Female Food Founders – Interview with Gemma Colao Managing Director & Co-Founder of OTO CBD Bitters

In the eighth of our series of Female Food Founders interviews we turn to the growing demand for cannabis infused drinks and the world of CBD – the non-psychoactive component of the cannabis plant.  We met Gemma Colao Managing Director & Co-Founder of OTO CBD, a wellness company whose mission is to help people discover the power of CBD through thoughtful and effective products which can easily fit into their daily lives. Our co-founder, Mecca Ibrahim, chatted with Gemma about the regulations of marketing a product associated with cannabis, what the health benefits are and whether the market is really growing in the UK.

Firstly could you tell us what CBD is and how you first go interested in it?

CBD is one of many cannabinoids found naturally in the cannabis plant – hemp plant – basically.  Unlike THC which a lot of us have heard about in cannabis, CBD has no psychoactive properties and in fact has a huge amount of health benefits. Extensive studies have shown that these benefits include helping with stress, anxiety, inflammation and sleep. Every day new reports come out about CBD and the benefits are incredible. I like to think of it as a balancer. It gives you that state of calm and allows you to be present and the best version of yourself.  It has been found completely safe by the World Health Organisation, and a five year study found no bad side effects.  so people can be completely confident in using CBD.

I actually became interested, slash obsessed with the product when I lived in California. My husband James and I moved to San Francisco in 2015.  James was heading up Naked Wines in Napa and I was working for Sears in fashion. When we were living in California cannabis became legal out there. We started to research cannabis and CBD. I tried cannabis a long time ago and it really didn’t agree with me at all. I have quite an overactive mind and find it hard to get back to sleep. I thought I’d try CBD as I didn’t quite believe all the glowing reviews of my Californian friends. For me, personally it really was a miracle ingredient. It helped my sleep, calmed me down and things that were more challenging seemed easier. I became obsessed, as many people do with things that help them so much and looked at all the brands and how much you should take.

Tea Time OTO CBD Bitters

How did this lead to you founding your business? 

We decided to move back to the UK as we had a little boy and my husband James got offer a CEO role at drinks retailer 31 Dover. This coincided with CBD becoming legal here which was music to my ears. So I dashed down to the high street to try to find some.  But I was really disappointed with what I found. Most brands were not putting in enough CBD in them to have any effect at all. CBD is quite expensive and if you don’t put much in, you don’t get much out.  I didn’t feel the products were for me. All the products were tinctures and you had to drop them under your tongue. You wouldn’t really do this on the Tube or in public and I couldn’t understand why this amazing product was being delivered in what was for me, not a modern or interesting way.  We wanted our products to be thoughtful and fit in with people’s lives and that was the birth of OTO.

You are collaborating with some really interesting & varied people, how long did it take to get everyone together for your business?  

It wasn’t easy, but more because we had so much interest, and we wanted to be very clear as to who we wanted to be involved and involved for the right reasons.  Antonia Jamison, a founding director at Sipsmith Gin, was an obvious choice. We wanted balance on the team too. We knew we needed to come from a place of science, so we got Dr Michael Haslam involved and Dr Ketan Joshi who is a renowned food scientist. Also my husband James was pretty influential for this with his experience in the drinks trade and bringing brands to the market.


Why do you think the US and other countries are so far ahead of the UK when it comes to understanding and marketing CBD?

Mainly because of the legalities. It’s been legal in other countries for much longer so people have had the chance to learn about it. The UK is a little bit more risk averse or cautious. There are a lot of funding opportunities in the US, so you see a lot more brands coming to the market faster. We do have a bit of red tape here.

OTO CBD Bitters

What are some of the challenges you have had to face with marketing CBD in the UK?

Even though it is a big topic right now, there are huge challenges. There is lots of misguidance, and people not talking about CBD in the right way. There is a big education piece to do but because we are limited with the platforms that we can advertise CBD on, it makes that education much more challenging.

Camille Vidal and OTO bitters

How are you working with Cami Vidal on the CBD Bitters?

We met Cami and it was an instant connection. She has a really interesting ethos around wellness and health. She has many years experience working in the drinks industry as a bartender and global brand ambassador and is the founder of La Maison Wellness. She realised that she wanted to change her lifestyle and became very interested in CBD and loved OTO.  It was kind of a match made in heaven so we asked her to design some cocktails for us.  We always knew we wanted to do cocktails and it pushes the experience a little bit further.  Her range of drinks pull together a lot of different ingredients together that are healthy and also functional.  She has also made them absolutely delicious.

Gemma from OTO at IMBIBE

We first met you at the IMBIBE show and heard that some of their future of the drinks industry panellists said that younger people were looking for less intoxicating ways to get their enjoyment than alcohol & CBD was one of these strands. Have you found this to be true? What’s the demographic profile of your customers so far?


We are seeing a huge movement towards the low and no alcohol and also and increase in functional drinks. There are plenty of studies to show this is the case going forward. With demographics though our customers are very  mixed. As the benefits are wide and benefit everyone.

Fresh Focus OTO CBD Bitters

What are your plans going forward and for growth?

We are going to start in the most forward thinking and interesting bars and clubs out there. We want to see everyone drinking OTO at home eventually too.  Our vision is to create a new category. When people are thinking about what they might like to drink. They can think about an alcoholic drink, they can think about a non alcoholic drink, they can think about a CBD drink and then think “I want an OTO drink”.  Ultimately that’s our goal.

Pause Cafe OTO CBD Bitters

Who are some of the characters in food & drinks or the health industry that have most inspired you?

People who are really authentic and believe in what they do and have a real vision. Maybe even to create a whole new category. Such as Charles and Tim from FeverTree, for a re-invention of a category in a premium way. Also Anita Roddick from The Body Shop.  She found hemp before everyone else believed in it. That was really inspirational for me. We have a double link to her as Antonia Jamison, one of our directors, worked with her.

Camille Vidal and OTO making drink

If you were marooned on a desert island what ingredient and one type of dish type you couldn’t live without?

My Dad is half Italian and for us food is love. For my ingredient, going back to that fresh and simple way of cooking I would say tomatoes, they are so versatile. For a dish I would have to say my mum’s lasagne as it’s so homey.

Gemma at OTO CBD Office

What are some of the advantages of  that being a women in the drinks industry?  

The drinks industry is still very male dominated. One of the advantages is that the women in the industry are  generally pretty supportive. Women do bring a fresh viewpoint and some new views to what is quite an old industry.


Finally, what’s the biggest piece of advice you could give to someone starting a health business, or putting it another way, what do you know now that you wish someone had told you when you were first starting out?

There are two things. I cannot stress how important having a good team is. It’s not about surrounding yourself with people that are the same as you, but you need some people who have an opposite approach too. If you are in the health industry make sure you have that scientific grounding.  The other thing is that setting up a business is twice, if not three times, as hard as you think it’s going to be. You just really have to have a core belief in what you are doing to get through the tough times.

You can find OTO CBD, online and get the CBD bitters from their shop. You can also listen to our short podcast with Gemma Colao put together by our friend  James Haywood of OpenKitchen.

Look out for more interviews with female founders of food businesses in the coming weeks.  In the meantime you can read our interview with Anishya Kumar the founder of Zinda Foods & the AirWrap, our interview with Juliet Barrett co-founder of Grenade, our interview with Tanya Robertson-Lambert, founder of The Saucy Affair, our interview with Cecily Mills founder of Coconuts Organic ice cream;our interview with Renee Elliott founder of Planet Organic; our interview with Jane Woodhead co-founder of Speakeasy Ice Cream and our interview with Kim Havelaar founder of Roqberry Tea.

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