in sustainability, and food waste is one of the leading causes of climate change.”
Perception often trumps reality when it comes to what consumers actually buy, though — or, rather, perception becomes reality. And so, even if some popular oat milks aren’t actually any healthier than cow milk (or soy milk or coconut milk, etc), they’re still perceived that way, and thus were next to impossible to keep in stock at the beginning of the pandemic. While this was good news for the big companies, it bore mixed results for a small, new company like Willa’s.
“All the manufacturers and all the suppliers were basically putting all of their resources into supporting the biggest companies,” Dorr Drake explained. “Our oat milk manufacturer called us and said, ‘We can’t do your production run. We can’t do any trial runs of new products and don’t know when we’ll be able to get you in.’” It was the same situation with other production partners, too: “Similarly, our oat vendor was like, ‘I need to give your oats to other companies that have been my customers for ten years.’”
But, Dorr Drake said, things shifted when she told them: “You know, we’re going to be that company in 10 years. You just need to give us a chance, because the future of this business even being a business is at stake right now, so give us an opportunity.”
In the months since I first spoke with Dorr Drake about Willa’s, a lot has changed. Yes, the supermarkets have healed, and shelves are now restocked with toilet paper, flour, yeast, and, yes, oat milk. But while many of the people who were avidly baking sourdough at the start of the pandemic have abandoned their starters to the backs of their refrigerators, sales of oat milk are still going strong, and its market share is supposed to continue growing at an annual rate of 9.8% through 2027.
What’s important to remember, though, when looking at these numbers, is that the companies benefitting the most from all this growth are already the giant companies — it’s not dissimilar from the way that billionaires have just kept amassing wealth during the pandemic, even as we’ve seen record joblessness and economic distress.
I spoke with Dorr Drake again earlier this month, to check in on how Willa’s had weathered the year, and to see what she was excited about for the future. She told me about the wins: Attention from new investors after Willa’s was named a finalist in a prestigious global food competition; the ability to close their investing pre-seed round; launching their unsweetened original project and having healthy pre-sales, even without marketing. But there have been a fair share of difficulties too, like COVID outbreaks in the packaging factory that they share with another company.
However, Dorr Drake said, “I feel very grateful, because I know a lot of food and beverage companies aren’t doing so well. It affects all of the little guys the most. All the stuff you see about supporting small brands and local businesses is true.” Nothing will survive without real support, other than the behemoths.
And while those behemoths do still seem to be dominating the market — getting multi-hundred-million dollar investments and partnering with fast food chains — there does finally seem to be an understanding among investors and consumers alike that there is a world beyond Oatly. Even the small deli on my corner has branched out in recent months, offering four different brands of oat milk, whereas they once offered just the one.
When I asked Dorr Drake to try to sum up 2020 in three words, she said: “Oh my goodness,” and then laughed. “Okay, maybe not those three words.” The three words she chose were: Perspective, acceptance, and compassion, saying about the last thing, “Everybody is going through something right now, and that’s what we’ve all needed to give and get in return.” You might even call it a low-key staple of 2020.