Dave Korstad and Izzy Shu and several other graduate business and design students at the California College of the Arts found common cause around making almond milk by hand.

It wasn't easy back in 2015.

However, they have combined their interest in healthy lifestyles into a fast-growing business.

JOI, short for "Just One Ingredient," also is a proxy for the "natural" specialty foods slice of the grocery market that is the darling of the otherwise slow-grow grocery trade. JOI also operates virtually, thanks to the internet, over which most of its almond milk is sold. And the three principals, including Korstad and Shu, who are married and operate from the Twin Cities, run the 11-person company from Miami, suburban St. Paul and California.

The now-growing team spent the first couple years developing the product and process and slowly building sales. JOI has been fueled since 2019 by $2.1 million from individual investors.

JOI expects to break $3 million in sales this year, up from $450,000 in 2019.

"We thought we'd hit $5 million this year," said Korstad, 30, an Augsburg University graduate who is chief product officer. "But our wholesale business, such as restaurants and smoothie shops, took a COVID hit this year."

The founders, led by Tony Jimenez, 40, of Miami, chose almond milk, later adding cashew milk, because of long-standing interest in plant-based food.

They had issues with cow-based milk, ranging from high cholesterol and stomach troubles, to a desire to lower their carbon footprint.

"The milk market in particular was ripe for disruption," Jimenez told the Miami Herald earlier this year. "It was dominated by two brands ... [giving] you a lot of water, gums, additives and emulsifiers. That's what the world knew as almond milk."

The liquid category is led by Silk and Almond Breeze. Modest Mylk of New York produces a concentrate.

"We don't have a true, direct competitor," Korstad said.

JOI's founders invested two years developing today's lightweight concentrate with a "cookie dough" consistency that mixes with water, and has a shelf life of 18 months. Korstad said JOI almond milk contains up to seven times the amount of protein and five times the amount of fiber as other almond milks.

The secret sauce is JOI's ability "to masticate and blend almonds" so they don't cook themselves.

"We have a manufacturer that produces the product for us in northern California,'' Korstad said. ''We use a cold-milling process, so we don't need to add anything to the product. It's 100% almonds or cashews. It's broken down to a base or paste."

JOI has picked up commercial accounts, as well as online consumers, who range from three-shop Penny's Coffee in Minneapolis, to Oster, which this fall, started giving away JOI discount coupons in each of its hand blenders at Target. It's also available on Walmart.com.

"We want JOI to be a top plant-based company in the food industry," Korstad said. "A customer can buy it and put their spin on it, for recipes, to make dips, and sauces with other ingredients. We also want walk into a Starbucks [one day] and order coffee with JOI in it. We just want to help a lot of people have access to healthier foods."

Korstad said JOI will control growth so it soon can achieve profitability.

JOI is pricier than regular milk but comparable to Silk and Almond Breeze at about $2 per quart.

"And we reduce packaging waste by 80% and it's shipped to your door," Korstad said. "It sits in your pantry until you want your fresh almond milk.''

The plant-based world has been dominated publicly by companies that produce direct replacements for meats, eggs and dairy that use "bio-mimicry" to replicate the taste and texture of meat from the likes of jackfruit and tofu.

This has become a significant category worth billions of dollars in annual sales.

The 2019 annual report of the Good Food Institute, an industry-research organization, said between 2017 and 2019 retail sales of plant-based meat grew 31%, while total U.S. retail meat sales grew just 5%. Companies such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have raised hundreds of millions in investor capital.

The cheese and milk replacement markets are smaller but growing smartly.

Korstad and Shu seem to enjoy the mercurial entrepreneurial ride, including the first years of no paychecks and long hours. Shu, a digital designer and strategist, also worked for a business consultancy until a year ago.

They live with Korstad's parents after moving to Minnesota this year from California.

Correction: Previous versions of this article misstated nutritional characteristics of JOI almond milk by comparing it with dairy milk rather than other almond milks.