When well-respected TV chef Miyoko Schinner founded Miyoko’s Creamery in 2014, she changed the paradigm for plant-based cheese – expanding the category beyond an often unappetizing combination of oils, starch and hydrocolloids to an enjoyable gourmet experience by using old-world cheese making techniques and innovative technologies to culture nuts and create artisanal vegan cheese.
Out of the gate, Schinner won over high-profile investors, including Tofurkey founder Seth Tibbott, Wildwood Natural foods founder Billy Bramblett and Obvious Ventures – the VC firm started by Twitter co-founder Ev Williams. The company also won over retailers and consumers – quickly expanding all to Whole Foods regions, regional chains and hundreds of independent natural food retailers within 18 months and eventually blazing a path to mainstream conventional and mass market stores as well so that the company’s products are now in 20,000 doors in the US.
In the nearly 10 years since the company was founded, the innovation wheel has never slowed with the portfolio expanding from its high-end wheels of vegan cheese mostly made from cashews, coconut oil, a miso from chickpeas and other clean label, easy-to-recognize ingredients to more recent introductions featuring legumes and oats, including a plant-based butter, shreds, slices, spreads and recently and pourable mozzarella that promises to bubble and brown on freshly baked pizza.
Given Schinner’s and the company’s success, the decision for the two to part ways may surprise some, but the reasons given by the board for the division are relatively common as startups and challenger brands expand into maturity.
[Editor's note: This story has been updated to include comments made publicly by Schinner.]
‘It’s never my first choice to part ways with a founder’
In an exclusive interview with FoodNavigator-USA, investor and Obvious Ventures co-founder and managing director James Joaquin explained the split boils down to the board’s view that what got Miyoko’s Creamery from a small start-up to its well-recognized leadership position in the plant-based dairy segment is not the same skill set needed to get to the next level.
“The company is at a major growth inflection point, and for me as an investor, it’s never my first choice to part ways with a founder, but it is often the case that the skill set of a founder – that innovation engine to go from zero to one, to just create a new category that didn’t exist, those skills are often not the same skills to go from one to 100 and then scale that and make it more accessible and more affordable and bring those products to the masses,” he told FoodNavigator-USA.
“So, we’re very much out of that definition phase. We’re now the category leader of this new growing plant-based dairy category, and now we need to scale it. We need to make our products at higher volumes, using co-manufacturers, and we need to make those products available at more retailers. And we need to think about expanding internationally. And that requires a different leadership skill set than the kind of R&D innovation it took to create this new thing that never existed before,” he said.
While Joaquin stressed that he has “enormous respect and gratitude for everything that Miyoko has done for the company and for creating these breakthrough products,” he said it was a unanimous board decision to remove Schinner from her role as CEO and the day-to-day operations of the business and to “clarify to the trade and our retail partners that we’ve made this leadership change.”
He added he believes the decision “was good governance on the part of the board … we really needed to bring in a new set of skills. And, sometimes founders don’t agree with a board’s assessment. And that’s okay. That is part of the course of doing business.”
Joaquin noted that the board tried to craft a new non-executive role for Schinner, as often happens for founders when their company’s reach a certain size or need to pivot in a direction beyond their skillset. However, he said, she chose not to take that role.
“We are optimistic that Miyoko will remain on the board of directors and continue to be involved in the company in that capacity. You know, her name is on the box and she is still a large owner of the business,” he said.
Prior to the original publication date, FoodNavigator-USA tried to reach Schinner on a landline for comment. After publication, Schinner said publicly she texted back that she did not have time to respond. That text was not received by FoodNavigator-USA.
Schinner: 'Conflict grew around the best path forward for future growth'
A day after the original publication, Schinner shared via LinkedIn her side of the transition, acknowledging her removal as CEO was not her choice.
“As we worked to grow the business, conflict grew around the best path forward for future growth while continuing to live our values, founded on the principles of veganism and animal rights, as well as our B Corp status,” she wrote in a LinkedIn post. “That we find ourselves here is representative of the extent to which my views and approach have not always prevailed (especially in the past two years).”
She added she was “unwilling to agree to restrictions that would have made any ongoing role I played in this company ‘for appearances’ only.”
Schinner countered Joaquin’s assessment of the progress Miyoko’s Creamery made while she was CEO was “patronizingly described.”
She added, “The results that this company achieved under my leadership speak for themselves. We achieved these results – while I still had the ability to meaningfully ensure it – in a legitimately values-aligned way.”
She also questioned the timing of the company’s announcement and the original story’s publication, which she said aligned with “our well-publicized fundraiser [for Rancho Compasion, the non-profit farmed animal sanctuary she founded in 2015] where I would be unavailable to comment, particularly since my removal as CEO occurred months ago in June 2022, and negotiations for my continued involvement stalled before Christmas.”
Schinner has not responded to follow-up attempts by FoodNavigator-USA to reach her, including a text message and outreach via direct message on LinkedIn.
CFO Jon Blair steps up as interim president
Following Schinner’s exit from the company’s c-suite, company CFO Jon Blair has stepped into the role of interim president while the company works with the executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles to fill the role.
A relative newcomer to Miyoko’s Creamery having joined last March, Blair brings extensive experience from his roles at other heavy-hitting companies that have helped create or redefine other categories, including at Plum Organics and Rebbl.
And while he looks forward to working with a new CEO, he says he isn’t waiting for their start date to start the work he and the board believes Miyoko’s Creamery needs to undertake in its next chapter.
Task #1: Finetune innovation to expand usage occasion
One of the new skills Miyoko’s Creamery is looking for in a new CEO, and which Blair is already pursuing, is an ability to strategically innovate in a way that expands usage occasions and consumer engagement.
Blair explained that much of Miyoko’s Creamery’s success to date has stemmed from its innovative product portfolio, which is essential to its ongoing success, but “that doesn’t mean just stacking innovation on top of each other.”
Rather, he said the company under a new CEO will need to finetune innovation to expand usage occasions into new day parts with an eye towards more everyday consumption.
As an example, he pointed to the company’s recently launched cream cheese products, including a new cinnamon raisin variety, that can be spread on toast or crackers or used as a dip.
Joaquin added that Miyoko’s Creamery is well-positioned to deliver on consumers’ growing demand for cleaner, healthier plant-based products, sales of which have slumped across categories for many reasons, including criticism around the level of processing.
“Miyoko’s Creamery’s products are short ingredient lists, they’re very lightly processed – the same way tofu is a processed food – you know? We take organic cashews and we mill them and then age them with culture to create a cashew cheese out of that cashew milk. That’s more of an ancient cheesing making process than a factory food process” and that value and approach will remain central to the company’s innovation, he said.
Task #2: Build brand awareness
But it isn’t enough to just make category-changing products – Blair said the company needs to do a better job of telling consumers and retailers about them and what sets them apart from the competition.
“I think we can do a better job as a company of taking credit for a lot of the work we’re doing in terms of how we’ve innovated over the years, how we’ve conducted ourselves over the years,” which the company is now starting to do more deliberately over social media, Blair said.
As part of that effort, the company will unveil new branding at Natural Products Expo West.
Task #3: Expand distribution, including into foodservice
Miyoko’s Creamery also wants to expand its distribution and is looking for a CEO to help get its products into the hands of more consumers and a more diverse consumer base, said Blair.
“We’re in over 20,000 points of distribution right now, including customers such as Walmart and Target,” and while Walmart “is maybe not the exact customer you’d associate with a premium plant-based brand, our business is up over 95% year-on-year in Walmart,” Blair said.
He added, “there’s so much more” growth potential both in traditional retail but also foodservice.
“We’ve started discussions … with major chains around the use of our pourable mozzarella” for vegan pizza as well as the use of the company’s butter for additional plant-based offerings, Blair said.
With so many opportunities, Blair said when he sits down with the new CEO on day one he will want to know “how do we stage and go after those opportunities in the right way … and at the right time?”
Task #4: Maintain the company’s core mission, values
As a certified B Corp., Miyoko’s Creamery’s mission and central values around compassion and making delicious plant-based dairy will remain a core component going forward, and the company is looking for a CEO just as dedicated to those tenets, said Joaquin.
“We are 100% committed to doubling down on that mission. A lot of times, there is a question when there is a new CEO change about what’s going to happen to the mission of the company, and I just want to reiterate that is it locked in solid. Every executive, every board member is 100% committed to that mission,” he said.
He added with the leadership change the company wants to “amplify that [mission] and scale that” through innovation, increased distribution and enhanced brand-building and consumer awareness.
A firm believer in the mission, Blair says is he focused on maintaining not just the company’s values but its culture so that it continues to operate as seamlessly as possible.
For example, he said, the company established a culture committee pulling from employees at all levels and across all departments to help motivate and empower employees.
“There has been a lot of care and focus around doing this, and a proof point is we’ve seen our internal engagement surveys still do well,” he said.
Optimism abounds for Miyoko’s Creamery and plant-based more broadly
Ultimately, while leadership transitions can be challenging and Miyoko’s Creamery has a long wish-list of what it wants from a new CEO, both Joaquin and Blair are optimistic about the future of the company and the broader plant-based segment.
“I’m still bullish on the long-term trajectory of humans shifting away from eating animals and shifting towards eating plants. I think that is inevitable. I think there’s so much innovation that we’re getting better, tastier and more nutritious products every year,” and Miyoko’s Creamery continues to deliver against those demands to seize opportunities, Joaquin said.
Blair added: “I’m really excited for a new leader to join and to be a key partner with them to continue to grow the business and also maintain our mission, our vision and really our ultimate true purpose. So, I’m excited about the future.”