“I’m not trying to ‘convert’ people," New York-based Schwarz told FoodNavigator-USA. "It’s not either/or. I think about it as if the cheese plate comes out at a great restaurant, and you’ve got maybe 20 amazing cheeses on it; well this is just another one, and it’s made from cashew nuts.”
And while Schwarz – who is a vegan - has been pretty vocal about the miserable life he believes dairy cows typically lead, he does not believe Americans will abandon dairy cheese en masse out of concern for the planet or animal welfare, although there is a hardcore group of Treeline fans (whether vegan, lactose intolerant or those with a milk protein allergy) that might feel this way, he says.
“The vegans are a bit like the Tea Party wing within the customer base. Being cruelty-free is very important to them, but if you want to win a national election, you can’t just appeal to the base.”
Kroger, for example, had simply clocked Treeline as a premium brand that was performing well in other stores and would fit well with its strategy of stocking more ‘artisanal’ brands, he says: “When we started, we were begging retailers to carry our products, but Kroger actually approached us and we’re going into 1,400 stores.”
The Treeline range includes soft cheeses with herbs and spices, such as scallion, chipotle serrano pepper, green peppercorn, and herb-garlic. There are also two, harder, aged-nut cheeses (cracked pepper, and classic), that can be grated over pasta or risotto. The best-selling SKU is herb garlic, which has 90 calories and 4g of protein per 28g serving.
Ingredients (Herb Garlic): Cashew nuts, filtered water, sea salt, lemon juice, dried scallions, garlic powder, white pepper, onion powder, L. Acidophilus, dried basil, dried oregano.
Our process creates no byproducts
So how does Schwarz – an intellectual property attorney, not a biochemist, by trade – manufacture his product?
Kite Hill, for example, starts by creating its own almond milk, filters off the bigger particulates, adds proprietary cultures developed by co-founder and acclaimed biochemist Dr Pat Brown that separate the milk into curds (solids) and whey (liquids), and then strains off the liquid.
Treeline, by contrast, creates a nut ‘cream’ from water and Brazilian cashew nut kernels and then adds a commercial strain of lactobacillus acidolphus that digests some of the nut to create lactic acid and creates a product with the consistency of soft cheese over about 48 hours. Harder cheeses are ‘aged’ for around three weeks, says Schwarz.
According to SPINS, US retail sales of cheese alternatives were up 11% in the 52 weeks to June 12. Click HERE.
As for taste and texture, meanwhile, Treeline – which will be in c.2,500 stores once the Kroger roll-out is complete - is “absolutely not” trying to precisely replicate dairy cheese, he says.
Where do non-dairy cheeses belong in the store?
So where’s the best place to merchandise non-dairy cheeses, which some brands (Kite Hill) believe belong in the dairy set, and others (Miyoko’s Kitchen) believe are better off, at least in the short-term, in a separate, plant-based set?
There are good arguments on both sides, says Schwarz, but Treeline has tried both, and it performs better outside of the dairy case.
“In future, I don’t know, but for us, putting our products with the other non-dairy cheeses has been proven to work very well.”
Huge cross-category potential
Like Matthew Sade, CEO of Kite Hill, which recently completed an $18m funding round led by General Mills 301 INC and CAVU Venture Partners, Schwarz also believes nut-based 'dairy' brands can extend across multiple categories.
“We’re having ongoing discussions with investors to find the right partner to help us realize our ambitions because we see huge potential in yogurt, milks, ice creams and other products.
"If you look at non-dairy milks, 10 years ago, many retailers didn’t stock them at all. Now they are all carrying 20 different products.”