Vegan Cheese Sales Climb as New Producers Flood Market
Consumers who follow a vegan diet have more and more food options every day, but one category that has fallen short in the past is seeing a surge in innovation: cheese.
The latest entry to the market is The Field Roast Grain Meat Co., which earlier this month introduced Chao Slices, a rich and creamy coconut cheese seasoned with fermented soybean curd that the Vietnamese call chao.
Chao Slices are part of a growing selection of vegan cheese products on the market. Between 2012 and 2014, launches of cheese products carrying a vegan claim in the U.S. rose by 118 percent, according to Mintel Group.
“We have gotten ongoing feedback that this product is groundbreaking in its category,” says Kiley Simmons, marketing associate for Field Roast, crediting its flavor, texture, convenient portion packaging, and its melting ability.
Field Roast launched its Chao Slices line with three flavors: creamy original with chao tofu, tomato cayenne with spicy peppers, and coconut herb with black pepper. With an SRP of $5.99, the full line is available wholesale to retail distributors; the creamy original variety is also available wholesale to foodservice customers, although the company’s main focus is on retail distribution. Though the company wouldn’t share sales numbers, demand for the product has been brisk, with the company repeatedly selling out of product since its launch.
The Rainbow Grocery Cooperative in San Francisco has seen the faux cheese category expand “tremendously” in recent years, according to cheese buyer Gordon Edgar.
“It’s a whole new generation of fake cheese. It’s the first generation that has integrity as food. Customers are really responding to that,” says Edgar, who wrote Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge in 2010. “People who bought nondairy cheese with disdain now look forward to it.
“It’s at the beginning of this experiment of extracting flavor from nuts as you do from milk,” he continues. Manufacturers have long been embracing different flavors, Edgar explains. Where this new generation differs from its predecessors is dropping the goal of mimicking real cheese.
The Field Roast Grain Meat Co. stands by using earth-based flavors instead of mock flavors, such as mozzarella or provolone. “A lot of people who have been vegan or dairy-free the majority of their lives have reached out to thank us because they have never found a cheese they have been able to eat or enjoy until now,” says Simmons. “People who enjoy dairy-based cheese are shocked by this product also and have given positive responses.”
Price doesn’t seem to be a hindrance for Rainbow’s customers. Each product can range from $6.99 to $20 per 2- to 10-ounce unit, yet Gordon says it’s a challenge keeping the faux cheese products in stock.
One of the pioneers in the U.S. vegan cheese sector is Dr. Cow, founded as a wholesale business in 2007 by Pablo Castro and Veronica Schwartz. The Brooklyn, N.Y., business began as a wholesale operation and opened a retail store last spring to sell its products, made with Indonesian cashews.
The married couple cranked out 10,000 pounds of vegan cheese in 2014, up from 7,500 pounds the year prior. Dr. Cow offers 10 products, including cream cheese and seven hard cheeses that are aged for two months. Flavors include blue green algae, kale, dulse (seaweed) flakes, spirulina, saffron, and truffles.
Dr. Cow was in a field of its own eight years ago, and now has approximately 60 competitors producing cashew-nut cheeses, says Castro. The company produces and distributes the product nationwide to customers including Whole Foods Market, which jumped on the emerging category early in 2014 when it started selling Kite Hill’s line of nut-based cheeses that have been hailed for tasting like the real thing.
While the sector is growing at a fast clip, Castro says if Dr. Cow grows too fast, the product quality will suffer. “I want to keep it small and do what I like to do in the best way possible,” he says.
The movement is extending to the DIY realm. Online specialty retailer Modernist Pantry has introduced a vegan cheese kit, available online direct to consumers. The company partnered with Skye Michael Conroy (also known as The Gentle Chef) to launch Druids Grove Foods, a brand designed for ethical eaters. The Modernist Pantry co-founder Chris Anderson says when the company launched a Kickstarter campaign for the kits in early December, it tripled its funding goal to $50,616 within 24 hours.
Unlike dairy cheese or some of the nut-based alternatives now on the market, the kits produce an “instant” cheese that requires no aging or culturing to achieve full flavor and texture. The preparation takes less than 15 minutes, the only ingredients needed are miso and cider vinegar, and the finished cheese is ready to eat within 12 hours.
Produced in the company’s Portsmouth, N.H., facility, the kits retail for about $22 and are available in brie, cheddar, and mozzarella varieties. All the ingredients are all plant-based, non-GMO, and gluten-free. Anderson says 1 percent of profits from sales of these kits will go toward animal welfare organizations.
Anderson says the kits have already sparked interest from several specialty food buyers and a major home-shopping network.
“The market potential for this product is huge,” he says. “It not only appeals to vegans and vegetarians, but there are also people with lactose intolerance and dairy allergies as well as a significant kosher population, who cannot mix dairy and meat.”
Anderson notes that he isn’t a vegan. “But,” he says, “I empathize with their situation that cheese is hard to give up.”
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