How Pana Organic’s founder stays true to his vegan mission over a decade of growth

How Pana Organic’s founder stays true to his vegan mission over a decade of growth

Pana Barbounis, founder of Pana Organic

Making chocolate for a living has been a dream career for food-lover Pana Barbounis, who concedes his plant-based food group Pana Organic was inspired by the Juliette Binoche rom-com Chocolat.

“I watched the movie on a Thursday and on Sunday someone put a chocolate in my hand and instantly, in that moment, I knew that’s what I was going to do,” Barbounis tells Business News Australia.

The decision coincided with his transition to a vegan lifestyle, leading Barbounis to tap into a fledgling vegan market in 2012 – a time when he remembers vegetarian offerings at restaurants comprised “a side of spinach or mushrooms”.

While demand for plant-based foods continues to expand, the growth of Pana Organic over the past 12 years could be credited to Barbounis’s ebullient personality as much as his mission to bring a new range of organic plant-based foods to the market.

In those early days, the entrepreneur would dart along Melbourne’s streets on his Vespa, knocking on the doors of every café and health food store he could find to sell his products.

Today, Pana Organic has expanded its product range to include frozen desserts, spreads, snack bars and baking and beverage products with distribution deals in Coles and Woolworths taking the plant-based range to a broader market.

“It was only a part-time venture to begin with and it was something that I loved doing,” says Barbounis.

Understanding Barbounis’s entrepreneurial journey is to understand his “great relationship with food”.

Growing up in a Greek family, Barbounis says food has always been an “expression of love” and he still happy to prepare non-vegan meals for his family.

Prior to establishing Pana Organic, Barbounis worked in the food industry for years including stints at cafes, vineyards and the Melbourne Airport.

He took his new venture seriously enough to head to London and Belgium where he learned techniques for producing raw chocolate – and where he describes working with some “mad chocolatiers”.

Barbounis was looking for a “fudgy consistency rather than that traditional chocolate snap” on which to base his vegan chocolate range.

“I locked myself away for six months and made friends and family happy with samples of chocolate,” he says.

“We created a product with only a few ingredients and we kept it pretty pure. The cacao butter was the focal point, working in harmony to create a pretty good chocolate.”

Preparing Pana Organic chocolate at the company's Melbourne factory

 

There was no denying his formula struck a chord with consumers. In those early days Pana Organic could be found in niche outlets, such as yoga studios and gyms as well as small cafes and health food stores.

A decade ago, Barbounis even ventured into opening Pana Organic vegan dessert outlets.

“I got out there pretty crazy,” he says. “I was doing trade shows, I was doing weekends, I was doing sampling, door-knocking independent stores.”

Testing brand loyalty

Barbounis concedes Pana hit the market during an explosion of demand for vegan food options.

But the loyalty of customers was tested when Pana Organic went mainstream after securing distribution deals with Coles and Woolworths in 2016.

“At one point we were stocked by 3000 outlets across Australia and to make that step into a major supermarket, our heartland still had a sense of ownership and loyalty,” says Barbounis.

“It’s understandable because these guys were ambassadors for the brand. How do you go to that next level without disrupting that?

“To this day, this is still the biggest challenge we have.”

While the independent network outside the major supermarkets is now about 1,500, Pana Organic is now reaching a wider market – the “flexitarians” that Barbounis sees driving future growth.

“The vegan market is growing year on year but the category for us that is most important is flexitarian,” he says.

“These people are not necessarily plant-based all the time but have conscious awareness and from time to time want to go plant based. That’s the bigger part of the market for us.”

Pana Organic’s growth strategy was shored up in 2017 through an investment from Michael Saba, the former CEO of Swisse Wellness Group, with whom Barbounis had earlier struck up a friendship.

But even as the company grows, Barbounis has not lost sight of his founding mission.

Pana Barbounis with his family

 

“Our brand is purely plant based, we still have an extremely loyal community and we’re very blessed with that,” he says.

“We even pivot sometimes if there is an ingredient they don’t like which can unsettle some people.

“But vegan chocolate has evolved so much since we launched, such as coconut oil with a high count of cocoa butter to give it a less bitter experience.

“There are also a lot more products available such as coconut milk powder that we are playing around with.”

Restructuring for growth

A restructure of the business 18 months ago, making it a “much leaner operation”, has been critical to Pana Organic’s medium-term growth plans, particularly as cost-of-living pressures continue to impact discretionary spending on premium products such as Pana’s.

“There’s not enough to be a concern but we are keeping an eye on it,” says Barbounis, whose optimism for the industry and his company has changed little from the days he used to ride his Vespa around Melbourne.

“We’re a premium brand using premium ingredients. We are always organic, always plant based, always gluten free. That’s what we stand for, but I want to lead as a brand now and that includes tapping into a wider audience.

“I can’t sit too still - I always want to be creating.”

Over the next 12 months, his plan is to “keep the business stable to give our customers what they need”.

“But then we are looking at phenomenal growth. If we go forward to five years, we will probably triple where we are now, if not double.

“It’s quite aggressive but we see a lot of opportunities and a lot of upside.”

But how do you grow and maintain your artisan approach?

“Be stubborn and annoy everyone,” says Barbounis.

“We have lots of passionate conversations with our team. The passion is always there. It’s important to grow but it’s just as important to stay true to who we are and what we do.”

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