The Plant-Based Revolution

The growth of plant based ‘mylks’ (we can’t call them milk) is well known and featured as one of the top 10 in my 100 Trends for the Coffee & Food Industry 2020. But what does this growing trend mean to coffee shop operators? How are the suppliers responding to the increased competition and demand from coffee shops for better performing non-dairy alternatives in hot beverages? I asked these questions and more to a few fabulous independent coffee chains and some leading suppliers to find out.

The rise of oats

Everyone I spoke to, and I mean EVERYONE, agrees that the recent incredible surge of plant-based dairy alternatives is pretty much down to one thing; the phenomenal growth of oat milk. The who, why, where and what might be set at the door of disruptive market challenger, Oatly, or it could be down to the simple fact that oat milk is pretty damn tasty and a great match for dairy in terms of flavour and texture, so is a very easy way for anyone toying with adding more plant-based to their diet (we call them flexitarians nowadays) to start their journey.

Ishen Paran, General Manager at Oatly UK said, “Oat milk is now the number one crop within the dairy alternative category, overtaking other options like soya and almond, according to data published by the IRI in January 2020. Oat milk now makes up 30% of the alternative milks category, compared to soya which takes up 28%, and almond which sits at 26%.”

Rude Health agreed with this, stating more awareness in the category as a whole has driven growth, particularly due to consumer demand. In fact, everyone I spoke to commented on very impressive growth numbers for oat milks, Rude Health saw sales growth of 443% YOY on both its Barista Oat and Oat Drink products, with foodservice contributing significantly to this incredible performance. All the coffee shops I spoke to had seen a massive increase in sales share of plant-based beverages with consumer demand growing from around 10% of beverages with plant-based drinks to more than 25%, most of this, they all said, was down to oat milk.

What else is driving the trend?

The switch to plant-based lifestyles for our own and our planet's health

With the overwhelming media coverage, no-one can really say they are not aware of the impact climate change is having on our planet and this awareness is driving changing behaviours including the desire to move to a more sustainable diet that either completely switches or at least increases plant-based consumption, obviously this has benefits for our health as well.

Chelsea at Over Under Coffee commented that she’d seen a lot of consumers ask baristas for oat milk combined with dairy milk in their coffee, with the reason that they want to use oat to help them get used to plant-based dairy alternatives.

Ishen at Oatly agrees: “There are a number of important reasons why both Oatly and oat milk have seen such growth. The first is definitely how easy our products make it for people to switch to a more plant-based lifestyle. Our oat drinks are the closest alternatives to dairy, in terms of taste and behaviour, and by not compromising on taste, we’ve made it really easy for people to make that switch. The public are also increasingly interested and considerate about the impact their food choices are having on the environment. More and more people are choosing Oatly for sustainability reasons. A huge number of our fans aren’t vegan or making the change for health reasons but are looking for ways to switch up elements of their diet to make a positive difference to the planet.”

This view is upheld by Alpro who said “consumers are becoming more conscious about what they’re consuming. Plant-based foods are largely better for people and better for the planet, and demand is growing at an amazing rate.”

At-home vs out of home

One thing is clear, what consumers have at home they want out of home and vice versa and now more than ever, they are not afraid to ask for it!

According to Alpro “Coffee Shops are a great way for consumers to try plant-based for the first time, and the likes of Costa and Pret are really embracing the plant-based opportunity by putting them front and centre of their campaigns. Whilst retailers are dedicating more space within their stores to plant-based products, making them easier for consumers to find and more inspiring to try.”

And Rude Health agree with them. “Consumer demand is definitely driving the trend. More and more consumers are opting for dairy-free in their favourite out of home drinks, not just in tea and coffee but also in hot chocolates and alternative lattes like turmeric and beetroot. Coffee shops are also using dairy-free drinks in multiple recipes on their menus, which is increasing the volume of drinks that they’re ordering. Also, consumers will often experiment with dairy-free drinks in out of home locations, because they don’t have to invest in a whole carton. If they have a positive experience, they will then go on to look for, and purchase, a similar, or the same, dairy-free drink in retail.”

Barista Power

For specialty coffee shop owners there is an entirely different driver in the mix; the all-important baristas. Each of the small chains I spoke to agreed that when it comes to deciding which milk alternatives to use, and which brands, it was all about the barista. As Edwin from Artisan pointed out “operators are driven by the head barista and whoever is in charge of the coffee, when marketing is targeted at the barista they tell the owner (who probably hasn’t been at the shop floor for a while) what they think will work the best and because the owner wants the barista to have a degree of autonomy, they invariably say yes, providing the GP is covered.”

Oatly recognised the importance of the barista when they launched in the UK and made a point of targeting them as a major aspect of their campaign, a move that has proven to be incredibly successful for them and the category. As a result of this commitment and a dedicated team, Oatly were able to penetrate the fragmented independent sector and as a result engage consumers as well. Ishen at Oatly says, “traction in coffee shops certainly began driving the switch, and this led to consumer demand beginning to create a pull through across the coffee industry and retail. The way we saw it, it was one challenge to get the product into the coffee shops, but it was a totally different challenge to inspire consumers to try it and continue to buy it. Our continued focus on all three areas is a big contributor to our success.”

What about the range?

Some independent or small chain artisans may only carry one or two, maximum three variants. More often than not we now see oat and almond as the key plant-based alternatives, with coconut and soy lagging behind. Gone are the days when all you could get was a soy latte if you didn’t want to have dairy in your coffee! In fact, for some operators soy still presents a massive problem to quality and performance, Chelsea from Over Under commented that for them, none of the soy alternatives on the market had properly overcome the issues around separation, even those developed especially for coffee and coconut is too watery. Edwin at Artisan made the point that his baristas challenged him as an owner stating you have to draw the line somewhere, where do you stop? If you have three, and then add a fourth who is to say consumers won’t then start asking for a fifth like hazelnut etc? When the suppliers are offering limited barista designed products this presents a challenge when facing consumer changing demand.

Challenging the status quo

Another challenge for coffee shops, particularly the small artisan chains and independents is the recent news that the major chains have taken the charge off adding a dairy-free alternative. For those operators without the purchasing power of the big chains this is a problem. Consumers are unaware (and often unconcerned) about the commercials behind the coffee shop and when they see something free in one place, they expect it elsewhere. The worry for the smaller operators is how they can accommodate this without swapping out to lower cost suppliers (which may mean compromising on quality).

Industry Challenges

For the suppliers the main challenge isn’t necessarily the competition, or even the changing tastes and demands from consumers, but how to educate foodservice operators about the opportunities with plant-based alternatives. Alpro commented, “The biggest challenge we have is in communicating how coffee shops can make the most of the plant-based opportunity. Often the belief is that plant-based is only there to satisfy a health need, but the truth is that taste plays nearly an equal role in consumers choosing plant-based options. So instead of just being an alternative on a menu board, these products can play a role in bringing variation and taste to seasonal menus.”

Rude Health completely agrees saying, “Our biggest challenge, which we’re currently tackling head on, is educating coffee shops on the versatility of our drinks. Using our dairy-free drinks for multiple purposes on a menu not only decreases the chance of wastage but can also elevate a menu in terms of taste and choice.”

In fact, given the number of products that foodservice could use plant-based milks in beyond the humble latte, there is room for even more growth! I for one will welcome the day I can have porridge with oat milk wherever I go!!

For Oatly, as a relative new comer the challenge has been the complexity and fragmented nature of the coffee industry. As Ishen says, “there are a vast number of shops across the UK, each working with a different range of suppliers. It has been challenging building a wholesale network that will be sustainable in the long run whilst ensuring maximum coverage.”

So, what is in store for this growing trend?

Are we going to see hemp milk take over, or pea milk? Perhaps camel milk… ok stop, I can’t get my head around camel milk!! Actually, both independents and suppliers are far more focused on getting the existing available variants right before thinking about adding newer alternatives to the mix. Getting the perfect performance from the main four variants is top on the wish list for operators and happily part of the development plans for the main suppliers.

Alpro has a redesign for the For Professionals range coming up in April and have just launched a Barista SKU into retail so consumers can get a great coffee experience at home.

Rude Health have recently launched two organic Barista dairy-free drinks, Barista Almond and Barista Oat, specifically created to blend and froth in coffee and tea with no artificial ingredients, unnatural emulsifiers or stabilisers. “We’ve added a tiny bit of seaweed to our Barista Oat. It naturally tones down the acidity of the coffee and allows the drink to blend seamlessly with any variety of bean. Our Barista Almond has almonds for a nutty flavour, oats for a creamy texture and a drop of natural sunflower lecithin to combine it all together. As with any Rude Health launch, we were committed to only using natural ingredients in our new drinks.”

Oatly continue to dedicate NPD to oat-based products to help consumers make the switch more easily and I for one can verify that their oat ice cream is delicious!

Future Success

Rude Health can see that ‘flexitarianism’ is hugely on the rise and say, “70% of consumers would consider themselves flexitarian. This is a massive number considering only 7% of consumer would call themselves vegetarians and 1% would say they were vegan. Flexitarians are consciously reducing the amount of animal products they are consuming, but not necessarily cutting out entire food groups. Brands that can strike a chord with this audience, are in for a win.”

Oatly unsurprisingly are committed to the continued oat take over. “The possibilities really are endless. We’re still growing at a massive rate and focused on getting Oatly into the hands of people all across the UK. We think the next big trend for the industry will be mass market availability.”

Essentially plant-based alternatives are here to stay and are poised to improve so that baristas and consumers can enjoy better performing, higher quality beverages with fewer or no additives which are better for our own health and the health of the planet.

Remember my 100 Trends for the Coffee & Food Industry 2020 Report is available to purchase here. Plant Based Milk is just 1 of those trends, so there is plenty to get your teeth into as you plan your year ahead. If you simply want to keep up to date with this blog and any other activity, then feel free to subscribe to the newsletter. I won’t be sending emails every day, or every week or even every month, but when I have something to update you with, I’ll stick it in a newsletter so you are the first to hear!

About the contributors:


Proud to be the pioneer of plant-based eating and drinking, Alpro has been creating delicious plant-based alternatives to milk, yogurt, cream, custard, desserts and ice cream for nearly 40 years, made from either non-GM soya beans, coconuts, almonds, hazelnuts, rice or oats.

Rude Health

Rude Health is a family run, London-based food and drinks company co-founded by my husband, Nick Barnard, and I (Camilla). Rude Health began at our kitchen table in South West London in 2005 when we mixed The Ultimate Muesli for the first time. Today, we’re at a bigger table but our approach to food and drink is the same. Brilliant ingredients. Nothing artificial. Nothing refined. Over the last 14 years, The Ultimate Muesli has been joined by more than 60 other foods and drinks including Dairy-Alternative Drinks, Porridge, Cereals, Crackers and Snacks.


The business began in the early 90s with Swedish scientists from Lund University. They developed a patented enzyme technology to copy nature’s own process, and turn fibre rich oats into a dairy alternative. After some further testing, Oatly was created and became a success in Sweden. The original motivation for starting Oatly was always to find a simple alternative to cutting back on dairy production and consumption, which we know is causing significant harm towards the planet.

The CEO, Toni Petersson, then joined the company in 2012, and with a team of creatives elevated the business to the next level. Since then they’ve been spreading the message and taking it globally, helping people stick to their milk-drinking habit without recklessly taxing the planet’s resources. They still operate out of their Swedish headquarters in Malmö, but now have a number of international factories worldwide. Oatly products can be found in more than 30 countries around the world.

Chelsea from Over Under Coffee.

Over Under is a collection of small specialised coffee shops that transform into cocktail bars by night; opening early, closing late, always good vibes. They’ve designed each individual location to completely transform from day to night. Turning down the lights and pumping up the music isn’t enough. They create two completely different environments in one location, operating 18 hours a day. Tables are flipped, walls rotate on hinges, coffee equipment vanishes, and all notion of daytime disappears as we head into evening drinks.

They are taking the OU cafe experience on the road and making it mobile. Awesome Food, Healthy Brunch, Amazing coffee, and banging cocktails.

Max from Redemption Roasters

Redemption Roasters are the UK's first 'behind-bars' specialty coffee roastery. They roast all of their coffee at HMYOI Aylesbury and HMP The Mount where they teach offenders coffee skills. By hiring their ‘graduates’ into their own shops or referring them into their wider coffee network they offer realistic alternatives to re-offending. Reoffending rates in the UK are currently some of the worst in Europe. They now operate coffee academies in 9 prisons, run 5 shops in London and have over 150 wholesale clients such as BNP Paribas, the National Trust, KPMG, Compass catering.

Edwin from Artisan & Curious Roo

Curios Roo

Curious Roo has allowed Edwin and Magda to realise their roasting dream and they’re now supplying their delicious coffee to coffee shops across the UK. Having both spent a year in Uganda, Edwin and Magda decided to shun the usual 9-5 and  made it their aim to bring quality coffee to the UK. Their plan was simple: GREAT COFFEE and the rest will fall into place. Edwin was brought up here, whilst Magda brings a passion for authentic fine tasting coffee – coming from Australia where coffee is more of an obsession than a drink. However now that Curious Roo is up and running, they realise they are working 5-9 instead of the usual 9-5! The name Curious Roo comes from their curiosity to explore different flavours within coffee; whilst having a nod to Magda’s home Australia – as well as their little boy’s favourite character in Winnie the Poo being Roo! They are based in a converted warehouse in Chiswick, and as an independent small batch roastery they source specialty grade coffee from origins around the world. They are known for supplying free on going and awesome coffee training through the Artisan Coffee School. If you want to know more, they are always happy to sit over a coffee and chat about their journey and help others on theirs.

Artisan Coffee School

Founded in 2015 by Edwin and Magda Harrison, Artisan Coffee School has quickly grown into one of Europe’s leading providers of quality coffee education – and they’re not slowing down anytime soon. Based in Ealing Broadway, London, Artisan Coffee School is an SCA (Speciality Coffee Association) certified training centre. They offer a wide variety of courses that cover everything from how to brew a better cup of coffee at home to how to set up your own coffee shop, and all their trainers are industry professionals who use their experience and insight to ensure that everyone who attends has a bloody good, educational time. At Artisan Coffee School, They believe in not only providing our students with excellent hands-on experience but also in immersing them in all the different aspects of the coffee trade, from grower to roaster to barista to cup.

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