The audience is a fan of the beautiful Instagrammable bottles with The Pressery logo engraved on them. Their purpose though, apart from being visually appetising, is to offer super-natural goodness, too. London’s kindest almond milk makers Chi-San Wan and Natali Stajcic open up on their personal success story.
Hackney, London - Meeting Chi in a coffee shop in Haggerston feels like diving into a conversation with an old successful friend. Chi - lively and bubbly at first glance, exposes another level of matureness when it comes to talking business. Not only does it make me feel uneasy about my own accomplishments thus far, but I also never considered that an hour-long chat about milk-making could be that inspiring. Right, this isn’t your ordinary milk to pour over icy White Russians on a casual Friday, but a nutritious, chemical-free almond milk that boasts heavenly health benefits, hands-down. Back to those White Russians - you could actually have one with almond milk for a milder, nutty taste, Chi approves knowingly.
“Fashion was just like an overwhelming circus, and at some point it fails to excite you.”
It all started back in 2013, when Chi was still working as a fashion stylist and Natali did event planning as a day job. The duo had been friends for ages and a mutual a yearning to ditch the routinely 9-to-5 kept them alert for opportunities. Although forever passionate about food and fashion, Chi admits experiencing recurring fatigue with fashion work, “Fashion was just like an overwhelming circus, and at some point it fails to excite you”. She remarks their friendship has always been very foodie-based, whereas launching a food startup together seemed sort of a natural progress to their long-term friendship.
“It may sound surprising, but when we we’re starting out, there weren’t any similar companies around,” asserts Chi, sipping chamomile tea. “What you would find were only L.A. and New York style detox cleanses, but not good, artisanal juice pop ups that back then only slowly started to gain popularity.”
The first glimpse into artisanal milk making took the duo on a research trip to Paris, where a local juice connoisseur kindly accepted to consult and develop The Pressery’s potential business pursuit. “With the budget we had at the time, he suggested us concentrating on only one specific item, and do it really well,” Chi recalls. They were surprised how little was the nutrient content in the almond milks available on the market that claimed themselves to be fuss-free. “The maximum almond percentage we could find was 7%, but most of them were only about 1% almond, heavily processed and lacking in nutrients,” says Chi.
Tired of dishonest products in authentic packaging, The Pressery took collective resposibility to revolutionise London’s almond milk scene. Sounds like a niche enough idea for a startup, but why almond milk after all? “People used to drink raw almond milk before cow’s milk because it preserved for longer. Also, we wouldn’t get access to raw dates, for example,” Chi explains wisely.
But the road to success has not been all milky smooth. Although Chi and Natali were ready to jump into the brave new world of milk-making, they admit their supporters remained rather hesitant. “Our friends and family were asking, why are you doing this? We were like, we are not going to launch a food company, so why not?” Chi enthuses. Nonetheless, the duo started with trial-and-error style kitchen testing with different flavours at home. Soon after getting the first desired results, selling at local markets marks a starting point for competing for a place in the fuss-free food industry.
When asked about the secret of their immediate success, Chi opens up that it still occurs to her as a months-long psychosis. In the first week, they were approached by different local delis, such as Daylesford Organic in Notting Hill, but also Selfridges, asking them to start producing in larger quantities. It was certainly not easy for a young foodie-concept. “We were bedazzled by the range of opportunities cropping up,” tells Chi. “All of a sudden, people got in touch with us and gave positive feedback. Our brand evolved by word of mouth, but being in the right place at the right time does matter a lot."
Could a degree of allure also lie in the dreamy, pastel-coloured packaging? Chi asserts that clean lines and bold minimalism run through The Pressery’s spot-on visual language because that complements the brand’s message- an honest product without any extra additives. In addition to pairing the right visuals with the product’s essence, developing a strong brand identity could often be the key parameter of success. “We had to persuade people to believe in our concept and support us without actually being an approved brand yet. For that we did loads of mockups, such as the website, and focused a lot on the branding first,” Chi confirms, adding: “You must know your audience because that helps to get your basics right.”
Chi also highlights the importance of networking. “Do ask advice from brands that you admire, you will actually be surpirsed how helpful people are. They want you to succeed in the end because they have,” asserts Chi. “If you are too secretive about your idea, nobody will know what is already out there in the market, and it is harder to give advice. There have been people who reach out for help, but do not want to disclose anything, but this is not how it works,” she adds warningly.
When it comes to the actual making process, up until now Chi and Natali were responsible for bottling the “super-natural goodness” from the first step to the last. Firstly, they soak the organic Spanish almonds for 12 hours overnight to activate them and release the nutrients. Then the almonds are cold pressed in a machine using purified water, whereas the pulp and juice comes through muslin bags. The white milk is squeezed out by hand and put into chillers, which, the duo confesses, are actually old slush puppy machines. The flavoured syrups - cacao, turmeric, matcha and berry - are added at the very end. The finished product has only a four-day shelf life, so the orders are delivered on the making day to guarantee required freshness.
“You go to sleep you think about almonds, you wake up you think about almonds, you go to sleep you think about those bloody almonds! I was thinking... will it ever end?”
When discussing the prominent health food bonanza, Chi perceives it as a backlash against the long-present junk food mania that only now shows signs of reversing. “Once you have gotten into eating in a way that is the trendy way now, there is no turning back because you quickly realise that eating raw and whole foods is so much better for your health,” says Chi. “People have become more conscious about where their food comes from, and they ask questions about the products they consume - what is really in there?”. When asked about her Chinese upbringing in relation to food, Chi enlists some valuable family traditions, saying: “I’ve always been surrounded by food and making food from scratch. Chinese people never talk about love; rather they show love by sharing food with others and through family gatherings.”
There’s a saying that people who quit the 9-to-5 are entering the vicious cycle of 24/7. Running a two-man almond milk startup is no exception. In addition to producing 250-300 liters per session compared to the former target of 40, expanding the brand has become a task on its own, so they have found an outsourced production company to do the juicing and bottling. Chi confirms she feels more relaxed after they are free from the 24-hour surveilling process. “The whole journey has been a learning curve. People say it is hard and it has been hard. You go to sleep you think about almonds, you wake up you think about almonds, you go to sleep you think about those bloody almonds! I was thinking... will it ever end?” Chi laughs, adding: “We are proud to give our baby to someone else to look after. At least we don’t have to think about labels in the middle of the night.”
Although the duo have been working hard, they both understand the importance of a good time-out. “Sometimes you just have to take some time to unwind and think that no one has died, breathe and be realistic. Since there are two of us, it is mutually beneficial, as we keep reminding that to each other quite often.”
As a distant onlooker, I might note, rather resolutely, that The Pressery’s peak success is not a mere transcendental coincidence. It’s a story of a dream and hard, hard work that has paid off in the end. Evidence? It’s 6pm and in a small dim-lit coffee shop in Haggerston, Friday mood has taken over. For the past fifty-nine minutes and on, we’ve touched upon the importance of offline-ism, but determined Chi is back in the social media bubble. Monday’s orders need to be confirmed and some stockists are a heavy headache. Perhaps an almond-flavoured White Russian helps to sort that out...