Like most lactose-intolerant kids and children of health-nut parents, Gaina Lieu grew up drinking soy milk.
If you’ve ever begrudgingly eaten yet another bowl of soy-soaked cornflakes for the umteenth time–or if you’ve ever eaten anything for the umpteenth time, you can probably relate to the craving for something different.
However, a slew of new plant-based milk brands has brought variety to the market recently, with almond milk as one of the top contenders.
Luckily, almond milk offers a welcome change from soy milk.
Unluckily, many mass-produced almond milk brands found in stores leave something to be desired in the taste department.
Gaina ’s lightbulb moment happened in school, when she was attending a holistic culinary program and was required to make almond milk as a part of the curriculum.
It was love at first taste.
With delighted surprise, she thought, “why doesn’t this taste like the stuff at the stores?!”
Fantastic Ingredients = Fantastic Flavor
As Gaina soon found out, the reason is that the almond milk she was instructed to make in class was set apart because it contained no gums or thickeners and was made of only two ingredients:
This experience planted the seed for Marin Living Foods, Gaina’s all-natural almond milk brand.
The almonds used in Marin Living Foods products are raw and sprouted.
Almonds contain enzymes that make them hard for our bodies to digest, so sprouting them by way of an overnight soak rinses away these enzymes and makes the almonds easier to digest, allowing our bodies to absorb all of the good stuff.
Low-Waste and Earth-Friendly
Making almond milk typically involves a high volume of waste from the pulp leftover from grinding almonds.
This presented somewhat of a conundrum for Gaina, as her earth-centric ethics didn’t mesh well with the idea of throwing away high volumes of such a nutrient-rich material.
She found the solution by partnering with a local bakery that can use that pulp to make flour for their baked goods.
Gaina also crafts handmade almond-based soaps and has discovered that adding almond pulp to the mixture makes for the perfect natural exfoliant.
In addition to a commitment not to waste any raw materials, Marin Living Foods is also committed to doing business in the most earth-friendly way possible.
For this reason, all of their 12-oz bottles are biodegradable.
All the almonds are 100% organic and local, which cuts down on transportation costs.
They all come from the Central Valley or other parts of California, meaning that every bottle purchased also supports local growers.
Savoring the Flavors
Since most of the milk comes in 12-oz grab-and-go bottles, it was important to Gaina to offer a rich gustatorial experience.
In creating the flavors, she drew from her education in holistic nutrition. She added superfoods like goji, chia, maca, and hemp seeds to imbue each bottle with flavor and nutritional abundance.
The almond oat is also making its way to the top of the list because it takes thickness and creaminess up an extra notch.
For Gaina, the original flavor will always be her favorite.
I like when it’s in the most natural form; I like the simplicity of it.
While all of the flavors taste delectable on their own, many customers like adding the milk to other recipes.
Gaina’s favorite is chia pudding. The recipe is surprisingly simple and easy to make:
You just mix the chia with almond milk, and it gets a little gelatinous, like a thick pudding texture. And then you add [whatever] fruit toppings [you want], and it’s great as a snack or in the morning for breakfast.
Welcome Challenges and Systemic Obstacles
Since Marin Living Foods was started in 2012, it was one of the first enterprises of its kind. “Our products were flying off the shelves,” Gaina beamed when she recalled the company's early days.
Since then, the market for small, artisanal almond milk brands has become far more competitive.
However, Gaina has a rather uncommon view on this type of challenge.
It has been great to see all the competition, because [it shows that] now there are all these companies that are moving in the right direction, towards healthy eating.
However, not every challenge is a good one. Lieu has also encountered the very real pressures of owning a small business as both a woman and a minority.
Her family is from Thailand, and they ended up in the San Francisco Bay area after fleeing war in Laos and starting from scratch as new immigrants.
Although Gaina and her family have truly pursued and achieved the American dream, there are unique obstacles as a female and a minority when raising capital for a new business or even simply talking with others about plans to do so.
Gaina could recall a range of incidents in which people didn't take her seriously, but one, in particular, stood out.
After graduating from culinary school and before starting Marin Living Foods, Gaina worked as a chef at a cafe. After gaining experience there, she told the owner, “hey, I’m quitting because I’m gonna go start my own company.”
His response was to laugh and say, “sure.”
Even so, Marin Living Foods took off despite all the systemic obstacles to its success.
Today, the company has a tenacious customer base, and in a recent survey, they cited a myriad of different reasons for choosing Marin Living Foods products.
The customers don’t each have one particular reason for loving these milks; they have many reasons.
For most customers, it isn’t solely a result of lactose intolerance or other dietary restrictions, not liking the taste of other products, appreciating the flavor profiles of Marin Living Foods products, or believing in the brand and quality of ingredients.
Instead, their loyalty largely stems from a blend of these reasons.
There’s a lot to love about healthy, flavorful almond milk made with intention.
Nevertheless, it did take some convincing. At the outset of her company journey, Gaina used to do demos at grocery stores and offer free samples. Surprisingly, a lot of people simply didn’t want to taste it.
They’d come up to her and ask, “oh, what are you sampling?” and then decline after being told it was almond milk, explaining various iterations of “I’ve tried almond milk before, and I didn’t like it.”
Gaina had to insist that her product was not the same. When she convinced shoppers to try it, they loved it!
It didn’t take much more to convince us, too. We’re nuts about this one-of-a-kind almond milk brand!