Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA at the Specialty Food Association’s Winter Fancy Food Show, founder and CEO Miyoko Schinner said the line – which will debut at Expo West – is designed to take the brand to a broader audience.
“From a price point, supply chain standpoint, as well as an allergen standpoint, [with this line] we’re moving away from nuts and we’re going into a line of products at a lower price point that will reach Moms and kids.
“They’ll still borrow from traditional dairy technology, we’ll still be fermenting them to produce those cheesy flavors, but we’ll be able to reach a much wider demographic with lower price point items,” said Schinner, a vegan chef, author, and TV personality, who launched her vegan cheese business in 2014 and has been battling to keep up with demand ever since.
"We're using a variety of beans depending on the style of cheese we are creating, including butter beans and garbanzos, and have a few seeds included to boost the protein content. Our new cheeses will be half the calories of traditional dairy cheese and yet have protein and fiber. They will still be organic and whole-foods based.
"If all goes well, we'll have three flavors of very traditional styles of cheese that have superior melting capabilities for grilled cheese and pizza, and a snackable Cheddar that is perfect for lunchboxes and backpacks."
"From the get-go, we wanted to establish the brand with a premium line to prove our point, much as Tesla has done -- to show that a great alternative was possible. But then our goal has been to bring products to the marketplace at a price point that is affordable for everyone."
We are actively looking for co-packers that can help us scale
The brand, which grew revenues by 168% last year, and has always manufactured it products in-house owing to the complexity of its production process, is now actively seeking co-packers to help it increase production, said Schinner.
“We hit the ground running… we didn’t spend years of research and development trying to figure out how we scale these products… and then when we started growing so rapidly and we had to relocate to a bigger plant [in Petaluma, CA], we had to figure out how to really engineer that, so it’s been a learning experience. It’s just like changing the tires of a car when it’s running, but I think we finally got it nailed down as to how to scale these products.
“Right now because we finally know how to industrialize these products, we are actively looking for co-packers that can help us scale and meet growing demand.”
The future of dairy is going to come from plants as well as animals
She added: “Now we’re in mass market retailers like Target it’s quite clear that it’s not just the vegans and vegetarians [that are interested in plant-based dairy]. The mainstream audience is hearing about these products and… finding that hey this stuff doesn’t taste bad, not only that, I actually prefer it to dairy.
“I really do believe that the future of dairy is going to come from plants as well as animals and we’re hoping to lead the pack.”
Merchandising plant-based cheeses and butters “will evolve in the future radically,” she predicted, noting that plant-based ‘milks’ and ‘yogurts’ sit next to dairy milk and yogurt in the dairy case, while plant-based cheeses are sometimes positioned there but are also merchandised in dedicated sets elsewhere in the store. Both locations have their pros and cons, she added, with vegans not shopping the dairy set (although that is changing as vegan milks and yogurts are increasingly found there) and dairy consumers not necessarily shopping the dedicated vegan sets.
“We have a conundrum right now that is going to get resolved in the next 5-10 years.”
We’re not going to tiptoe around and call it ‘cultured nut product’ like we did initially
As for labeling conventions in plant-based dairy – a debate in which the FDA has historically proved reluctant to engage, until pretty recently – Schinner says she does not regret her recent decision to use the terms 'cheese' and 'butter' on her labels, albeit with clear qualifiers (‘made from plants,’ vegan, etc), which has made Miyoko's Kitchen the target of a high-profile lawsuit.
Dealing with litigation – in addition to running a business growing in the triple digits – is enough to raise anyone’s blood pressure, but being able to call your products something that consumers understand is particularly important, she said.
“We’ve decided to define the future. We’re not going to tiptoe around, we’re not going to hide in the closet, and call it, you know, ‘cultured nut product’ or all these things that we did initially.
“We are the future of dairy, dairy products will come from plants, and we’re going to drive that momentum, we’re going to drive that movement and call it the way it should be called… we’re not going to be afraid, and call it the way consumers refer to these products anyway.”
Plant-based health halo?
As for the term ‘plant-based,’ how is it being used in food marketing, and does it – or should it - mean ‘healthier,’ as well as better for the environment and kinder to animals?
While Schinner’s mission – along with that of her counterparts in the plant-based meat sector - is to displace animal products (dairy, meat) for animal welfare and environmental reasons, other brands have started slapping ‘plant-based’ on everything from cookies to soda in a bid to cash in upon the perceived health halo surrounding the term, she acknowledged.
But this is not necessarily something we should lose too much sleep over, said Schinner.
Of course you can make “vegan junk food,” she added, “But it’s more than just about our health, it’s really about planetary health and the right of all species, not just domesticated animals, but wildlife, to preserve their habitats and let them live their lives according to their desires.”
She added: “Some people are just going to eat junk food, doesn’t matter if they are vegan or not, they just like junk food, so give them the junk food vegan version that’s still greener than the animal version, and let’s [also] create more whole food vegan products that answer the needs of those that want to enhance their health as well.”
US retail sales of plant-based cheese were up 41% YoY in measured channels* to $133m in the 52-weeks ending August 11, 2018, according to Nielsen, which said plant-based cheese is now sold in 61% of retail food stores (as measured by %ACV).
*Grocery, drug, mass, club, dollar, and military stores, plus Whole Foods Market