And this message, he claims, is resonating with retail buyers, who have plenty of almond, coconut, and oat ice creams to choose from, but “nothing that actually tastes like dairy ice cream. That’s what we do, we wanted to make products that are really similar, if not indistinguishable from their animal counterparts, which is the way to unlock the mainstream market.”
And if you can pull that off, the addressable market could be a lot bigger than previously thought, claimed Steinhart, noting that “taste, price, and availability,” still trump nutrition, sustainability, and animal welfare, especially in the ice cream market, even if these factors are gaining importance as secondary purchase drivers for plant-based foods.
“Brands like Impossible and Beyond Meat have changed the category and we want to do that for dairy. We’re enabling people to eat products that they love without sacrificing taste, texture and functionality.”
There are a lot of players in plant-based dairy but none of them are doing what Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are doing with meat
While the plant-based ice cream market (the first category Berkeley-based Eclipse Foods has entered) has recently become pretty crowded - with legacy brands such as SO Delicious and Coconut Bliss facing stiff competition from newcomers such as Oatly and big hitters such as Häagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry’s – Eclipse Foods is offering something unique, claimed Steinhart.
“There are a lot of players in plant-based dairy but none of them are doing what Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are doing with meat; there are no true dairy replacements in this category,” claimed Steinhart, who teamed up with co-founder and CTO Thomas Bowman (formerly an R&D exec at Eat Just) to launch the Eclipse brand late last year in the foodservice market.
Ingredients, Eclipse vanilla: Water, organic cane sugar, expeller-pressed canola oil, Eclipse blend (potato protein, modified food starches, tapioca maltodextrin), tapioca syrup, less than 2% vanilla extract, vanilla bean paste, oat fiber, oat bran, proline, baking soda, calcium lactate, calcium gluconate, salt.
According to SPINS data supplied to FoodNavigator-USA, US retail sales of plant-based ice cream were up +15.6% in the 24 weeks to Oct 4 (slightly behind total ice cream at +19%), while sales of plant-based frozen novelties showed stronger growth (+61.8%, vs total frozen novelties at +21.9%), albeit off a smaller base.
'COVID-19 hit, and the landscape shifted under our feet'
Partnerships with high-end ice cream shops such as OddFellows in New York City and Humphry Slocombe in San Francisco attracted the attention of major media outlets from the San Francisco Chronicle to CNN, inbound inquiries started coming in, and “you could feel the rocket ship starting to take off,” said Steinhart.
“And then COVID-19 hit, the landscape shifted under our feet, and we realized we were completely overexposed in one channel, so we need to do something quickly.”
While foodservice remains key to their plans, the retail part of the business plan suddenly moved up the agenda, and the company has recently launched a direct-to-consumer business and secured retail distribution on the west coast.
“The reception has been incredible across all channels, and when you look at the velocities of our pints per store per week, we’re moving a lot faster than the other plant-based brands. Ultimately we want to be in every freezer, from independent stores to Walmart.”
Building a platform: Milk, ice cream, cheese, cream…
The Eclipse brand - which closed a $12m Series A funding round earlier this year led by Forerunner Ventures and supported by high-profile names such as Seth Goldman (Honest Tea, Beyond Meat), Gmail co-creator Paul Buccheit, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, and Eric Patel (SmartSweets, Daiya Foods, Dreyer's) – is not a one-trick pony, stressed Steinhart.
“We’ve started with ice cream, but the base is a milk that functions like a dairy milk, which we use to formulate really incredible prototypes for cheese, cream, and so on. We sent the cheese prototypes to a few chefs and they are already asking when it will be on the market.
“However, we’re focused on ice cream for the moment and we’ll keep our foot on the gas for that before we diversify into other areas.”