Episode 14

Episode 14: Setting the standard for vegan ice cream with Dirk Mischendahl

Founder and director of Northern Bloc Dirk Mischendahl (Psychology 1995) is doing ice cream differently.

He started out by making ice cream through the night and selling it from a van during the day. Now, Dirk and co-founder Josh Lee supply hundreds of theatres, arts venues and tourist attractions across the UK.

Northern Bloc can be found in the Co-op, Ocado, Morrisons, Waitrose, and on all Virgin Atlantic outbound flights. Their plant-based and vegan range are changing perceptions – and setting the standard for non-dairy products.

Ahead of World Vegan Day, we hear his thoughts on making tasty vegan ice cream, why he chose to make ethical products, and his advice for aspiring entrepreneurs at Leeds.


Ed Newbould: Hello and welcome to Leeds Voices, the weekly podcast brought to you by the University of Leeds. In this episode, we're joined by the founder and director of Northern Bloc ice cream, Dirk Mischendahl. Dirk is doing ice cream differently. He started out by making ice cream through the night and suddenly from a van during the day. Now Dirk and co-founder Josh Lee supply hundreds of status arts venues and tourist attractions across the UK.

Northern Bloc can be found in the Co-op, Ocado, Morrisons, Waitrose and on all Virgin Atlantic outbound flights. The plant-based and vegan range are changing perceptions and setting the standards for non-dairy products. Ahead of World Vegan Day we hear his thoughts on making tasty vegan ice cream, why he chose to make ethical products, and his advice for aspiring entrepreneurs.

Dirk Mischendahl: Actually what I set out to do was to buy an ice cream van, which I did. And essentially just sell ice cream at events and do a little bit of street food. And that didn't quite work out the way I thought it would. Then we met up with some people. I met up with Josh, who is my business partner, Josh Lee. We went into business, and we basically started doing foods at food markets and street food events, food festivals. We used to produce the ice cream at night and then sell it during the day. And then, you know, it sort of became, you know, quite good. And then we thought we'd grow a little bit further and then we started to supply restaurants.

And then before you know it, we ended up with our chairman being really interested in it, who I knew through a friend, which is Alan Lights. And so suddenly he wanted to invest and before, you know it, we have an 18,000 square foot factory turning over £6 million worth of ice cream and, you know, we'd like to think that we're probably the benchmark for vegan ice cream or vegan products, plant based ice cream in the UK.

ur combinations because since:

And that's, you know, that's really taken off. So yeah, we're now getting to be known a lot more. So we're in a lot of theatres. We've got 120 theatres around the countr, all the supermarkets. We supply the Opera House in London and we're all outbound flights and Virgin Atlantic, you know, we're sort of continuing to grow the business.

And it's you know, it's a good product and it's a great tasting product, and that's continually innovated.

Ed Newbould: I know you said you bought the ice cream van, but why ice cream? Why not some other food?

Dirk Mischendahl: I like ice cream. It was a whim. I mean, I am a serial entrepreneur and you know, money isn't a motivator. It's the idea that's the motivation. So, yes, I'm successful in some respects, I suppose, you know, I don't want for anything, but money doesn't interest me.

I like the idea of ice cream. So, you know, we met a great chef who's got some great ideas and great flavour combinations, and who doesn't like ice cream? I mean, in hindsight, I didn't quite think through that sometimes ice cream is a bit seasonal, which, you know, if you have a July like we did recently, it can be quite impactful. Impactful on your baseline turnover.

Ed Newbould: Did you always plan to set up in Leeds? Or is that just because that's where you're based?

have done since I arrived in:

If you look back at what Leeds has done, me and my wife were somewhere in another country, you know, a few months back and there was a bridge and it was built in Leeds. The first film was made on the Leeds Bridge. The Confederate uniforms were made, you know, printed or something in Leeds.

And I mean, there's a stack of stuff you know, innovation drive, newness. It was always in the north, and that was why we're here. Basically. Leeds has a big history of ice cream. It used to come up as ice from spurn head along the canal. And people then added these flavours on the ice and they used to come up on the canal boat and then the Italians came and then they introduced cream and there’s now a huge Italian network of families like the Clémente and so forth that are part of the heritage of ice cream in Leeds.

Ed Newbould: When you first entered the industry, obviously northern black ice cream is delicious, how did you make that the case? Who did you get on board to help you?

Dirk Mischendahl: I mean, there was a guy called Josh Whitehead who was a young chef, and he had some great ideas and he came up with the original flavours. And then we met a guy called Manolo, who is also currently a director of the ice cream companies, and Manolo comes from a sort of fourth generation family of ice cream makers, and they're all very Italian and have they're gelato shops and no one talks about the recipes. They've all got to work their own way out and teach they teach you how to make ice cream but not the recipe. So, you know, he had a lot of a say. And then Josh and I and Lena, who's, you know, also very passionate we all just, you know, we get together and we just sort of, you know, throw ideas around.

Ed Newbould: The idea of being ethical was that something that was personal to you or what drove that idea?

Dirk Mischendahl: I think it's personal to both Josh and I and everyone who works there. I think the reality is, is that I mean, what's frustrating is, is that industries in large food manufacturing industries have taken so long to get their heads around doing away with plastic and they've almost got to be forced into it, you know what I mean?

And that for me is disappointing because, you know, we need to be conscious of it. We were the first to launch the fully biodegradeable, homemade degradable 500 mil pop ice cream. Now, that was a fantastic product. It was based on cane sugar. It was really good. And we were getting some traction.

COVID hit and the factory shut down and no one's bothered to do it again. So we had to import it. So, you know, it's taken a long time for people to get their heads around, you know, line parts and it’s coming through now. But, you know, I mean, again, they've just released this new, I think rapeseed.

You know the best thing since palm oil so you know and they're saying, oh, it's going to be the saviour. The problem with this is that we're trying to find more stuff and actually we need to use less. Less is more. There's you know, there's a whole series on it. And, you know, anything that comes out in this world that is sustainable. So, you know, we started with rice syrup, which was less problematic than palm oil, then that that was higher water useage and California's dying of a drought, you know, So they have to stop using cashews, you know, avocados. The the avocado world now is run by cartel in South America.

Do you know what I mean? We're coming out with a new linseed or rapeseed oil based than palm oil equivalent. What that going to do? It's going to basically, if it's as good as they say it is, it's going to just take over from palm oil to do the same thing. The fundamental thing is we continue to use more, we consume more, and we need to consume less.

It’s like everyone says sugar is evil and fat. Neither of those are evil. They are very good and they help to make things taste very nice. But it is the reason I'm overweight is because I've got no self-control. It's not the evil sugar and the evil fat. It's because I can't stop it in my mouth, you know?

I mean, you know, let's stop blaming other things for it.

Ed Newbould: The vegan flavours. They are actually quite hard to make them tasty, is it?

Dirk Mischendahl: Yes. You've got a couple of things. You've got to try is a lot of experimentation and R&D. But secondly, it's about not accepting, which is what I suspect the vegan world in the eighties and nineties would eat, you know, cardboard because no one was investing time and money into making things taste.

You know, there are ways of doing it. Ultimately these ingredients, some of them didn't exist, you know, four years ago. And then the other thing is that they are slightly more because of the demand that they're more expensive. So, you know, all of those factors are all playing all at once.

Ed Newbould: Do you have a favourite flavour of your own?

Dirk Mischendahl: I mean, for me, vanilla has always been a big one for me because vanilla is seen as a cheap flavour and that's also just going to be cheaper. Vanilla is more expensive than silver. And because of climate change in Madagascar and places like that, there's always droughts. It's such a highly traded commodity.

You know, vanilla is not a cheap flavour. And then, you know, we've done some amazing flavours. One of my favourites is grapefruit and bergamot, that was a lovely flavour that we did. We did a parkin and flavour. And my preference changes. You know, I love our lemon sorbet. You know, I love chocolate and I don't have a favourite, but vanilla is one that when you measure everything against vanilla, if you get a great vanilla, everything else falls into place on that.

Ed Newbould: So yeah. Okay. And have you have you ever considered going all vegan?

Dirk Mischendahl: Yeah. I'm glad we didn't. Just because the market was overheating, I think. You know, I think we still have a vision of creating ice cream products that taste great, regardless of what the base is, whether it's plant based or whether it's dairy based. I think the problem we've got at the moment in the market is there's still a lot of stigma sitting around vegan versus plant based.

And then, you know, people compare well, it doesn't taste like that. And it's really funny. And I can see why they do it because it’s like does it taste good? If you didn't know what dairy was, does it taste good? Yes. But what they tend to do is, oh, it doesn't taste like the dairy. Well, it won't, will it.

that, is that in late sort of:

But that's what people want and that's sold. I think that did the first IPO was I think it was something like 1.3 billion. It was a value that I mean, where have those numbers come from? And now because you know the economic climate, a few things have happened, the market's dropped out of it. And so, you know, people aren't investing into it.

You know, people are really struggling in that world.

Ed Newbould: I know you mentioned what you want people to focus on is does it taste good? Is there an argument for even not even advertising it as vegan, just ice cream?

Dirk Mischendahl: Yes, there is. But you can't. You have to tell them what's in it. So, I mean, I think I think we are getting to the place where it's just asking. But there's technicalities over what is ice cream. You know, there's a frozen dessert as ice cream, and then there's gelato. All three are different. So technically, if you go back to the rules, they have technically different content. So 5% is a frozen dessert, five to something I think I don't know, 10 to 12% is, is an ice cream. And then above that is a slice of gelato.

Ed Newbould: Yeah, fair enough. And do you have what is your top selling flavor or product? I presume it’s not a vegan one.

Dirk Mischendahl: Vegan is probably 60% or 50% about less recently but is probably half of our turnover. Vegan is the biggest selling line. Our best flavours will always be chocolate, vanilla, strawberry. The second biggest selling line is Vanilla Dairy. Our second biggest selling line is vanilla plant based.

Ed Newbould: When you were at Leeds, had an entrepreneurship cross your mind at that point? You said your dad was an entrepreneur and had his own businesses.

Dirk Mischendahl: Yeah, I mean, I find yeah, I mean, I suppose it's just a label, isn't it? I was never going to work for anyone. That was. That's the reality. I don't, you know, because I look at things from the point of view of saying, you know what, I can do better, it’s just pure arrogance. And you think I could do that.

And that's why it excites me. I think what what's interesting for me now is that as I get older and, you know, being 55 turning 55 this year, I'm more driven about how do I share what I've learned, how do I make an impact? And, you know, we talk about impact and I don't want to sound like I want to make a legacy.

That's just rubbish. You know, the planet is 6 billion years old, you know, you're never going to make an impact. I mean, you know, it's it's not that sort of thing. But I do, I do think it's important and I think it's a shame that we don't get an opportunity.

You know, you learn or I think I'm in my business prime at the moment because I'm still young enough to do stuff but old enough with all that experience to share that with people, to give them some insight to how to save mine. And I'm a big advocate of, you know, I would listen to anyone because, you know, it just it's an idea in that.

Ed Newbould: If you were to speak to say students now and they want to start their own business out there, what advice would you tend to give, like your number one piece of advice?

Dirk Mischendahl: For me it's always been trust your gut. We look we, it's not scientific in what I'm saying but I tend to find people who've got ideas have sat on them for ages and thought and thought and thought about it and one day they go, right, I'm going to make this happen.

Or some life changing moment happens where they think or they get sacked or they get made redundant or whatever happens and they think, right, or I'm going to do this. And they've thought about it a lot. Yeah. So therefore they know a lot about it. Generally they’ve thought about it researched it, they've worked out what, what they haven't got is the confidence yet that this, this could work, they need money generally to start, and someone to basically just bounce ideas off them.

What you don't need is someone trying to tell you how to do it. I think you need to trust your gut. Everybody thinks they're an expert. Then as I said, I have a genuine desire to share what I've learned. I have experience that I've had and if that’s going to save someone, some pain, money, whatever, then I'm all I'm all in.

Ed Newbould: It strikes me that Northern Bloc continues to come up with new ideas and new things. So what’s on the horizon? What's the next thing in there?

Dirk Mischendahl: There is a really big idea that we're coming out with. And I really genuinely don't want to tell you because we're in the middle of some negotiations, but it's a big product that has been about but has never been about in the UK. So I'm pretty excited about that.

But also to continue to really grow the plant based self-serve idea, which we've just signed up with National Trust, trialling at 70 of their sites. So we see that as a big opportunity, as a sustainable product. It's allergen free, it tastes great and it's a great alternative to and, you know, I think allergens is I mean, we have societies becoming more susceptible to allergens.

So I think that in itself is the big, big seller.

Ed Newbould: Thank you for listening to this episode of Leeds Voices. It was presented, edited and produced by me Ed Newbould. Leeds Voices is brought to you by the Advancement Team at the University of Leeds. You can follow us on social media at Leeds Alumni or contact us on email at alumni@leeds.ac.uk

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Leeds Voices
A brand new weekly podcast bringing you insightful interviews from those who studied and work at Leeds.