Sangeeta Nowbut opted for a vegan lifestyle when she completed a course in animal production during her first year of studies in veterinary medicine at the University of the West Indies.
Born into a vegetarian family, the shift to veganism meant that she would have to forego milk and all milk-related products. With a stroke of fate coming in the form of her mother bringing home an ice cream maker as a gift, she had an idea and that idea – Cone Tree-ts – is now going national.
“When I saw how factory farming works in terms of intentionally getting an animal pregnant for our use in milk and cheese, it really changed my mind as to what we eat and consume,” she told Business Day. Once she decided to fully commit to a vegan lifestyle, she found that the range of food items she enjoyed decreased dramatically and though her family doesn’t consume a lot of milk products, she did miss a few things – like ice cream.
“After my father persuaded my mother to purchase an ice cream maker from a catalogue she received at work, I had an idea to create vegan ice cream starting with the basic coconut flavour derived from coconut milk. At first, it really was a way of me procrastinating as I was in the middle of final exams when I started experimenting. After a few trials, my mom jokingly suggested that we sell it!” Her father, an entrepreneur, immediately jumped in to guide and assist.
On investigating the existing market for vegan ice cream, the family soon realised that many of the vegan ice cream products in 2018 were still imported, and a few selections that were predominantly available at smaller Saturday markets and green markets. “We started experimenting with various plant-based milks as well as anything that could add the creamy texture needed for ice cream – like coconut milks and bananas. We committed to using local ingredients. Our coconut milk is locally sourced, as well as the cocoa and sorrel used to create our chocolate flavour and sorrel sorbet. The first challenge was to source ingredients and then to get the taste, texture and consistency just right – so we did a lot of sampling.”
Currently the brand produces hand-crafted flavours including coconut, strawberry coconut and chocolate along with sugar-free coconut created with agave and dates, as well as sorrel sorbet, and is experimenting with other flavours such as pina colada. Prices range from $20 to $55 between the 4oz, 6oz and 12oz options.
Feedback – especially from customers – was also critical in the early days of the brand’s launch.
“Customers began to message us daily for locations, info and to share their thoughts. We listened to the extent that we started to improve in every area – even creating a new look with a different set of labels to what we started with based on the advice from our customers.”
The company was able to enhance the product in every imaginable aspect simply by listening, from the look of the product to improvements to recipes. “And we continue to listen!” The ice cream is also tested for safe human consumption and was approved by the Food and Drugs Division locally. The tests can cost approximately $1,200 for upcoming food entrepreneurs.
Nowbut, now moving into her final year of veterinary studies, is immensely appreciative of her family’s support as well – including her extended family who are the unofficial samplers for new flavours and trials. “My brother, who was diagnosed with autism since he was a toddler, is essential to me and to the business. I always wanted him to be a part of a business idea with us and he really enjoys it. He calls himself the CEO of Cone Tree-ts! Right now, he’s out with my father doing deliveries. I think it’s important to note that for families that are struggling with their own challenges where a family member is different – there is room for everyone and that difference can make a difference in your family or in a family business.”
Her father and brother are essentially the face of the business when she’s busy with school. They handle the orders and deliveries across the country. “While they’re doing that they will stop and chat with customers about the product and we also continue to do lots of sampling at the stores to stoke interest in the product so that we can move people away from the mindset that something vegan is bland. That’s a big challenge for us – changing the minds of consumers about the concept of vegetarianism and veganism.”
You can find Cone Tree-ts on Facebook and Instagram.