The Inside Story

PANA ORGANIC WOWS TASTE BUDS WITH THEIR VEGAN CHOCOLATE AND ICECREAM

“I watched the movie ‘Chocolat’ with Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp on a Thursday night, someone put chocolate in front of me on the Monday and it was that lightbulb moment!” Pana Barbounis

This month Jodie and I travel to Melbourne to meet the inspiring founder behind the Pana Organic brand, Pana Barbounis. Pana shares his deep love of food and family, his motivation behind launching a vegan chocolate brand, and why collaborating with the right people can be a delicious mouth-watering recipe for success.

Pana Barbounis grew up with his grandparents in a Greek community in Melbourne. His grandparents immigrated to Australia when they were young. Although the family didn’t have a lot of money, they did grow up with a lot of love and a lot of food. 

“My relationship with food has been epic from day one. I developed an appreciation for food growing up that was more than just eating for the sake of eating (although we did eat a lot more than we needed to!)” says Pana.

When Pana went out into the big wide world, leaving the comfort of his community behind, he naturally went into the food industry. He did some vocational study in hospitality, opened many restaurants and catering businesses including servicing Melbourne Airport, and even tried his hand at a winery.

But when he hit his thirties he was tired. He felt empty and needed a sense of direction. He decided to take a couple of years off to recalibrate.

“It was during this sabbatical that I watched the movie ‘Chocolat’ with Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp on a Thursday night, someone put chocolate in front of me on the Monday and it was that lightbulb moment!” says Pana.

Pana knew straight away that this was the dream to chase. He went to Belgium and then England to do some training, and on his return he locked himself away with some flavours and began to experiment. Pana had some friends working with essential oils so he thought why not bring this into chocolate. He started with mint and orange flavours and these two flavours still exist in the Pana Organic range today.

“I launched Pana Chocolate with six flavours. Lots of trials and lots of setting up little stalls at little markets and getting feedback. I used to make the chocolate in ice cubes, cake moulds, anything, and people would test it and provide feedback. About 6 months into the journey I launched my chocolate in a box and hired a commercial space,” shares Pana.

VEGAN CHOCOLATE

The Greek traditional diet is heavily plant-based so when Pana decided to go vegan eight years ago it was not a difficult transition. Pana tells me that the Greek Orthodox religion involves fasting three times a year for 40 days. During this period nobody eats animals with red blood, products from animals with red blood and no fish or other seafood with backbones.

Pana began with embracing the slow food movement. This was about a real appreciation for anything eaten and not just eating meat for the sake of eating meat.

“I was on a trip to Los Angeles with a friend. We were looking into some other business ventures and we were introduced to an ‘In-N-Out Burger’. We were asked to try it. My friend jumped in and said, ‘I’m not eating that, I’m a vegetarian’ and I felt obligated to try it. I remember that was the last bit of meat I ate. That was on the 29th May eight years ago now. I ate it and didn’t feel great, went back to the hotel room and watched the documentary Earthlings. I was texting all of my friends, crying and said ‘I’m not eating meat anymore’ and that was it,” explains Pana.

TAPPING INTO A GLOBAL MOVEMENT

Pana’s shift to veganism and his creation of a vegan chocolate brand was a personal journey. At the time he couldn’t have predicted he would be tapping into a global movement. Veganism is now one of the fastest-growing health movements of all time. The three main reasons people are shifting to plant-based diets are to help eliminate their own health issues, a desire for ethical treatment of animals and also as a way of creating a more sustainable future for our planet. 

And the data on food sales proves the shift. Sales of plant-based alternatives to animal-based foods including meat, cheese, milk and eggs grew 17% over the past year in the U.S., while overall U.S. food sales rose only 2%, according to data from Nielsen and the Good Food Institute. The market for plant-based foods is now more than $3.7 billion.

“I see what happens in abattoirs and that was a big part of my shift. The best thing for me about going vegan is that I felt equal to every other living being. I’m no more worthy of taking someone else’s life, whether it’s a sentient being or a human being, we are all equal,” Pana passionately explains.

THE FAMILY CONNECTION

Right from the beginning, Pana’s wife Yola has been part of the design of the Pana Organic brand, however, it was his sister Maria who was more involved. Pana and Maria have worked together in various businesses, she is a chef by trade. When Pana started he would make the chocolate, wrap it and pack it but as more and more orders started coming in Maria would come in after her day job and help Pana with the making. She then became one of Pana’s first employees and is still with the company today. She is MPD Chocolate Head Chef. Pana tells me that sometimes on the weekends his kids come in and help stick labels on packs. It’s full family support all the time.

“My second daughter Tahlia tells me that she wants to work here one day,” says Pana. “She is only eleven, and of course if she wants to that is great, but there is no pressure from me.”

ICE CREAM MEETS CHOCOLATE, ZAK BENNETT ENTERS

Pana first met Zak when he went to a fundraising event for the Sea Shepherd. Zak was outside with a bike and a box selling ice cream. Zak had a brand called Zebra Dream that made organic coconut ice cream. He was initially selling it in little coffee cups and would make it at home on the weekends.

“I like icecream!” Zak exclaims.

Zak explains to me that he wanted the business to be self-supporting. He had a bunch of ideas but landed on ice cream and further still vegan ice cream because there was only one vegan brand at the time.

“When you start a business you want to pick a niche. You want to do something people aren’t doing. So I picked vegan ice cream and went after my passion. I built a cart – a three-wheeler truck – and had a freezer in the front and I’d go and sell on the weekends. I’d go to markets, events, Sea Shepherd days and world vegan days. I’d attend festivals like Moonbar or the St Kilda festival and sell my ice cream. And that’s where I met Pana as we crossed over a few times at different events. We started up a friendship and eventually Pana came onboard as a partner and another year later having two businesses was a bit difficult and we decided that merging them together would be better and easier to utilise all the resources,” shared Zak.

Zebra Dream is now a brand under Pana Organic. And Pana and Zak collaborate on all kinds of products.

Pana and Zak merged their businesses in July 2018, and although they have created magic with their chocolate and ice cream products there have definitely been some hurdles.

‘What’s been difficult?” I ask. “Is it difficult for two entrepreneurs finding common ground?”

Pana says no. They work really well together. The issue is the crazy deadlines they seem to get themselves into. For example two weeks after merging they launched Pana Organic ice cream into Coles. Which meant quick turnarounds.

“It’s a really complicated process to develop a white chocolate, or a new ice cream flavour or a completely new product like vegan organic sticks. Creating chocolate that cracks and doesn’t fall off the stick is difficult. There are a lot of technicalities to the product,” Pana shares.

Other brands would take two years to create new products like this, but the boys had a 6-month timeframe. They explain to me that first you need ice cream that will stay on a stick and the chocolate recipe needs to be slightly different to the bars because the chocolate has to coat differently. You need to be able to dip the chocolate for four seconds and then it’s got to be able to harden before you package it up. When you eat it you want it to crack nicely, you don’t want it to flake off and fall off the stick. You don’t want it to be so fragile that in transit and in packaging when you get it home it’s all cracked.

“It’s all about getting the recipe right,” explains Zak. “We need the right temperature for the coat. It’s easy to make it work with multiple ingredients but we are only playing with a handful of ingredients in each product. We don’t have stabilisers or any artificial numbers. We use minimum ingredients in all our products.”

Although things have been hectic, the boys have had great support from both Coles and Woolworths and they believe this is because they are attuned to the global movement. They see where things are trending. 

Zak and Pana are grateful for this.

And they really are a great team.

“Pana’s positivity and drive to make things happen is incredible. He is truly dedicated to the business and the dream. It’s inspiring to work with and we keep each other going,” shares Zak.

“For me it’s Zaks relentless commitment. He will be up at 2am if he has to get something to someone the next day. There is no question. No sub-standard products, it has to be 100% in Zak’s eyes,” shares Pana.

TAKING PANA ORGANIC OVERSEAS

When Pana launched in 2012 he pretty quickly had overseas interest. And with this interest came a great deal of excitement. With ego leading the way Pana decided to launch into overseas markets. But the reality is he wasn’t ready. They didn’t have the resourcing and the funding to support the scale-up. They had some great products but there was so much to do in their own backyard before looking overseas. So they pulled back. They still do have a presence overseas but for the moment the real focus is in Australia and export will be for the future.

THE DREAM

Pana and Zak share with me their big dreams. They want to see the Pana Organic products playing in a number of different spaces. They have only just launched the sticks into grocery but they would love to see them in the convenience space. 

“We feel like we probably have about 5% of the market. People are aware of the product but we know we can reach a wider audience. We want to push our game, stick to our ideals in terms of sustainability and sustainable agriculture and support making the world better by offering vegan and organic products to the world as the alternative to dairy.

We want Pana Organic to be the go-to organic dessert brand in Australia,” they say.

Sounds like a pretty good dream to me.

Words: Emma Scott
Photography: Lauren Bamford and Pana Organic

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