Blue Crate Oat Milk is unconventional in just about every way possible. Founded by two D.C. women, Blue Crate is a zero-waste oat milk business with a unique distribution model: a home delivery service for glass milk bottles. You may think Blue Crate is just a millennial milkman, but there’s a lot of walk behind the talk. Their commitment to environmental sustainability infuses everything the company does, from the product to the package to the model. How do you build a profitable business based on values? We talked to co-founder Kristy Halderman about challenges, opportunities, and all things oat milk.
How did Blue Crate Oat Milk come about?
My business partner Amanda and I met via Instagram in the summer of 2017, through our mutual love of the environment. Talking to each other, we realized that we both wanted to start a zero waste food business. And we were both making oat milk at home because of the low environmental impact, the cost and the taste. We couldn’t find store-bought oat milk that wasn’t packaged in plastic or Tetra Paks, so we thought, why don’t we revive the milkman-style delivery service with glass bottles?
You have a unique meeting story! Were there any pain points to starting a business together, or was it easier without a previous background together?
We compliment each other. When we started talking about starting a business together, we found that one’s strengths were the other one’s weaknesses, so we compliment each other really well. No one says that starting a business is easy, and it’s easy to give up, but we’re both so mission driven that we push each other and have kept in business even despite major hurdles.
It was easier to work together because our business relationship is our foundation, but the tough part is learning another person’s personality and how to communicate with them. When you’re starting a business with a friend or spouse, you know that person and you’ve spent time with them. It’s been better to not know her first, but there’s pros and cons to any business relationship.
How does your sustainability ethos guide your decision making?
We met and founded the company on the premise of sustainability. That’s our core mission: driving environmental awareness, and trying to have a sustainable business model that is good not only for the planet but also for our community.
I think the movement is becoming more well-known because of the reports and studies about environmental pollution, so there’s a lot of businesses trying to move towards that. Not just for environmental awareness, but also because it’s expensive, having this linear string of not being able to reuse things. It’s not cost efficient over time. We’re trying to bring this awareness back: that you don’t need to have products that produce a lot of trash to have a profitable business. But it’s been a lot of work, and we’ve had a lot of pushback. So we’re creating the model, to show others that it works.
Who do you get pushback from?
Stores. There’s limited space in DC and other metropolitan areas, so stores don’t want to store glass bottles. We get pushback about limited space, the cost of shipping glass bottles, how it’s easier to sell a grab-and-go product rather than having someone bring a bottle back because there’s other logistics operationally with the POS and employee training. We’re a really small company, so they have to be willing to work with us. So that’s been the main pushback, because we’re bringing back a model that’s been phased out.
How does a zero-waste model affect your growth plans?
We have to approach it differently. With glass bottles we have to create a new model, and since we’re not utilizing what’s already out there, it could be seen as a hindrance. But I’m seeing it as an opportunity to do things differently and still be cost effective and profitable.
But I’m seeing it as an opportunity to do things differently and still be cost effective and profitable.
What’s the growth goal?
The goal is a retail space with our own distribution model. We want to create a distribution model where either we’re doing it or outsourcing it, and having separate locations where we can produce, rather than having one co-packer and having everything ship from there. But plans change. We’re always evolving, so in 6 months that might not be the direction anymore.
How does your delivery model work?
You order by Friday, we deliver to you on Sunday. Right now, we’re doing the deliveries ourselves, but we’re not fixated on doing it ourselves – we’re just doing it ourselves right now because that’s how it panned out. Amanda drives, and then I get out and put it on doorstops – but I’ve yet to talk to anybody! I’m a little sad, because I want to meet customers. I want someone to open their door as I’m dropping the bottles, but it hasn’t happened yet.
What’s a challenge you didn’t anticipate when you started?
Everything! You start a business and you think, we’re going to change the world! But there’s laws, and there’s regulation and a way of doing things in food and beverage, and there’s tens of thousands of other companies doing it one way. Who are you to come in and say we’re doing it another way? So it’s been a learning curve for us, to try to stay true to our mission while working with others to make it happen.
Also, not knowing a lot of the hiccups with different regulations. And owning a food and beverage business is not inexpensive. We hadn’t anticipated a lot of the associated costs. The last year has been eye-opening in terms of things we needed that we had no idea we’d need when we started.
Who has helped you as you’ve navigated these challenges?
We’ve had different mentors, others we’ve met in the food industry. It’s really all about networking, and DC is the perfect town for that. Just talking to people, I’ve always been a very extroverted person who isn’t afraid to ask for help. My advice is not to be afraid to ask for advice, to ask for a connection. People are more than willing to help.
Have you had any favorite moments?
When we first started, oat milk wasn’t well known. People would say, “goat milk?” and I’d say no, oat milk, and they’d go “oatmeal?” and I’m like no, it’s oat milk, it’s a plant-based dairy alternative. I love talking to people about that. But now that oat milk is well known, I love going to events and talking to people about zero waste – they’re really opening their perception of what the future of the food and beverage industry looks like.
What kind of business tools do you and your co-founder use?
We use Clockify to track our hours, which is really important in a partnership. Not only do you see where all of your hours are being dedicated, you’re also holding yourself accountable to show that you’re both doing equal work. Alignable connects you with other businesses in your area or your network, so that’s been a new tool. But I’d never heard of any of these before I started a business!
We also use Trello a lot. It’s another organizational tool. I find that Trello is really good because it puts all your to-do lists online and you can knock them out as you finish and the other person can see them. It keeps you accountable, and helps prevent overlap.
How has the category changed since you started?
We first met in 2017, and the oat milk company that started the craze launched in the U.S. in late 2017. So it was them, one other company that makes plant-based milks, and then us. Now, there’s so many massive companies that are making an oat-milk line, ice cream, yogurt. The way that we can differentiate ourselves from all the other players is that we’re local, small batch and mission-driven. We’re also an oat milk only company – we’re not making any other milk, or any other products. Eventually, we’d like to branch out, but right now we’re focused on oat milk.