Sixteen years ago, best friends Hannah Hong and Mollie Cha founded Must Love, a plant-based desserts company that started as a fun after-dinner project in Mollie’s kitchen. Today, they lead a team of all women and have created a flourishing business with a flexible and unfettered work culture.
With the initial intention of tackling their shared struggle with lactose intolerance, Hong and Cha soon discovered that the future of food looks plant-based. While their vision has evolved and expanded since those early days, keeping things fun for the whole family remains non-negotiable: “Must Love makes plant-based treats that remind you of childhood but for your modern family today.“
Q: One of the goals of this series is to help shine a light on the stories and individuals behind the companies. Can you tell us a bit more about your background and how you came to work in the plant-based food space?
A: We met in college at UC Berkeley (Go Bears!) over 15 years ago and have been best friends ever since. In fact, we were each other’s maids-of-honor at our respective weddings and even got to work together in the corporate world at a larger food company. Mollie has a background in finance, while I (Hannah) have a background in management consulting. We like to joke she’s Excel and I’m PowerPoint.
We both became severely lactose intolerant in our early 20s while roommates in San Francisco, and started exploring different ways to eat. We became passionate about the plant-based food space as we learned more and also realized that it’s the future of food.
What is your big “why” for working in the plant-based food industry? Is there a particular cause or fact that you learned that motivated your work and passion?
We’re both personally severely lactose intolerant. We both developed this intolerance in our early 20s and have been exploring and learning about the plant-based world ever since. That was more than 15 years ago now and we haven’t stopped! We believe the future of food is increasingly plant-based and that’s why we make 100% plant-based treats.
What do people need to know about Must Love’s mission, values, and objectives?
We are really creating something that we want to see in the world for ourselves and our little toddlers! Must Love makes plant-based treats that remind you of childhood but for your modern family today. We are going to be the go-to brand for modern families for your snacks whether that’s in the freezer, pantry, backpack or purse. All our recipes are 100% plant-based, Non-GMO Project verified, and, last but not least, incredibly delicious.
It’s so inspiring to see what started as a budding college friendship turn into a powerhouse partnership over 15 years later. Having been friends for so long, you must have experienced highs, lows, and everything in between together. Can you speak to what it was like jumping into a new career with your best friend and building a company where you’re able to show up as your true, authentic selves each day?
This really works for me and Mollie, but it’s definitely not for everyone. We’ve known each other for 16 years now and have really strong shared beliefs and values. Before we really decided to do this, we had what we call a self-led “pre-marital counseling” for ourselves because starting a business together is really like getting married. We did this to make sure we were super aligned on what our goals were and how we would approach different problems. That said, things have changed a lot since that first year. We have an annual conversation about our strategy, what our goals are (and if they have changed), how we’re thinking through our next steps. Continual conversation is important to make sure you’re growing in the same direction.
Being able to 100% be ourselves has been incredibly freeing. When we think about what we might be doing five or ten years from now, we can’t imagine doing anything else.
When you’re not working on crafting your amazing product, what do you both like to do in your free time? Are there any traditions or activities you love to do together that have carried on from your earlier days as friends?
We actually just got back from a week long trip together (Expo West, SXSW activation, and visiting a copacker) and we got a lot of downtime together in between work. It’s been a long time since we spent this much time together, we don’t think since we were roommates in San Francisco! We had a lot of fun going out to eat dinner and then watching Korean dramas together at the hotel. But, normally, these days a lot of our free time is spent taking care of our respective toddlers and doing play-dates on weekends! They are both nearly three years old and each other’s best friends.
You have a team of amazing women surrounding you both. What does being women-led and women-owned mean to you, and how has this empowered you in the day-to-day of running your business?
What’s amazing about our team is that there is a lot of implicit trust in each other. I think it’s easy to take it for granted after working in an environment like this the past five years, but in previous traditional corporate jobs there is a lot of “proving yourself” and “paying your dues” sort of attitudes. Everyone on our team works very hard, but everyone also trusts that they’re all doing their jobs (above and beyond actually). This really empowers me and everyone on the team to be free to really do go the distance, we’re not worrying about the way things look and busy work.
There are also a lot of mothers on our team and we have a lot of flexibility in the way we work. This only can happen because there is so much trust between each other. Even those of us who are not mothers really appreciate the flexibility we offer. It’s certainly different than how we came up in the traditional corporate workplace, but this works better for our team and we think is the way of work in the future. We’re better able to adapt and offer this to our team because of that trust in each other.
What has been the most rewarding moment or pivotal milestone you’ve witnessed during your time at Must Love? As both a plant-based business and a women-owned business are there any big moments of celebration you’d like to share?
In 2018 we went from serving approx. 40 retail doors and hand-making every pint ourselves to almost 200 doors. You do the paper exercise on what your throughput could be, but then usually when you’re put to the test you realize theory in practice is always harder and more complicated. That year we ran double shifts, midnight overnight shifts, and expanded staff and equipment like crazy. I was personally making nice cream, wrapping pallets, and then trying to do emails and inventory management at night. Whenever this period comes up today, we laugh and say “hey, we survived!” And, while that’s true, it was the hardest we ever worked both physically and emotionally. We had no weekends and no off time for almost a full year. That said, that year taught us so much not only about how to scale the business (or how not to), but also about ourselves and our ability to withstand adversity. This is where our friendship is a huge source of strength for us. Because we are able to summon extraordinary effort for each other more than for just ourselves. And so during this challenging time, we were able to make it through because we were doing it for each other.
Figuring out how to copack our innovative nice cream was a huge challenge as the ice cream industry and equipment is built around traditional dairy products. We had big failures at multiple copackers and a very steep learning curve to figure out how to make our nice cream our way without compromising on our promise. But, we did it! We finally found partners that understood our product and our vision and worked with us to get it done.
Based on your experience as women founders in food, what advice would you share with other aspiring plant-based founders?
Especially for plant-based recipes that are replacing traditionally animal-product based ingredients, you have to find copackers and partners that buy into your vision and understand what you’re building. That said, do your best to figure out how to make your recipe on a traditional line without compromising your values. Take your time to find copackers and suppliers who will work with you on achieving this. It took us nearly a year of talking to and running trials at nearly ten different plants before finding a partner that helped us scale our recipe beyond our commercial kitchen. I hope it takes you less time and fewer trials, but you have to be prepared for the challenge of moving from your home or commercial kitchen to industrial-level scale.
Can you give us a sneak peek into any notable news or exciting product launches in the pipeline for 2022?
We just launched our Frosted Cookies and Nice Cream Sandwiches! 100% plant-based of course and available at select natural and specialty retailers.
Where can we learn more about Must Love?