Interview with Bess Weyandt, Treehouse Milk

Image introducing interview with Bess of Treehouse Milk

Can you tell us a little bit about your background/history that has led you to this point?

My background is all over the map, so it was a fortuitous alignment of things that brought me to where I am now. My dad’s an urban planner and my mom is an artist, and I guess I got an equal distribution of their left-brain/right-brain genes. In college, I majored in American studies because it allowed me to apply all types of classes to my major and satisfy all my curiosities.My first job was on a political campaign in San Francisco, and I ended up coming back to Georgia to work on campaigns in my home state. It was fun and I worked with some inspiring people, but being a progressive in Georgia can be a challenge, so I started getting the itch to return to my more creative roots. I ended up getting a Masters in Interior Design from SCAD in 2008. The thing about political work is that it’s hard to get away, so I ended up getting pulled back into the campaign arena right after that. Then in 2011, an opportunity came up to work at Flashpoint, a program for tech startups at Georgia Tech. It was there, and later running a non-profit called Startup Atlanta, that I really got the entrepreneurial itch – all that courageous, creative energy rubbed off on me.

Lo and behold, I got called back into the political fray when Jason Carter decided to run for Governor, and was his finance director on that 2014 campaign. Now this is where all these disparate, intertwined paths come together … it was after that campaign, in 2015, when I was taking a walk with Jason’s wife, Kate. We were both at this career crossroads, trying to figure out what was next after coming down from that campaign.

I had had this almond milk business idea filed in the back of my mind for a while. With Atlanta’s growing food scene, I had this inkling that perhaps Atlanta could be ready for a local producer of real, fresh nut milk. And so I threw this crazy idea out to Kate – what if we made almond milk and delivered it in glass jars, just like the old fashioned milkman? She embraced it, and we started mixing up batches and were in business three months later. Looking back on it, it’s absurd and magical.

Tell us about your product/brand and the inspiration behind it?

Treehouse Milk was born out of frustration around the lack of authentic almond milk at the grocery store. I had tried to be a vegan many years ago, and started drinking almond milk in the process (sadly, it was really the one part of veganism that truly took). At some point, I looked at the ingredient list of my store-bought milk and realized that what I was drinking was barely almond milk. It was filled with all kinds of additives you couldn’t pronounce and was watered down. The irony is that I thought there needed to be an option for real nut milk and that I shouldn’t have to make it at home every day; that this should be a product that is readily available. And here I am now, making it every day!

Our inspiration has always been our community and the local food system. We source as locally as possible, are delivering right to our neighbors’ doorsteps and get to know our neighbors every week at farmers markets. The love of local is why we fell so hard for Georgia pecan milk – taking this incredibly nutritious Southern commodity and giving it fresh appeal. We picked our name Treehouse because it’s a fun play on “tree nuts” and the home delivery aspect of what we do, plus it conjures up this nostalgic playfulness that we seek to embody – delivering old-school, milk(wo)man style.  

Image of co-founders Bess and Kate

How does sustainability play a role in your brand/product development? How important has this been to consumers?

Sustainability has always been core to who we are, starting with our jar reuse program. Our customers return jars to us, and we sanitize and reuse them. We love that our community has fully embraced this effort to reduce waste. We’ve also started to take the meal that’s left over from our milk-making process and upcycle it as another food product. So, we’ve partnered with Pulp hot sauce here in Atlanta to make a delicious pecan-based dip and with Happy Camper to make energy bites, which we sell at farmers markets.  

Customers frequently ask about the sustainability of different nuts – and that’s what makes pecans such an easy sell. They’re far more sustainable than almonds, especially when grown in a local climate that supports them.

How does technology and innovation play a role in your business?

What we are doing is a pretty straightforward process right now. Without letting the cat completely out of the bag, we have some exciting things in the works that will allow more folks to enjoy our products. We are also looking to further innovate around local plants as food, so stay tuned!

What does wilderness mean to you?  

Undiscovered terrain – whether that’s physical, mental or emotional. And it takes some guts to venture out into it. Perhaps there’s an initial loneliness surrounding that idea or reality, but once the surface is scratched, and the risk is taken, there’s vast opportunity in the new and unknown. A lot like starting a business!

Treehouse Milk product

Do you have a favorite item- it may be an heirloom handed down from a grandparent, friend or relative of some kind- that has great meaning to you?

My dad makes Shaker boxes, which are very simple, bent wood, oval boxes that come in different sizes. I’ve acquired several from him over the years and love having them around as this reminder about craft when so much of my life generally revolves around my phone and computer. The same goes for my mom’s oil paintings on my walls.

If you had to choose one place to live with only the basics available to you where would it be and what would you take with you (apart from the obvious survival gear)?

That’s tough. There are so many terrains where I feel at peace. If I had to pick, I’d go with an island so I could chill near water, but also have access to some interesting nooks and crannies to explore, like Jamaica or the Azores. I’d make sure to bring books and a way to listen to music, but also things to paint and dye (a hobby of mine). I would also probably bring along a good friend to keep me company, enough wine to last for a while, and some salt for whatever I’m eating.

Imagine that 25 years from now you are looking back on your life, what would be the legacy that you would hope for your brand to leave behind?

My hope is that Treehouse pecan milk encourages folks to re-think the ways that the food (plants!) growing around them can be consumed. That we can create a supply chain that is built on fairness and quality, that sources sustainably and locally grown; a product that brings joy and is nutrient-rich; and processes that do minimal environmental harm. I hope we will have shown that there is more to pecans than just pie – and maybe we’ve spurred some economic development and community improvement in Georgia as a result.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the ways in which a business can be a force for good. I’m especially big on empowering women right now and imagining ways that I or Treehouse can play a role in that.  

Style shot of Treehouse Milk

What message do you have for those starting their own business in regards to sustainability and innovation?

It is incumbent upon businesses in our economic system to lead on sustainability. We are at such a critical point right now – no one can rationally argue that we have not reached crisis level when it comes to the environment. People consume; that won’t change. But it’s up to businesses to make the investments in and build products that will allow folks to consume in a more responsible way. For example, we’re seeing more and more of our customers reject our products that come in plastic. There’s a shift taking place, but businesses have to keep up and present customers with responsible options.

Sustainability and innovation can take so many forms; there’s no one way to lead on these things, which is where innovation comes in. It can be overwhelming, so I’d encourage small businesses to choose one way they’re going to have an impact – it could be something as simple as re-using all the wrapping and padding that comes in shipments you receive. A simple awareness of your own consumption and your end users’ consumption is a good place to start; challenge yourself to ask “is this necessary?” at every step. We don’t always get it right, but we’re trying.

Do you have a quote, saying or poem you find inspirational and what is it?

Pretty much anything Mary Oliver has written. Also, I have this friend Anis, who is an amazing poet. He has this one poem “Shake the Dust,” which he performs and it’s filled with all kinds of life-affirming gems. You can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4hP1WCiSgWg

Product shot of full and empty Treehouse Milk jars, which they encourage reuse of

What brands do you admire?

I’m really digging East Fork Pottery these days. Watching the way they’ve taken a traditional craft and made it a scalable proposition with beautiful, simple, modern aesthetics, while focusing on equity and doing what’s right, and staying true to themselves, has been really refreshing.  

Diaspora Co. is an amazing spice company that is this minority-owned spice business built around social justice in the global spice trade. They’ve got the potential to create a huge impact, which is awesome.  

A lot of the slow fashion brands right now are doing a lovely job with reframing how we think about consumption and trends – like Megan Huntz here in Atlanta. And you have got to hand it to Patagonia for being this giant brand that seems to truly care, and is using its stature and success to really do some good for the planet.  

How important do you think transparency and authenticity in brands is to consumers?

It’s everything. I think we’re starting to see larger, established brands reverse-engineer an unvarnished vibe. With Instagram as one of the main modes of communication for brands, it’s what folks simply expect now. But it’s also raised the bar in terms of what’s required of brands; there’s a constant need to tell a story or share updates or provide social proof. From a business owners’ perspective, there’s a lot of pressure. But as a consumer, I totally get it – I think we’re all craving connection.

Lifestyle shot of a woman running and leaping on the beach

What is your favorite animal and why?

I’ve surrounded myself with a lot of bird imagery in my home, and think they’re beautiful in their many forms, but I also have this odd obsession with llamas. Something about their paradoxical beauty – serious and silly at the same time.

What is one thing you would be willing to or have already given up with the health of the planet in mind?

I had a Leaf for three years and sadly had to give it up because I needed a longer battery range to do my milk deliveries! But I’d go back to a similar electric car in a heartbeat when the time is right. I’m also cutting down on plastic wherever I can and always take reusable shopping bags. I have never liked straws and would gladly give them up forever.