“I grew up with queso… it tastes like home. I’m not talking about anything fancy, I’m talking about Tostitos cheese dip you’d buy in a jar at Safeway,” she told FoodNavigator-USA. “So I wanted to make something that tasted just as good, but was also affordable, without using nuts [which are expensive and present allergen issues].
“I wanted to make a mainstream cheese dip that just happens to be plant-based.”
While it might appear like you need a background in synthetic biology and computer science to play in the dairy alternatives space these days, Joyner’s queso – made with a base of potatoes (affordable and sustainable), carrots (ditto) and sunflower oil, with no dairy, soy, or nuts – proves that lower-tech approaches can work remarkably well in some categories, said Joyner, who came up with the formula in her kitchen through trial and error.
“My background is in tech as a product designer, so you put a minimum viable product out there, test it, and you put out the next version, and so on, so I spent the first year [while still doing the day job] operating in a contained test market.”
"We make healthy eating easier by reinventing classic dairy comfort foods with simple nutritious allergy-free ingredients that everyone can enjoy. Our first product, queso, has the same taste, look and melt of that gooey glossy nacho cheese sauce you remember from childhood."
Lauren Joyner, founder and CEO, LOCA Food
Vegan nachos with Impossible Foods chili + LOCA Food cheese dip
She added: “I wanted to get as much feedback as possible before scaling up, and last spring I was fortunate enough to get the product into Oracle Park [baseball stadium in San Francisco] launching alongside Impossible Foods [via vegan nachos with Impossible Foods plant-based chili, jalapeños, pico de gallo, cilantro, and LOCA Food plant-based queso dip].
“It was just phenomenal to have that exposure and get my product in front of a mainstream audience, as I was just operating in a little commercial kitchen [at the time LOCA Food was working with Bay area-based incubator KitchenTown].
“The University of San Francisco then brought my product into its cafeteria and it was doing so well that they were only offering one cheese dip [plant-based or otherwise] on most days of the week, and it was mine… and then COVID-19 hit and they had to close, but that created great learnings too. I also got into some corporate tech campuses, restaurants and grocery stores.”
Ingredients, LOCA Food mild nacho sauce: Potatoes, carrots, sunflower oil, water, tomatoes, nutritional yeast, green chile, salt, gluconic acid, 2% of less of onion, cayenne pepper, garlic powder, potato starch, natural flavors, annatto seed. Picture: LOCA Food
The manufacturing set-up
The formulation has steadily evolved as the manufacturing set-up has changed, from Joyner’s home kitchen, to a commercial kitchen, to a larger co-packing facility doing thousand-gallon product runs, moving from a refrigerated product with a 45-day shelf-life to a hot-fill shelf-stable product with a shelf-life of up to two years that can be heated on a stove top, soup warmer, nacho cheese dispenser, microwave or steam table.
“It’s been a long process,” said Joyner. “They really believe in the product and they were willing to go through this journey with me.”
LOCA Food plant-based queso was the standout winner of Startup CPG’s inaugural virtual pitch competition in July, ranked as the #1 product by 80% of the retailers, investors and press that received product samples.
Pivoting in a pandemic
“Pre-COVID,” said Joyner, foodservice was the focus. As it quickly became clear that the virus wasn’t going anywhere, she revised the business plan.
“My plan was to launch primarily in foodservice outlets in the spring. When COVID hit, I decided to postpone things until the fall and now I’m launching with a mix of foodservice and e-commerce [the product will shortly be available for nationwide shipping via eatlocafood.com as well as several other online retailers, with a launch on Amazon in January 2021].”
While shipping a product in glass jars is expensive (they’re heavy and breakable) Joyner will be shipping her wares in 100% recyclable corrugate boxes that protect the product from breakage.
As for bricks & mortar grocery retail, which has seen a bump in sales as food consumption has shifted towards the home, the plan is to launch in 2021, “much sooner than I had originally planned,” she said.
While Joyner initially bootstrapped the business, she has recently closed a funding round as it became clear that she would need working capital as she moved to large-scale co-manufacturing, and needed to start building out a team.
What resonated for the small group of investors involved was that Joyner is in many ways making a pretty mainstream product that could work in foodservice and retail, that happens to be plant-based (not every new product has to be the food equivalent of the iPhone). She also has plans to expand into plant-based versions of other dairy comfort foods.
While the product is pitched as a healthier alternative to regular cheese dip, there isn’t a huge difference in calories. However, LOCA Food has no saturated fat, no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives, and a short, clean ingredients deck, she said (many regular cheese dips contain the emulsifiers sodium hexametaphosphate, datem, and sodium phosphate, and artificial colors yellow 5 and 6.)
“There’s also the sustainability angle vs traditional dairy.”