“Our biggest audience is probably still people that are avoiding dairy for whatever reason – especially people with lactose intolerance,” Nuts for Cheese founder and CEO Margaret Coons told FoodNavigator-USA. But a sizeable number of her fans just see Nuts for Cheese as an artisan food product, she says.
“Lots of people [who don’t have any dietary restrictions] tell me they include our cheeses on a cheese board along with traditional dairy cheeses; it’s just about having more options.”
As for the messaging, she adds, “People that identify as vegan like the cruelty-free message, people that have dietary restrictions are focused on exactly what’s in the product, and so on, but everyone is primarily concerned with flavor, because if it doesn’t taste good, everything else doesn’t matter.”
A chef who worked in a vegan restaurant for five years before almost unwittingly becoming a food entrepreneur, Coons started selling some of her vegan cheeses at a local farmer’s market in Ontario and suddenly found herself fielding interest from food retailers, and renting restaurant kitchen space in the middle of the night to make the cheese.
“Honestly it started a little bit by accident… I had no idea that it would turn into what it is now. Retailers were asking for the product, so I had to figure out how to create a bar code and an ingredients list and I was printing out labels on my printer at home. Over time I’ve obviously refined the go to market strategy, but in the beginning it was just responding to local demand.”
‘They all melt really nicely and they are incredible to cook with’
While fellow Canadian brand Daiya Foods has built a sizeable vegan cheese business using starch, vegetable oils, gums, protein powders and fibers, Nuts for Cheese is closer in style to US brand Miyoko’s Kitchen, fermenting its own cashew milk with vegan cultures and adding some coconut oil for extra creaminess and melting properties.
“We make a culture out of sprouted quinoa and another out of coconut milk. You can use traditional cheese making bacteria but you need to make sure they were grown on sugar and not lactose (milk sugar) so they are vegan.
“I like cashews as they are mild in flavor and they are really versatile,” adds Coons, who has been a vegetarian since she was 12 and a vegan since she was 19.
“They also have a high fat content so they make things really rich; I think one of the things people miss about dairy cheese is how creamy and indulgent it is, so I wanted to replicate that.”
She adds: “A lot of cashew cheeses on the market are more of a spread whereas we age ours, so the cheeses are firm enough to slice, and you can slice and grate them if they are cold enough, although once they get to room temperature they are more like a goat’s cheese.
“Because the proteins are different they don’t have the same stretchy quality as some dairy cheeses, and we don’t try and mimic this by using gums, but they all melt really nicely and they are incredible to cook with if you want to make a creamy sauce.”
'We have recently been inundated by requests from the States'
Right now, Nuts for Cheese wedges are sold in about 400 stores in Canada, but one of the brand’s distributors in British Columbia ships to the US through its website, says Coons, who recently launched in Whole Foods stores in Canada, which generated a lot of publicity for the fledgling brand.
“We have recently been inundated by requests from the States so we hope to get more products across the border soon,” adds Coons, who recently moved into a larger production facility to meet growing demand.
Retailers, she says, “can see that the category is growing and some of them now have a dedicated dairy-free cheese section now.” Some stores have included the brand within their regular cheese aisle, while others have put it next to tofu, but “both seem to work pretty well,” says Coons.
What’s in a name?
As for the thorny issue of what to call non-dairy cheeses without getting into legal hot water, Coons took legal advice and uses ‘cultured cashew product’ as an identifier/descriptor on pack, but has been pretty creative in the way she has managed to insert more familiar terms into the brand name (‘Nuts for Cheese’) and the individual flavors (‘Un-brie-lievable’).
“As more people enter the marketplace things seem to be loosening up,” she observes, pointing out that no one in this market is seeking to pass off their products as dairy cheese, but just want shoppers to know what they are and how to use them.
She also welcomes competition in the category, which is still relatively new. “Everyone I’ve connected with that makes vegan cheese has become a friend of mine, and there is room in the market for several players because consumers like to choose between different brands and varieties.
“My passion is just to share good quality vegan food with more people.”
Ingredients, Nuts for Cheese, Un-brie-lievable: organic cashews, organic coconut oil, organic coconut milk, water, sea salt, nutritional yeast, lactic acid, bacterial culture.