Koel Thomae always knew she wanted to work with natural foods, and she wanted to do it in Boulder. She spent years getting a foothold—until one bite of yogurt on a faraway beach launched her amazing success story. (photos courtesy Noosa)

Down-Under Recipe Is Over the Top

By Lisa Truesdale

Koel Thomae was born in Australia and so was her now-famous Noosa Yoghurt, but they’ve both found a home in Colorado.

After college, Thomae didn’t know what to do with her life, so she set out on a journey of discovery—a walkabout, of sorts. She knew two things for sure: She wanted to head to the U.S., and whatever she ended up doing would involve food. “Food has always been my passion,” she says. “Also, my mum is American, and I had visited several times and wanted to come back.”

noosa-8oz-Blackberry-Serrano-Lid
One of Noosa’s newest flavors, Blackberry Serrano, was originally marketed only in Colorado, as a thank-you to the state. It was such a hit that it will soon be sold everywhere.

Thomae bounced around the western states for a few years, finally landing in Boulder in 1999. “I kept thinking about what I wanted to do, and it always came back to food,” she says. “I decided to do whatever it took to break into Boulder’s amazing natural-foods industry.”

She applied for every position she could find, even if her eclectic work history (restaurants, office work, IT, copy editing) didn’t always help. In 2004, a then-small startup called Izze gave her a chance. Although it was an operations position, she persuaded them to let her sit in on meetings to learn every facet of the business.

In late 2005, Thomae took her new beau, Tait (now her husband), to Australia. After a day at the beach, they ducked into a small shop where Thomae spied a nondescript clear container in the cooler labeled “passion fruit”—one of her favorite flavors. She took it home, opened it up and discovered that it was actually a full-fat, creamy yogurt with fresh fruit purée.

But it wasn’t just any yogurt, she says. “It was literally one of the best things I’d ever eaten. The flavor stopped me in my tracks.” She raved about it the rest of the trip, and her mum suggested she call the company. “I said, ‘What should I say—“You make delicious yogurt?”’ and Mum said, ‘Sure. But just call.’” So she called and asked them if they had ever considered doing business outside of Australia. They hadn’t, and they seemed a little overwhelmed by the idea, so Thomae ended the conversation with “Well, you make delicious yogurt.”

Back in Boulder, Thomae couldn’t let it go, talking about it nonstop with her Izze coworkers, who eventually convinced her to do something. She called the yogurt-making family again on her next visit to Australia. (“Actually,” she admits, “my mum called them.”) Over a three-hour lunch, Thomae explained that she really wanted to work out a deal to bring their yogurt to the U.S. “I told them, ‘I really need to be able to eat this yogurt more than once a year.’”

She walked out of that meeting with a license for the recipe.

Enter Farmer Rob

Back in Boulder, Thomae started researching the dairy industry. Realizing that she needed an experienced partner, she found Rob Graves (“Farmer Rob”) of Morning Fresh Dairy Farm in northern Colorado, and pitched him the idea.

“Farmer Rob” Graves of Morning Fresh Dairy Farm in Bellvue has been Noosa’s trusted dairy partner since the beginning. When they first started working together, Thomae recalls telling him, “We’re going to overtake your dairy, you know.” A few years later she said to him, “See, I was right.” And he chuckled and said, “I know.” (photos courtesy Noosa)
“Farmer Rob” Graves of Morning Fresh Dairy Farm in Bellvue has been Noosa’s trusted dairy partner since the beginning. When they first started working together, Thomae recalls telling him, “We’re going to overtake your dairy, you know.” A few years later she said to him, “See, I was right.” And he chuckled and said, “I know.” (photos courtesy Noosa)

“He thought I was a little bonkers,” she laughs, but with help from her mum (again) she got samples from Australia. When Graves tasted them he too was hooked.

Things were up and running in about 18 months. Graves was already planning a new bottling plant, so adding a yogurt-making facility was fairly easy. Thomae created a look and voice with two friends, a graphic designer and a copywriter. She also searched for the perfect containers; she wanted clear ones “for the freshness to show,” but couldn’t find them in a normal size. By default, she chose the squat 8-ounce containers that ended up becoming an essential part of Noosa’s brand identity.

Noosa, named for the beachside town in Australia where the recipe originated, launched in January 2010. The company has grown from four flavors and eight employees the first year to 18 flavors, three package sizes and more than 130 employees today. Sales at more than 25,000 retailers nationwide have doubled in the past two years alone, topping $100 million in 2015, and a $20-million facility renovation is underway.

Although Thomae and Graves found a private equity group a few years ago to help Noosa grow without changing it in any way, they both stayed involved in the day-to-day operations. Thomae now does “all the fun stuff,” like traveling around being a brand ambassador and eating delicious food (still her passion).

Thomae’s mum and stepdad, Nancy Thomae and Bob Baker, visit yearly from Australia and tour around in their “Noosa Caboosa,” passing out coupons and swag. The company updates Facebook and Twitter fans with the Caboosa’s schedule so they won’t miss out. (photos courtesy Noosa)
Thomae’s mum and stepdad, Nancy Thomae and Bob Baker, visit yearly from Australia and tour around in their “Noosa Caboosa,” passing out coupons and swag. The company updates Facebook and Twitter fans with the Caboosa’s schedule so they won’t miss out. (photos courtesy Noosa)

And her mum is having fun, too. She visits for a few months every year with her husband, and when they’re not spending precious time with Thomae’s 3-year-old, Matilda, they travel around the country in their RV—adorned with Noosa images and dubbed the “Noosa Caboosa” by social-media fans. “They’re kind of our rogue marketing team,” Thomae says. “We arm them with coupons and swag, and away they go.”

While Thomae is a bit amazed that Noosa became a sensation so quickly, in some ways she’s not surprised at all.

“I knew what I wanted and I never gave up,” she says. “I was looking for a way to bridge my homeland with my new home, and creating Noosa did that for me. It’s the best of both worlds.”