Founded in 2017 by software engineer Phäedra Randolph - who has raised $20m from backers including Bessemer Venture Partners, Valor Siren Ventures, Alumni Ventures, YC, Siddhi Capital, Soma Capital, Litani, and Woolworth's W23 – Spero is on a mission to “democratize” plant-based foods with nutritious, but more affordable, ingredients (“sunflower seeds are dramatically cheaper than nuts” notes Randolph) and self-manufacturing has been key to this endeavor, she said.
“Our manufacturing has to be very efficient and it’s hard to do that if you have to pay a margin to a co-packer. We're not at dairy price parity yet, but and we hope to be soon. We really want to offer products to the mainstream that are on sales at Walmart, Target and Kroger. We want to be a product that any American can afford.”
‘Pepita egg’ alternative slated to launch in mid-2022
Spero (Latin for ‘hope’) first launched with plant-based cream cheeses, which are now sold in around 1,000 stores including Whole Foods and Sprouts, with pilots in H.E.B. and Albertsons, but has bold ambitions, said Randolph, who taught herself software engineering and took the same approach to food formulation, telling us in 2019 that, “If I want to know something, I find the information, study it, and go.”
Next in the pipeline is a liquid ‘pepita egg’ alternative - slated to launch in mid-2022 - with a suite of other products to follow down the road, said Randolph, who said her priority is to develop affordable “better for you products that are available to the mainstream, that taste amazing,” rather than precisely mimicking animal products.
“We don't want to create a product that's identical [to animal products] and is bad for you. I think older generations are more interested in identical products, but Gen Z is a little bit more flexible and values driven.
“So our pepita egg is not meant to be identical to [hen] eggs, it's meant to be a functional, nutritious, delicious replacement for eggs.”
Short, clean ingredient lists
As for ingredients, if you want plant-based products to behave like animal-based products, consumers understand that you are likely going to have to use a few more ingredients, said Randolph, who uses pumpkin seeds, garlic, turmeric, and salt for her egg alternative, and sunflower seeds, coconut oil, seasoning, gums and cultures for her plant-based soft cheeses.
But consumers are nevertheless looking for short, clean, ingredients lists, with a wider variety of plants, and real nutrition, said Randolph, who said plant-based cheeses are currently divided into two groups: oil and starch-based products (Daiya, Violife, Follow Your Heart etc), and cultured nut products (Kite Hill, Treeline, Nuttin Ordinary etc), although some firms are now adding legumes to some formulations (Miyoko’s).
“We need to think about biodiversity for the diet and biodiversity for the environment. We need to offer a variety of alternatives to make the plant-based diet really sound and healthy,” added Randolph, who has filed a patent covering processes and compositions for plant-based egg, milk, cheese, and other fermented products from seeds.
(To those wondering how hard it can be to crush sunflower seeds, add some coconut oil and seasonings and make a great cheese alternative, try this at home and see what you get, she observes.)
“We’re the first seed-based product on the market, we’re nut-free, our ingredients are pretty simple, the flavor is incredible, and our branding is really fun and engaging. And cream cheese is just the beginning; we're coming out with other dairy alternatives such as Mozzarella, Cheddar, milk, and eggs made from a variety of seeds, including hemp, pumpkin, and sesame seeds"
‘There are very few liquid plant-based eggs out there and we’re using different ingredients’
When it comes to merchandising plant-based cheese, she said, “it’s still so nascent, that a lot of buyers haven't really figured out where to put it yet, so in a lot of stores we’re directly next to the [dairy] cream cheese products, while at others we’re in an exclusively plant-based section.”
Feedback from retail partners about the pepita egg alternative is very encouraging, she claimed: “They're excited about it, as there are very few liquid plant-based eggs out there and we’re using different ingredients [to, say, Eat Just].”
Spero is not releasing the formulations for its new Cheddar and Mozzarella products yet, “but we’re using a variety of seeds,” she said. “We have some different techniques and ingredients we've been working on to improve the stretchiness compared to the competition and to really create a sharp complex Cheddar flavor.”
Next on the ‘to-do’ list is making a move into the foodservice market, meanwhile: “We’re focused on finding a broker and a distributor right now to expand into foodservice.”
- US retail sales of plant-based cheese were up 43.6% to $233.9m in the year to February 21, 2021, in measured channels, according to SPINS data.