While Randolph – a software engineer turned food entrepreneur based in Los Angeles - was hardly the first person to ask this question, her novel approach to solving it, using pumpkin seeds, water, garlic, turmeric, and salt for her refrigerated egg replacement, and sunflower seeds, coconut oil, seasoning and cultures for her plant-based soft cheeses, is garnering attention as the plant-based segment expands and evolves, she told FoodNavigator-USA.
‘I saw that a lot of the plant-based products had no real nutritional benefit’
“Some vegans say it doesn’t matter what the ingredients are as long as the products are animal free,” said Randolph, who sells her products online at Sperofoods and in a handful of independent retailers, and is raising capital to expand her manufacturing capabilities to meet growing demand.
But for pretty much everyone else, it does matter, because they view plant-based as a nice to have, not a must-have, which means they are starting to pay more attention to the ingredients list and the Nutrition Facts panel on plant-based foods rather than simply assuming that if something is 'plant-based' it’s automatically healthier, or less processed, she said.
“When I first started looking at what was on the market, I saw that a lot of the products had no real nutritional benefit; they had hardly any protein or naturally occurring vitamins and minerals, plus they didn’t taste good and they were expensive, so I decided to try and reverse engineer dairy and egg products from cheaper and more nutrient-dense ingredients such as seeds.
“As we scale, our products will be cheaper than products made from nuts. We did file a couple of provisional patents and now have a patent pending covering novel processes using seeds in everything from cheese and ice cream to yogurt and milk, and a bunch of egg substitutes as well. It covers applications and processes.”
Put another way, she said: “If you were to go out and buy a bunch of sunflower seeds and blend them with oils you wouldn’t get anything like our [soft cheese] product.”
"When I first started looking at what was on the market, I saw that a lot of the products had no real nutritional benefit; they had hardly any protein or naturally occurring vitamins and minerals, plus they didn’t taste good and they were expensive..."
Phaedra Randolph, founder, Spero Foods
‘If I want to know something, I find the information, study it, and go’
A key audience for Spero (which means ‘hope’ in Latin) is people that may not feel great about eating eggs and dairy, but do so “because they think they are a staple of health with protein and crucial nutrients,” added Randolph, who secured some pre-seed funding from the YCombinator accelerator last summer to get her venture off the ground.
“But if you give them something with just as much protein, vitamins and minerals and flavor that also tastes good, why wouldn’t they try it?” asked Randolph, who says Spero is also attracting Paleo and Keto fans, and has developed her formulas without the help of a food technologist or consultancy.
“I taught myself software engineering and I got a job at Facebook [as a software engineer], and I took the same approach to food science. If I want to know something, I find the information, study it, and go.”
Next in the pipeline: meltable cheese, cream cheese and yogurts
Her plan now is to raise money to increase manufacturing capacity, said Randolph, who first tested her samples at tech events in the Bay area while she was still working as a software engineer and realized she was onto something.
“We’re currently making everything in-house, but we’re looking to raise a seed round to scale up nationally as major retailers and meal kit companies are all demanding our product, plus we’ve had interest from food manufacturers interested in using our products in baked goods.
“We’re also looking to build out our innovation platform and develop products in new categories including meltable cheese, cream cheese and yogurts.”
Our brand identity is not for a specific niche but for the mainstream
The branding, meanwhile, is simple, and accessible, and designed to attract a wider audience beyond the natural products set, said Randolph, who is a big admirer of the taken by Method in household products.
“Think about how Method soap revolutionized eco cleaning products because it was aesthetically pleasing without specifically going after 'eco-people.'We want to do something similar with Spero. Our brand identity is not for a specific niche, but for the mainstream.”