WATCH: Califia Farms CEO… ‘The market still needs mid-size companies like ours’

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Califia farms, Fancy Food Show, oatmilk, plant-based

With a portfolio spanning everything from refrigerated plant-based yogurt drinks to shelf-stable cans of cold brew coffee and oatmilk, Califia Farms has raised a jaw-dropping $340m+ over four funding rounds to build its plant-based empire over the past five years. So what’s its endgame? An exit to a big CPG? An IPO? And how big is the addressable market for plant-based dairy?

Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA at the Specialty Food Association’s Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco earlier this week CEO Greg Steltenpohl said: “You’re not going to get a comment from me ​[about a potential IPO down the road].”

But he added: “The main thing for us is to stay focused first in North America, and it’s no secret, you’re heard me say it before… the independent nature of us and our 100% plant-based focus… were the company to become part of a larger dairy organization where 80 or 90% of the portfolio were animal-based, it’s hard to lead the plant-based revolution.

“I personally still think the market still needs mid-size companies like ours that are close to our entrepreneurial roots and we can really act on our convictions and stay focused.”

‘The market shouldn’t get too frothy’

Asked about the size of the prize in the plant-based dairy space, he said: “Most people don’t have more than three burgers a week… but dairy though is not just in each meal, but it’s in all kinds of ingredients and is almost as pervasive as sugar is, so we think that the opportunities are actually much greater ​[in plant-based dairy vs plant-based meat].

“To say the sky is the limit is maybe pushing it ​[however], because the market shouldn’t get too frothy; really these things have long adoption cycles … taste is still king and Califia is trying to really make sure that we deliver consistency but also open up some exploratory edges, as younger consumers like to explore.”

Dairy from microbial fermentation

Asked whether a new generation of dairy products​ produced via microbes that precisely match the nutrition and functionality of dairy milk and cheese could capture a significant slice of the market, he said producing dairy ingredients via microbial fermentation at scale was challenging, while consumer perceptions could prove a barrier.

‘We’re in the middle of a planetary crisis’

However, he acknowledged that there was room for multiple approaches to reducing our reliance on animal agriculture: “We’re in the middle of a planetary crisis… and ​[the] food ​[industry] has to rise up, and ​[raise] the awareness of the public around the impact of their food choices.

“What all of us are doing in this space is trying to give opportunities and openings and trying to create a flexitarian mindset for the consumer that says that​ [having] animal protein on their plate three times a day is not the best for their health or the health of the planet.”

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