We live in the age of dairy alternatives. The days of fetishizing the bovine beverage are in the decline, and more people than ever are reaching for creamy substitutes. Our sweet tooths are satisfied by dark chocolate, and when we get to the frozen food aisle, we reach for something else: soy, almond, hemp, rice.
Well, there’s a new frozen treat in town. And it comes with a peel.
Just Bananas, a frozen banana treat that has been popping up at Clover’s incubation space (1075 Cambridge St.) and Aeronaut Brewing Company in Somerville, has unlikely origins. As part of their curriculum, a group of five first-year students at Harvard Business School designed a start-up business plan. They had a customer in mind and created a product for that customer. They soon realized that their idea bore much more fruit than they’d anticipated.
“We thought that this would be great for the mom who is looking for something healthy for their kids, but we realized it’s so much more than that,” said Patricia Branch-Zakkour. After some market research and feedback from customers, they found their product could have a much wider reach. “We realized this product has really mass appeal and to people who may feel like they’re forgotten by the health food industry.”
Earlier this year, the group was invited to Clover Food Lab’s food development meeting, where Clover staff develop new flavors and
recipes. Soon thereafter, they were invited to do a popup at the Inman Square incubator. Today, you can regularly find their product at Market in the Square. But if everything goes as planned, within a few months they could be stocked in Whole Foods.
“The key thing for us is building our brand, starting small and really developing those relationships, and we think that’s going to be the way to do it,” said Joanna Bromley.
What’s in the carton? What makes it tick, or, perhaps more specifically, makes it thick? The bananas naturally have a high concentration of pectin, the same material canners use to make jams and jellies gel. Naturally occurring pectin means that Just Bananas doesn’t need to add anything to the recipe to make the faux ice cream bind. That’s important to the group, who first came together thanks to their shared interest in healthy and natural eating.
“Even the things that are labelled healthy are loaded with additives and preservatives,” Bromley said. “I think, for us, the key is going to be staying true to what we think this product should be, which is no added sugar, no preservatives.”
Besides the natural and the niche—Just Bananas is pretty alone in making a banana-based ice cream substitute—there’s another way that using bananas can be appealing: sustainability. Just Bananas needs ripe fruit to make their ice cream, and as such they can get their supply from grocery suppliers who can’t unload their stock to stores. Grocers want green bananas that can mature in the store—shoppers are unlikely to pick up a bunch with brown spots. Siphoning off a stock that would be trash otherwise means they can get their main ingredient for a good price while reducing waste in the system overall.
The team is excited, and a little shocked, at their quick success. They’d gotten positive feedback from friends and family, but that’s par for the course for any school project that goes well. A good idea and the resources of Harvard Business School mixed with, undoubtedly, hard work and luck, have catapulted this team into youthful success. After a hectic semester, the students have carved out some time in their schedules to pursue Just Bananas as an independent project. They’re developing new flavors and hoping to make new relationships with smaller grocers.
“We’re really excited about the direction that the business is going in, and we’re excited about the product and encouraged about the positive reaction we’ve gotten with customers,” said Giulia Siccardo. “That’s really been fuel to keep pushing.”
This story originally appeared in the July/August 2015 edition of Scout Cambridge. The team has since changed their company name to “Heavenly Blix, Inc.,” but their product is still known as “Just Bananas.”