How about a glass of red wine, crackers… and some vegan cheese? If the prospect fills you with horror, says Miyoko’s Kitchen founder and TV chef Miyoko Schinner, you’re not alone. But try some of hers, and you’ll never look back, she insists.
“Decent vegan cheese has only just hit the market,” says Schinner, a chef, author, and TV personality who started selling her gourmet cultured nut products online last fall, and saw sales explode right out of the gate.
Today she also supplies them wholesale to 200+ retailers on the west coast, and by this time next year, expects they will be in 1,000+ specialty stores nationwide.
And this is no mean feat, as until very recently, says Schinner, 'vegan cheese' (historically made with an unappetizing combination of oils, starch and hydrocolloids) was something to be at best tolerated (preferably in combination with something that tasted better), rather than savored as a culinary treat.
"You certainly wouldn’t sit down and eat it with a bottle of wine. Some of the products were just inedible, which just makes you think, why bother?”
Attitudes change very quickly when people try them
The new wave of nut-based ‘artisanal vegan cheese’ brands – many of which were inspired by her book ‘Artisan Vegan Cheese’ – are in a completely different league, claims Schinner, who has persuaded a bunch of high-profile investors to back her cultured nut venture, from Tofurkey founder Seth Tibbott and Wildwood Natural Foods founder Billy Bramblett to Obvious Ventures, the VC firm started by Twitter co-founder Ev Williams.
“Attitudes change very quickly when people try them. We’re not really competing with bigger brands like Daiya and Follow Your Heart. We’re in the artisanal market, where you have companies like Kite Hill [which makes cultured almond products] and Treeline.
“Then there are a lot of very small players that stay very local, or do most of their sales online,” says Schinner, who has been battling to keep up with demand from the outset, despite the high price point and - some would argue - niche appeal of such products.
The wider audience is health-conscious foodies
As for niche appeal, that might be the case today, she acknowledges, “But I am confident that this will be a mainstream category in 5-10 years.
“There is a core vegan audience that passionately follows us, plus people that are lactose intolerant or have a milk protein allergy. But the wider audience is health-conscious foodies, and people that are looking for something new, or think that the dairy industry isn’t sustainable… and that’s before you even think about the treatment of animals.”
The high price point meanwhile - $10-12 per 6.5oz wheel – has not proved a barrier to date, as a growing percentage of consumers is prepared to pay for gourmet food products, and plant-based and ‘cultured’ foods are hot right now, she adds.
“On a price per pound basis, we’re comparable to a high end dairy cheese. We have e-commerce customers that have bought from us 15 times – despite the fact that shipping is pretty costly. We’re in Whole Foods in Northern California and they’ve been telling us they are amazed by how well our products are moving.”
“We’re got a 5,000 sq ft [production] facility [in Fairfax CA], but we’re already looking for a bigger facility because we are growing so rapidly.”
I wanted to use whole plant foods and traditional technologies and create something new
But why devote her energy and culinary talents to cheese when there are plenty of vegan delicacies she could likely come up with to complement the wine and crackers that don't involve trying to replicate a dairy product?
It’s a fair question, says Schinner, who says she is not trying to create an exact carbon copy of dairy cheese, but something with its own distinctive flavors, textures and complexity.
“Some of our products are closer to dairy cheese than others, but there are limitations. Rather than making something fake, I wanted to use whole plant foods and traditional technologies and create something new.”
When it comes to the products’ technical attributes, she says, “you can melt them into a pasta sauce, or have them in a grilled sandwich, but they wouldn’t melt and stretch like mozzarella on a pizza. They are designed to be eaten like a high-end cheese, something you can eat on its own with a bottle of wine.
“However, we’re planning to launch a more everyday line in 2016 that will stretch and melt, at a lower price point."
Some of our cheeses go through an aging process, some not
There are 10 organic cultured nut products in Schinner’s current line-up, from Country-Style Herbes de Provence to Aged English Smoked Farmhouse, but most are based on cashew nuts; coconut oil; a miso made from chickpeas, rice koji, sea salt, water, and koji spores; nutritional yeast; and cultures.
And just as no two dairy cheeses are the same, no two Miyoko’s Creamery products are the same, she adds: “Some of our cheeses go through an aging process, some not. The shortest time to make any of the cheeses is three days from milling the nuts to the end product but others are aged for a few months, and they all have different tastes and textures.
“I’ve experimented with various nuts but cashews work the best as they are soft and easy to process and have the most neutral flavor.”
Where do you stock non-dairy cheese?
As to where best to stock them in the store – views differ, she says.
“It’s interesting. Kite Hill [a gourmet cheese alternative firm based in Hayward CA] is in the cheese case at Whole Foods, but a lot of people that don’t eat dairy don’t shop the cheese case. We’re in the alternative sets with meat substitutes and our turn in stores has been very good.
”The biggest challenge she faces now is how to position the brand and company given its explosive growth, says Schinner, who will be adding a European-style vegan cultured butter to her range shortly.
“What we hadn’t really figured out in the beginning was how to brand and position ourselves, who we are, what we stand for. We thought initially this was all about artisan cheese but then we realized that we wanted to overhaul the whole dairy category.”