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Pioneering the Future of Plant-Based Milk with Pecan Milk Cooperative

Updated: Feb 13


In the latest episode of Plant Based on Fire, we had the pleasure of diving into the inspiring journey of Nijil Jamal Jones, the founder of Pecan Milk Cooperative. At just 20 years old, Nijil began a venture that would not only challenge the norms of the dairy industry but also set new standards in plant-based milk production.


Nijil's path to entrepreneurship started with a simple experiment with a Vitamix and a passion for higher quality plant-based milk. As a young barista transitioning to veganism, Nijil's quest for a richer, nutrient-packed milk alternative led to the birth of Pecan Milk Cooperative. Sourcing pecans locally in Georgia, the brand emphasizes real, high-quality ingredients, setting it apart from the additive-laden options prevalent in the market.


One of the most remarkable aspects of Pecan Milk Cooperative is its commitment to sustainability and inclusivity. The decision to use glass packaging over plastic, despite the higher costs, reflects a dedication to environmental responsibility. Nijil, a student at Clayton State University College of Business, brings a unique perspective to the business, blending lessons from social justice activism with entrepreneurial acumen. This approach has helped shape a democratic workplace culture at Pecan Milk Cooperative, where decisions are made collectively, and leadership roles are elected by team members.


Navigating the challenges of the food industry as a young entrepreneur, Nijil learned valuable lessons about the complexities of production, distribution, and the importance of staying true to one’s values. Overcoming hurdles like mastering the nuances of pasteurization and balancing shelf life with nutrient retention, Nijil has demonstrated resilience and innovation.


As Pecan Milk Cooperative continues to grow, it remains grounded in its mission to offer a high-quality, sustainable milk alternative. The cooperative’s journey is not just about producing plant-based milk; it's about redefining the industry and creating a model that prioritizes the environment, health, and community.


For those interested in following the journey of Pecan Milk Cooperative, check out their Instagram @pecanmilk and visit their website. Nijil Jones's story is a testament to the power of passion, innovation, and the relentless pursuit of a vision that challenges the status quo.


Stay tuned to Plant Based on Fire for more inspiring stories from the plant-based business world!


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>Podcast Episode’s Transcript


Please understand that a transcription service provided the transcript below. It undoubtedly contains errors that invariably take place in voice transcriptions.


Bryan (00:00.758)

Hello everybody and welcome to Plant Based on Fire where we talk about plant based businesses and their inspiring stories to thrive in the industry. I'm your host Bryan and joining us today is Nijil Jamal Jones, the founder of Pecan Milk Cooperative. Welcome to the show, Nijil.


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (00:22.51)

Thanks so much, Bryan.


Bryan (00:24.754)

I really appreciate having you here today. And my first question is really like, tell us about the journey that you've been on, uh, to, to come to this point in your career, to create the pecan milk cooperative. Uh, how did, how did you find yourself on this path?


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (00:48.558)

Thanks, Bryan. So the Pecan Milk Co-op is 10 years old this year. Thanks so much. So in the fall of 2013, I had a roommate that had a Vitamix and I had been vegetarian, but I was transitioning into vegan. And so I was trying out different recipes.


And one of the ones that I tried was, of course we made almond milk. So I went to our farmer's market and got some almonds and blanched those and then used my roommate's Vitamix to make my own milk at home. And me and my roommate were obsessed because it was so thick and it was creamy and it was like rich and so different than, you know, some other milk that we might be used to. And so,


Bryan (01:43.906)

Yes.


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (01:46.782)

I was 20 years old and I was working as a barista, but I knew that I would pay more at the grocery store for higher quality almond milk, then I would be happy to pay more for it. And I prefer to drink that milk because it's got more nutrients and it tastes better. So that's just a better alternative. And so...


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (02:16.646)

That's really where we started. And then the following year, we started to experiment with PCAM though.


And with the pecan milk, we're in Georgia. So I could buy pecan, most pecans anywhere in the universe here in Georgia. And so, you know, it was local. So I would buy pecans from here in Georgia to make a pecan milk. And the, I bought pecan milk.com. I think the year after that.


Bryan (02:32.502)

Pekan capital of the world, right?


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (02:55.798)

and we registered the business as PKMILP Co-op LLC.


Bryan (03:00.866)

That is awesome. I applaud you on your journey. I don't think anyone on the planet should be drinking milk from another animal beyond that infancy phase for sure. So I applaud your efforts on that front. How does Pecan Milk Cooperative sort of prioritize that quality and real ingredients over the additives that you see in so many other plant milk products?


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (03:30.618)

I think all the ingredients we use are really high quality. And I think even our packaging, we are able to go with a glass packaging. Most of the milk we see out there is pasteurized at a really high temperature really quickly. So it doesn't even need to be refrigerated. And so with our, so it's in the kind of, you know, the typical cartons, we're pasteurizing at a lower temperature.


Um, you know getting a shorter shelf life and we're keeping it in glass jars um Less part of that. Um You're rumbling your question


Bryan (04:04.27)

Mm-hmm.


Bryan (04:10.606)

I, you know, the, the age old battle is, you know, the milk only has milk in it and nothing else. Well, we know there's some hair hormones and other things hiding in the, in the cow milk and those kinds of things. And the plant based milk we get picked on because it's a lot of oils and other preservatives and stuff. I think yours is a much more holistic approach to a lot of that stuff, right? You don't put a lot of other additives in yours and stuff.


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (04:39.338)

That's right. And it's a higher quantity of real nuts in there. So here in the US, a lot of our milk's not labeled as the percentage of plants in the plant-based milk, but in other countries, you'll see that some of the same brands that sell in other countries do label that their milk has two to two and a half percent nuts, with a lot of water and different additives.


Bryan (04:54.443)

Mm-hmm.


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (05:08.418)

like lecadine, guar gum, carrageenan, you know, the list goes on, of stuff to make it seem like it's full of real food and it's thick. So we use less of those different additives, we pasteurize at a lower temperature. So you're gonna get, we use more real nuts. So you're gonna get a fuller taste with more nutrients.


Bryan (05:12.919)

Yeah.


Bryan (05:31.438)

Mm hmm. I love it. I have played with my Vitamix as well quite a few times and it is amazing. You can make it at home if you're not. You don't have the Vitamix or whatever. Like definitely try these kinds of milks. It is game changer for cereals or whatever else you're putting it in. But like you started out.


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (05:37.805)

Oh yeah.


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (05:53.922)

Yeah, thanks for making it.


Bryan (05:56.33)

You started out so young, so I'm curious, like as a as a younger entrepreneur exploring and getting into this space, what were some of the challenges you faced? And how did you overcome them?


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (06:09.51)

how did I overcome them? And so I guess I went to college for two years in 2018, and I actually dropped out in 2020. And now I did go back to school. I'm in Clayton State now, I'm hoping to graduate that year with an accounting degree, which is not what I would have expected when I dropped out. I was studying women's studies, you know, in the social change concentration.


Bryan (06:31.09)

Mm-hmm. Heh heh.


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (06:39.182)

the sexual department. Right. Can you remind me of the question again?


Bryan (06:47.722)

Yeah. And just so you, as you're starting this business, I'm sure you face some challenges. Like you don't have the experience of me and I've been in the milk industry 30 years, right? So how, how are, how are you as a young entrepreneur overcoming some of those challenges?


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (06:51.578)

Thank you.


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (06:57.347)

This is a sign.


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (07:02.606)

Right, and so I was a college dropout and I thought it was gonna be, I didn't know it was gonna be so hard. I thought this is a good product, and I'm gonna go out and I'm gonna do my best to go sell it. And so I learned throughout the process a lot of the different things that I learned. We learned kind of by making mistakes.


Bryan (07:29.502)

Yeah, absolutely.


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (07:31.806)

And so, you know, that's where most of what we learned from. I also do have experience with some social justice organizing, including like with Black Lives Matter Atlanta and other groups like that. And a lot of my different skills that I have with building relationships with folks and targeting what we need, I learned in the streets. You know, but.


Bryan (07:45.57)

Yeah.


Bryan (07:57.55)

Mm-hmm.


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (07:59.91)

I think that some of the things that some of those things you would you don't even learn in business school. One of those lessons I think is net 30 terms. And we learned the hard way that we got our milk on the big local health food store. And it was we're making sales. And you know, we're selling pecans, a pan, our team members running the kitchen and it's in glass jars. But we didn't get paid.


Bryan (08:09.238)

Yeah. Ha ha ha.


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (08:26.958)

for what we sold for 30 days until after we made the sale. And we didn't know that was, we didn't know about existed, you know.


Bryan (08:35.358)

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. It's eye opening for sure. Be careful of those terms out there. And I, and you touched on it, like, you know, there's so many different ways. I see a lot of the plant-based organizations, like figuring out ways they can give back to the environment and with, with social justice, I think that's a great avenue to explore for businesses to tap into some unique markets. Um, and that, that's definitely sounds like it's, it's shaped your approach.


to business and inclusivity, right?


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (09:06.434)

That's right. Our mission has been to create dignified work for marginalized people here in the South. And so we learned that thanks, Brian, we know over time that also means democratic workplaces. And so, you know, I'm the elected CFO of our team member. Our CEO is elected by our team members. And most of the data, you know, most of the day to day decisions, management decisions, different things are made by our team.


Bryan (09:13.858)

That's awesome.


Bryan (09:19.661)

Yes.


Bryan (09:36.278)

Yeah. And that that's really like, it's called the pecan milk cooperative to have its workers and owners and how does that impact your company's culture? I mean, you already said it. I mean, it impacts the decisions on who gets to vote to be to make you CFO, right? So what other ways have you seen that help grow the company?


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (09:58.226)

Right, so I think we're like, our decisions sort of have to be intuitive for our team members. So, you know, we've had, you know, white folks on our team, straight folks on our team, men and women on our team, non-binary folks. But we're black-owned and we're LGBT-owned. We started off as being owned by people in our 20s. And over time, I guess, we're now we're.


Bryan (10:08.588)

Yeah.


Bryan (10:16.684)

Mm-hmm.


Bryan (10:25.582)

Hehehehe


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (10:28.202)

you know, and so I think we're still youth owned, but you know, one of our team members owns a house now, you know, things are different.


Bryan (10:34.21)

Yeah, that's right.


Bryan (10:39.234)

So I love all that stuff that you're doing. I wish more businesses would embark on that democratic type process to grow their business. Cause I do think as a collective, we make smarter decisions. So that's awesome to see you having that business structure and driving that forward. What, talk to me about that sustainability side of it. Like you obviously have the packaging in glass.


How does that work? Does it drive up the price a whole bunch or do you get a lot of recycling bottles since you're more of a local thing or?


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (11:14.594)

Right, we bake our pecan milk, even though there's not a lot of laws for dairy milk yet. It is still a high-risk refrigerated food, and so they're not letting us return the bottles to the Department of Ag and the FDA. But that's one of the ways that we try to stay sustainable. I think with all the packaging that we make, we try to make it either reusable or recyclable.


Bryan (11:24.408)

Mm-hmm.


Bryan (11:30.519)

Yeah.


Bryan (11:41.918)

Absolutely. Yeah. I think here in Charlotte where I am, boomerang water is big. So everybody's carrying around their tin cans and trying to recycle those water cans. I certainly hope that the government gets involved to make us recycling these bottles a key initiative.


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (11:57.714)

Yeah, I wish that plastic was banned because like you said, plastic is a little bit cheaper. There's different qualities of plastic and like this number one PET plastic that's recyclable everywhere and that is sort of, the price is sort of comparable with high quality plastic and glass and bulk. The price is lower and it's hard for entrepreneurs.


Bryan (12:01.538)

Hehehe, agreed.


Bryan (12:09.934)

Mm-hmm.


Bryan (12:14.359)

Yeah.


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (12:27.61)

to for businesses to make those decisions. I mean, because the trade-off is that now customers are paying a little bit more and everybody takes markup. So when you have, when you increase your supplies costs, you know, that really exponentially adds on to the customer because the middleman is gonna make a markup on it as well. And so it's really a tough call with plastic being cheaper.


Bryan (12:54.454)

Yep, I certainly hope the market changes that quickly here. So what are some of the trends that you see in the plant-based milk industry?


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (13:07.942)

I think we've heard that grabbing go foods that people are on the go and they want quick foods. You know, I think that we're seeing, we had an issue where the FDA was wondering if they would let us use the word milk. And the dairy companies were fighting us. They were saying we're going to confuse the customers. The FDA's released guidance that the customers aren't confused about imitation milk.


Bryan (13:26.734)

Mm-hmm. Heh.


Bryan (13:35.062)

Yep. Yeah.


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (13:37.21)

Um, yeah, so that's been great. I think that we're seeing these companies that have these major IPOs and that grew so much like beyond, like some of the big, um, some of the big, uh, vegan food, food manufacturers. Um, you know, we're seeing that some of those, some of the growth is slowing down. But I think that from what I'm seeing on the ground is that people just want real ingredients and less let's process it.


Bryan (13:46.198)

Mm-hmm.


Bryan (14:02.87)

Yeah, yeah.


I agree. I'm a big proponent of the whole food plant based movement, but I do think there's a place for these alternative proteins to push into the market and get, get you to tip into the vegan realm to a degree. And then, and then hopefully they go from there more into the whole food side of it. But yeah, I, I can't say enough. Having tried a ton of different kinds of plant based milks that the fewer, the fewer type things that you can get in them,


the honestly the better it tastes. I know it lowers the shelf life for stinks, which stinks for, for certain industries, but it does taste better. So, um, like that's really the challenge. Like what, what else do you see in the challenge of producing plant-based milk versus like traditional dairy? Are there some other things to take into consideration there?


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (14:58.882)

Are there other considerations for dairy versus plant milk?


Bryan (15:03.434)

Just like in the challenges of producing them and bringing them to market. Like you see, you see the EV, the EV market is struggling to get the charging stations everywhere. Whereas gas stations are everywhere. I feel like the same is true for milk to a degree, isn't it? They're used to drinking, bringing the cow's milk in. No problem.


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (15:09.947)

Okay, so I think.


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (15:27.198)

So I think right is two sides that on the dairy side, we're seeing, I know there's one the leading nut milk brand that's making high quality nut milk. And they have oat milk and different types of milk through an innovative process. And with just a few ingredients, that's a lot like our value proposition is that you're getting more nutrients and a fuller taste. Now they are using.


Bryan (15:38.818)

Mm-hmm.


Bryan (15:48.524)

Yeah.


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (15:55.038)

ultra high temperature pasteurization. So you don't need to refrigerate the milk. So that's awesome. But I think that organization started off as a dairy farm. So the industry, I mean, folks are moving into more and more different plant-based milks. Some folks are saying that we're still early. And it's funny because we're 10 years old.


Bryan (16:11.278)

Mm-hmm.


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (16:24.822)

And when we started, no one was really doing pecan milk. And now there's more players. And there's no one doing high quality plant-based milk either. And now there's no folks who are saying we're still early. But we're seeing that there's a lot of shift in the different plant-based. But then dairy milk is dying. And then on our side, there are costs. Some of the things I didn't know when I was 20


The food system, some parts of it might be unfair, you know? That is not.


Bryan (16:58.844)

Yes, yes, it goes back to that government regulation to a degree sometimes.


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (17:04.094)

Mm-hmm. Yeah, there's a lot of different red tape. So when we first started, you know, we got to, we had to get a shared commercial kitchen, which we were able to find one that ran us like 800 a month, which was, which was tough. So that was a big hurdle. But as we get more and more into it, we're seeing that we're needing equipment to process, to process a lot of the different foods and the equipment has to be in facilities.


Bryan (17:19.086)

Mm-hmm.


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (17:33.35)

in commercial facilities as well. And so they end up being a huge cost. And if you want to work with a co-packer to help you manufacture your foods with their big equipment, they're going to want a promise of a lot of different units for sale. So it's really, the food industry is really set up for the people that are already succeeding in the food industry that can survive the net 30 terms at major chain stores, you know, can easily come out and invest in this major equipment.


and smaller folks while, you know, we're able to go through the process of getting our own kitchen and try our best. If the really name of the game is being able to access some equipment that you need.


Bryan (18:16.622)

Mm-hmm. Yep. Yeah. I see that all the time in some of the plant-based businesses that I mentor is just getting the kitchen space and meeting the hurdles of nutritional labeling and all that kind of stuff. So the system definitely feels slanted in a certain direction. So I'm so glad that you've threaded that needle and you're well established at this point. Tell us the future vision of the Pecan Milk Cooperative. What do you, how do you.


hope to continue growing and expanding.


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (18:48.986)

How do we keep growing and expanding? That's funny. Just because we have so many tricks up our sleeve and I don't know how many of them I can share. But right now we're working with UGA. We've been working for a few years on trying our best to find the, well, we love the pecan milk and it's been a raw live food. So we didn't wanna go with traditional heat pasteurization that makes it like dead food.


Bryan (18:59.094)

Hehehehe


Bryan (19:13.656)

Mm-hmm.


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (19:18.486)

You know, we love the milk. We wanted to get it to our customers with as much of the proteins and enzymes intact as possible. So we tried a variety of ways. You know, we tried, um, we tried, first we tried high pressure processing, which was a ton of pressure on plastic bottles to kill bacteria. Um, and you know, and so the issue was that they're asking for a low pH, a more acidic food for that.


Bryan (19:19.342)

Mm-hmm.


Bryan (19:24.727)

Yeah.


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (19:47.278)

botulism and E. coli and mucil folks, they don't like this in the environment. So the FDA required us to go have a lower shelf life than we do have to use HPP. And we tried ultraviolet light as well. And ultraviolet light, usually it's for water because water is transparent. But we tried this revolving staircase of milk kind of spiraled down.


Bryan (20:00.726)

Yeah.


Bryan (20:10.542)

Mm-hmm.


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (20:16.942)

beams of ultraviolet light. And I think that would have been very effective. I think it might've been more effective than pasteurization because the pasteurization kills these bacteria and their bodies are decomposing in the milk. Whereas the ultraviolet light actually zaps out their cell walls and just really, really eliminates a lot of the bacteria and so microorganisms. But the FDA wouldn't let us do that either.


Bryan (20:31.461)

Yeah.


Bryan (20:38.401)

Yeah.


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (20:47.294)

which we learned as we got through the process. And we tried micro filtration. I was in Wisconsin doing experiments where we tried to filter the milk through, you know, different tiny layers. And it filtered a lot of the good stuff out. So we're working with UGA now on pasteurizing at a lower temperature. It's gonna need to be refrigerated. And we're...


Bryan (20:49.965)

Yeah.


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (21:15.306)

Also, we've homogenized the product, so we're working on making it separate less. It separates, it's in a glass. It's really like milk where you get the creaminess at the top of it. You gotta shake it up, but people aren't used to that, so people think it spoils. So we're playing with homogenizing right now too.


Bryan (21:27.755)

Yeah.


Bryan (21:33.057)

Yep.


Bryan (21:38.614)

Yeah, I mean, you are clearly a plant based milk expert at this point in time with all the buzzwords and everything that you just took us through. Like, it's so intriguing to listen and hear all the different ways that you're accomplishing that processing. And I do think part of the battle is just is just informing people that, you know.


we're going to have to change our mentalities to a degree. You're going to have to shake it up and get it mixed up again. And you're going to have to just embrace that there are those nutrients hiding in it and it has a shorter self shelf life. Um, so drink it up quicker and, and go buy more. It's fresh. That's right. This has been so enlightening Nigel. I really appreciate the time you've committed to hanging out with us and teaching us about the plant based milk journey.


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (22:17.569)

It's fresh.


Bryan (22:29.866)

I wish you and the Pecan Milk Cooperative a whole bunch of success in the future. What can the plant-based on fire community do to help? And what are the best ways to get in touch?


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (22:42.582)

Right. So I would say to follow us on our Instagram at PCAMmilk right now. You know, we'll release more updates. Haven't been too active recently because we've been so focused on the science projects that we're doing, get ready with our longer shelf life. You can find updates there on social media and folks can get in touch with us by going to our website, PCAMmilk.com and dropping a message.


Bryan (22:57.686)

Mm-hmm.


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (23:09.79)

or sending an email to heyh or can text us at 22929PKAN. So later on, yeah. So we'll be, we're gonna be active and we're gonna need everyone's hands on deck to make sure that the, you know, our pecan milk co-op can bring pecan milk to everyone.


Bryan (23:17.174)

Very cool.


Bryan (23:35.686)

I love it. I hope to see it here in the in the area where I am soon. And thanks again, Nijill. That everybody is all the time we have for this episode of Plant Based on Fire. Again, thank you, Nigel, for joining us and sharing your insights and experiences with the community. I learned a whole bunch. And so until next time, everybody, keep that fire burning. OK.


Nijil Jamal Jones (they) (23:57.85)

Take care, y'all.


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