Turning vegan cheese into a big business
US consumers who grew up eating a traditional diet often find giving up dairy cheese one of the toughest parts of transitioning to a vegan diet, and for years few plant-based options were available to satisfy cheese cravings.
That’s changing fast, led in large part by Miyoko’s Kitchen, a California-based maker of cashew-based cheeses that launched almost accidentally and is expanding to feed growing demand for tasty dairy-free cheeses.
Founder Miyoko Schinner had a background in the food business when she published the book “Artisan Vegan Cheese” in 2012, after spending a year perfecting recipes for cultured nut-based cheeses that won rave reviews from vegetarians and omnivores alike. We spoke to Schinner last month at the Specialty Food Association’s Summer Fancy Food Show in New York City.
On why she started the company
Schinner wrote the book so others could make the products at home. The process is time consuming, though, and the trial-and-error nature of it requires patience. Soon, the feedback from readers sparked the idea for a new venture.
“All the readers said ‘Make the cheese and we’ll buy it,’” she said.
The company launched with 10 products. Last year, it added a mozzarella-style product and a European-style vegan butter, and upcoming launches will include a smoked mozzarella that won raves from vegetarians and omnivores alike when the company served it in paninis at the recent Summer Fancy Food Show. Other new products to be released soon include cream cheeses and a pub crock cheddar.
Earlier this year, Miyoko’s Kitchen raised $6 million in new funding and it’s moving to a new 30,000-square-foot plant in Sonoma, Calif., up from a 5,000-square-foot facility, giving the company room to ramp up production, achieve efficiencies and develop new products.
On the challenges
Miyoko’s is the largest cultured cashew-cheese based company and scaling production has been an ongoing challenge, she said.
Making cheese is part art and part science. That’s just as true for the plant-based variety, except the science hasn’t had generations to develop.
“We’re creating the science as we go, and a lot of strange things have happened. When that happens, we have to send [the product] to the lab and figure out how to fine-tune the processes and achieve repeatable results,” Schinner said.
The uncertainties can frustrate employees who come from other food companies, she said.
“It’s a process where, once you learn the science, you still need intuition. You have to develop a feel for it and that takes time,” she said.
On testing new products
The company sells its cheeses in retail outlets and online, and the Miyoko’s Kitchen website also serves as a virtual test kitchen, where fans of the brand can be beta testers of new products and flavors, Schinner said. Recently, customers tested and provided feedback on a limited-edition blue cheese, and this fall the company will launch new cream cheeses and a pub crock cheddar that were tested and reviewed by online customers.
On her new book
Schinner’s newest book, “The Homemade Vegan Pantry, the Art of Making Your Own Staples,” offers busy vegans recipes for filling the kitchen with staples from meat substitutes to cake mixes to homemade ketchup that can be used to whip up quick meals, snacks and treats.
“It takes the mystery out of all these items that can be made at home, things that can make life easier.”
On why she promotes a vegan lifestyle
“It’s about the impact of your food choices on the planet. You can become a hero and change the world one bite at a time by adopting this lifestyle. It’s what each of us can do to make the planet a better place for people, animals and ourselves.”
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