A converted city centre textile mill in Leeds seems an unlikely venue for an ice cream parlour but that is exactly where Northern Bloc is made.
This new kid on the block (pardon the pun) is no dairy farmer diversifying to use up their excess milk supplies. The friends behind Northern Bloc, Josh Lee and Dirk Mischendahl – have their backgrounds well and truly in branding and marketing, although Josh says he did grow up on a Yorkshire farm.
But not being dairy farmers, says Dirk, means they come at ice cream making from a completely different angle.
“We are passionate about food,” says Dirk simply. “We think everyone should have access to food that is natural, of the best quality and tastes amazing.”
Well whatever they are doing, they are doing it right.
In just three years they have gone from producing one tonne of ice cream a week to making 20 tonnes a week today and employing 12 staff at their Castleton Mill HQ. But they stress the increase in production has not led to any compromise on ingredients. They still buy all their milk and cream from local dairy farms and say they pay a good price for it. Their vegan ice cream has just been stocked in Selfridges as well as the Co-op, Ocado and Waitrose.
Last month they decided to launch an ambitious crowdfunding campaign to raise £400,000 to fund their future plans. They raised the total in just six days reaching a total of £500,000 in a week. It seems everyone wants a slice, or scoop, of Northern Bloc.
But unlike many young businesses or start-ups that turn to crowdfunding and the like as they have few alternatives to get funding, Josh says their motives were different.
“Crowdfunding is getting a lot of bad press but we weren’t chasing the money.
“We’ve got good backing and management team, we could’ve raised the money ourselves, but we wanted to create a community where a larger number of people had a stake in the success of Northern Bloc and its direction.”
“We were confident we would get the funding, were we confident we would get it in six days and 23 hours, probably not,” adds Dirk.
They now have 250 ‘investors’ some small, others running into tens of thousands of pounds.
“We weren’t just asking for cash to grow the business, we want to encourage people to engage with our brand and help us push the business forward,” says Dirk. “We want them to feel ownership and the next time they go into a restaurant ask them why they aren’t serving Northern Bloc.”
The men had known each since they were children and ended up working for a while at the same marketing agency in Leeds. When it was sold, Dirk left. He set up his own marketing business with a turnover of £20m employing 120 people. But he wanted to get back to doing something he was passionate about and he and Josh had always wanted to go into business together and spent time looking for the right product before deciding to invest their money – and time – in ice cream.
“We knew that we wanted a really ethical brand,” says Josh. “We knew that it had to be 100 per cent natural and with a strong brand.”
And so despite having no background in cooking or food production they decided to make ice cream. “Innocent is a perfect example of a great ethos and a brilliant brand, we decided we wanted to do the same thing for ice cream,” says Dirk.
“How hard could it be? We just wanted to take great fresh natural ingredients and make a great ice cream,” says Josh who quickly realised just how hard making a 100 per cent natural ice cream can be. “We soon discovered that making ice cream is a science – and we had underestimated the skill involved in producing a product with a decent shelf-life. We suddenly realised why there was so much ice cream out there that was full of additives. It really is quite hard.”
Josh started by buying punnets of fresh strawberries, blending them with the best milk and sugar and freezing it.
“It was amazing, but within four days it tasted terrible and that’s where the science comes in.”
They took on Manolo Imperatori who, standing behind his microscope in white coat, looks more like a scientist than an ice cream maker, and that’s exactly what he is.
Just how they do it is a closely-kept secret, in fact we weren’t allowed to photograph inside the actual ice cream factory, but whatever it is it works.
All they will say is that the recipes are made of natural vegetable fibres using pioneering molecular technology developed specifically by them.
But it isn’t all about brand, science and ethics, flavours are another of Northern Bloc’s USPs. From strawberry and black pepper to black treacle and raspberry and sorell. And they are developing new flavours all the time.
“We pay homage to the traditional flavours while adding a modernising twist, but always staying true to the principle of using only the best natural ingredients,” says Dirk as we sample Hazelnut and Tonka Bean Ice Cream.
No one can accuse the guys at Northern Bloc of resting on their laurels. Last year they introduced their kids’ range, Little Bloc, which has less sugar and different, more child-friendly packaging and is popular in cinemas.
This year it is all things vegan. Although their vegan ice cream was only launched this year it has been years in development.
“We wanted a vegan ice cream that anyone would be happy to eat whether they are vegan or not,” says Dirk. “And that was the challenge. We weren’t going to launch something that we wouldn’t be happy to eat themselves.”
And once again the alchemists at Northern Bloc came up with the goods, with 75,000 scoops sold in the first six weeks.
“We believe we are going to own vegan ice cream,” says Dirk proudly. They now make four vegan flavours, strawberry and Yuzu, chocolate and orange blossom, peanut chip and hazelnut and rose. They are working on a vanilla but apparently it is the hardest flavour to perfect.
“There is nowhere to hide,” says Josh. “We only use fresh vanilla, which is more expensive, but we believe it is important.”
And what next for this forward thinking company? “The health and fitness market is huge and that is something we are definitely working on at the moment,” says Dirk. “I don’t mean a low calorie ice cream, that is just wrong, but a way of getting ingredients that you might put in a high protein smoothie into an ice cream.”
Export is another area where they see an untapped market, especially for their vegan range.
“The fastest growing number of vegans is in Shanghai.” says Dirk. “We are always competing against the big brands and so we do need to raise our profile.”
As for the future they may look at franchising, but for the moment they are happy to take stock of their achievements to date, and make sure that they stay true to their ethical mantra and their northern roots – and now they have 250 people to help them.