Founded by Eat Just R&D exec Thomas Bowman (CTO) and former Bridebox marketer and Good Food Institute advisor Aylon Steinhart (CEO) in December 2018,Bay area-based Eclipse Foods launched in late 2019 promising to disrupt the plant-based ice cream category with products that “actually taste like dairy ice cream.”
And if you can pull that off, claims Steinhart, who says “the #1 reason consumers avoid plant-based dairy is taste,” you can “unlock the mainstream market,” given that taste, price, and convenience still trump sustainability and animal welfare in an indulgent category such as ice cream.
The Eclipse brand, which launched in foodservice in late 2019 before moving into retail in late 2020 and 2021 with chains including New Seasons, Central Market, Bristol Farms, Lazy Acres and Gelson’s Market, secured shelf space for three flavors (Cookie Butter, Mint Chip, Vintage Vanilla) in 45 NorCal Whole Foods stores in late September 2021.
And so far, the results are pretty encouraging, although it’s very early days, Steinhart told FoodNavigator-USA. “Velocity is up and to the right; we’re the fastest selling plant-based ice cream in Whole Foods NorCal, which is incredible because we’ve only been on shelf for six weeks.”
He added: “83% of our DTC [direct to consumer] consumers are not vegans or vegetarians, so we know Eclipse appeals to mainstream consumers, while our base is also free from the top allergens, so no nuts or soy, which also helps retailers balance out their sets.”
Replicating the micellular structures in dairy milk
So what is Eclipse - which closed a $12m Series A funding round in 2020 – doing differently from a formulation perspective?
A patent filed by Steinhart and Bowman in October 2020 lays out how they are attempting to promote micelle formation between plant proteins, starches, and oil droplets in a non-dairy liquid base that replicates the micellular structures in dairy milk whereby casein proteins fold up into spherical structures so they can remain suspended indefinitely in water along with minerals such as calcium.
“Our whole IP platform is about replicating micelles using plants, not using expensive biotech,” said Steinhart. “We figured out how to basically create those in our base, which allows us to create the taste, texture and functionality of dairy, and allows us to create not just ice cream, but milk, cheese and yogurt.
“We've had some lactobacillus inculcate in some of our base and we come back and it actually turned into yogurt, and it’s really good.”
Blind taste tests
As for the ice cream - which combines sugar, canola oil, potato protein, food starches, tapioca maltodextrin and tapioca syrup - he added: “We did a blind taste test of 100+ people through a professor at UC Berkeley and the results were that 67% of people preferred Eclipse to the best-selling plant-based ice creams out there, but more importantly, 73% actually reported that our ice cream was creamier than the best-selling dairy ice cream in the US, Breyer’s.”
Right now, Eclipse is manufacturing its ice cream with co-packers on both coasts, said Steinhart.
“Our product actually runs on dairy lines, so we don't need to introduce any wildly different complex custom manufacturing processes or equipment, which from a business perspective is extremely important because it means we can scale way faster and way more affordably than almost anyone.”
Ingredients, Eclipse vintage vanilla: Water, cane sugar, low euric acid rapeseed oil, Eclipse dessert blend (modified food starches, rapeseed protein, tapioca maltodextrin), tapioca syrup, vanilla bean paste (sugar, water, pure vanilla extract, vanilla beans), vanilla extract, salt, calcium lactate, calcium gluconate.
Nutrition (129g serving): 320 calories, 20g fat, 1g sat fat, 24g sugar, and 3g protein.
As a point of comparison, vanilla Häagen-Dazs is made from cream, skim milk, cane sugar, egg yolks, and vanilla extract, and contains 320 calories, 21g fat, 13g sat fat, 25g sugar, and 6g protein.
While the ingredients list for Eclipse is somewhat longer, it contains significantly less saturated fat than dairy ice cream (1g vs 13g in Häagen-Dazs, but is "incredibly creamy," claims Steinhart.
Building the team…
Asked how Steinhart and Bowman split responsibilities, he said: “Thomas is a food genius, so he does best when he's creating incredible products, while my focus is on growing the team and bringing in the best of the best, so we have a director of operations that was at Impossible Foods, and a director of retail sales who was at RXBAR... and then of course part of my job is investor relations.”
So what’s the focus for 2022?
“Right now we’re in upwards of 300 doors, but growing quickly,” said Steinhart, who is also seeing some encouraging traction on e-commerce platforms such as GoPuff.
“We recently launched with GoPuff in 10 different markets, which is really interesting because you look at the buying behavior of consumers with ice cream and it turns out that most ice cream is purchased after dark, when most grocery stores are closed, so it’s really enabling us to meet consumers where they are.”