“We’re not vegans ourselves, and we’re not willing to compromise at all when it comes to cheese,” said Grounded Foods co-founder Veronica Fil, who sensed a business opportunity after seeing the reception her husband Chef Shaun Quade's vegan cheese was getting at his award-winning fine dining restaurant in Melbourne a couple of years ago.
“Shaun was creating things people didn't even realize were dairy free, they were just incredible,” Fil told FoodNavigator-USA. “I was working at a marketing agency at the time and worked with a lot of clients in the food and beverage space, and I started thinking he’s really onto something here.
“I basically convinced Shaun to walk away from his restaurant and double down on plant-based cheese. We got into the Mars Seeds of Change accelerator in Australia, filed patents and trademarks, spoke to accountants and lawyers, and started a business.
“We met a venture capitalist at a food conference and within weeks we were headed to New York [in late 2019]. We’ve been in the US ever since,” said Fil, who has just launched Grounded products direct to consumer and is now making her retail debut in around 160 stores including Whole Foods (SoCal).
‘Shaun was creating things people didn't even realize were dairy free’
Whatever consumers tell you in surveys, said Fil, sustainability and animal welfare are not – yet at least - primary purchase drivers for most consumers, especially when it comes to a culinary delight such as cheese, which means plant-based products have got to improve taste and texture, while brands must appeal to a broader consumer base.
“I'm a behavioral economist. My entire career has been spent watching markets and trends and predicting how consumers are going to perceive things.
“So we’re going after mainstream consumers that are completely unwilling to compromise, in the same way that Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have. I don't think it would be genuine for us to market ourselves and the brand as vegan and go after a vegan audience because that's not us. We're just people that really love food.”
Hemp seeds are at the core of our IP
If you look at the evolution of plant-based cheeses, the first wave of products – which targeted vegans who still wanted to enjoy pizza and grilled cheese sandwiches - typically combined oils and starches, and they weren’t great, said Fil, who was brought up as a vegan and tried vegan cheese as a child, and was underwhelmed.
“I’m no longer a vegan, but when I tried plant-based cheeses again as an adult, it was a case of wow, this is basically what my parents fed me in the eighties.”
‘Hemp is an unbelievably under-explored ingredient in food’
While the second more artisanal wave of products pioneered by chefs such as Miyoko Schinner deployed a more culinary approach with cultured nuts, she acknowledged, “What blows my mind is that some companies in this space are still trying to crack the code using the same formulas used in the 1980s, but just making slight tweaks like using a better starch.”
At Grounded Foods, Hemp seeds are at the core of the formulation, while cauliflower also features in several products, said Fil. “Hemp is the core of our IP. Anyone can just take hemp or cauliflower and blend it up into a paste but we're fermenting it with proprietary enzymes to create the different flavor profiles and to extract optimal nutrition.”
She added: “Hemp is an unbelievably under-explored ingredient in food and I think we're only just starting to scratch the surface of what it can do. For cheeses, it has this unbelievable creaminess, it creates a beautiful silky texture and mouthfeel you don’t get with a nut paste, and we’re super psyched by its potential in terms of nutrition as well – protein, calcium, vitamins and minerals and so on.”
While the first set of Grounded products to launch commercially are softer (plant-based cheese sauce, cream cheese, goat cheese), hard cheeses, shreds, slices and other products are also in the pipeline, she said.
“We've got about 35 different cheese styles, which are all around the same basic process.”
Animal-free dairy proteins
But what about the unique stretchy qualities that casein brings to the kinds of dairy cheeses used in pizza? Can Grounded make a decent plant-based Mozzarella?
“Out of all the products that we will be rolling out over the next year or so,” said Fil, “Mozzarella is the one that we're not attacking until we have a partner that can supply us with non-animal-derived casein as it’s really hard to create that stretch without casein.
“I think it’s really exciting what some of these companies [creating animal proteins via microbial fermentation] are doing.”
'Our biggest problem is being able to supply demand'
So what’s the go-to-market strategy at Grounded, which makes its products at a co-packer in Los Angeles?
While the economics of shipping refrigerated products direct to consumer are challenging, acknowledged Fil, “It was always our strategy to enter the market through direct to consumer first, although we actually ended up signing on with Whole Foods months before we were even in production, because they came to us.
“Our biggest problem is being able to supply demand; we’ve already been approached by some pretty massive conventional retailers, which we weren't expecting,” added Fil, who said finding the right co-packer was tough “as we have a brand new process and there was no turnkey solution out there.”
They found a co-packer, “but we had to buy our own equipment and put it into the facility ourselves,” said Fil. “We're already looking at our second and third facilities now to start producing in probably mid-year.
“Pretty much every single time we send samples to a buyer, it’s either ‘Thank God someone fixed vegan cheese, or ‘It’s the best vegan cheese I've ever tasted.’ I think people like the fact that it’s been created by a chef not a food scientist. It also really smells like cheese.”
*US retail sales of plant-based cheese rose 42.5% to $270m (a tiny fraction of the $20bn+ dairy cheese category) in the 52 weeks to December 27, 2020, according to SPINS data (MULO and natural enhanced). Read more HERE.