At first glance, Riverdel is more or less indistinguishable from any other gourmet food shop in Brooklyn. Shelves along one side of the narrow space are lined by boxes of gluten-free pasta, artisanal chocolate bars, no-added-sugar ketchup, shakers of nutritional yeast and jars of small-batch vodka sauce. On the other side is a refrigerated display case containing what appears to be a motherlode of dairy products – jalapeño cream cheese, blocks of feta and bloomy-rinded wheels of camembert – that spill from its cool confines.
But look closer, and the Riverdel difference becomes clear in the fine print of the ingredients lists: the cream cheese is made from butter beans and coconut oil, the feta from coconut oil and potato starch. The camembert? Cultured sunflower seeds. They are but three of the 50-odd non-dairy cheeses, milks and yogurts for sale at Riverdel, a four-year-old vegan cheese and sandwich shop.
Michaela Grob, Riverdel’s owner, says the opening of her store in 2015 inspired a Twitter thread about how a vegan cheese shop was the latest sign of impending global doom. “Weird that with all the awful stuff in the world it was a vegan cheese shop that started the apocalypse but here we are,” someone tweeted. Grob keeps a printout of the thread hanging on the wall near the cheese case, which is increasingly precious real estate. These days, Grob is routinely approached by new vegan cheesemakers who want her to carry their products. “Every few months, there’s a new one on the radar,” she says.
The vegan cheese apocalypse, in other words, has arrived. Like other facets of the mushrooming plant-based foods industry, vegan cheese has enjoyed double-digit growth over the past few years. According to Nielsen data, sales of plant-based cheese grew 41% through August of last year, while sales of regular dairy cheese were flat. Sales of almond, soy, oat and other plant-based milks – which now make up 13% of all US retail milk sales – paved the way for the growing acceptance of vegan cheese, according to Caroline Bushnell, the senior marketing manager for the Good Food Institute, a not-for-profit promoting plant-based foods and clean meat.
To keep up with the increasing demand, plant-based cheese companies are expanding. Northern California’s Miyoko’s Kitchen recently upgraded to a 29,000-sq-ft facility that can handle 2,000lb batches of nut cheese, while the Vancouver-based Daiya is moving to a manufacturing facility more than six times the size of its current one to keep up with sales, which since 2012 have skyrocketed from $17m to $127m.
While the vegan cheese industry has statistics in its favor, it still lags behind other plant-based food sectors like milk and meat. But there’s growing competition to contend with, and challenges particular to the exceedingly complex nature of cheese.
Cheese is arguably much harder to mimic than meat or milk: it is a product whose flavors and functions can differ wildly from one form to the next, and are shaped by constantly shifting variables such as fermentation, room temperature, enzyme ratio, microbial activity and the aging process. How to replicate that kind of nuance – much less make the idea of fermented nuts seem remotely sexy – is a question that has preoccupied many producers in this fast-growing market. Most consumers go to the store looking for particular kinds of cheese – say, a melty cheddar for a grilled cheese sandwich or a salty feta for a salad. Vegan cheese, no matter how melty it may be (and some of it is extremely convincing), must answer to very specific desires in order to have any hope of crossing over to the mainstream.
“We’re where [nut milk] was eight years ago,” says Miyoko Schinner. “We’re catching up fast.” When Schinner founded Miyoko’s Kitchen in 2014, her goal was simple, if daunting. “I wanted to make an impact by taking vegan cheese out of the laughing stock category and make a serious contender for the cheese platter,” she explains.
While Schinner came to that quest with an advantage – she’d already authored a cookbook called Artisan Vegan Cheese – she faced a market that didn’t know such a thing was possible. At the time, the vegan cheese landscape was largely comprised of products that mimicked Kraft singles and shreds, and the term “vegan cheese” was widely considered an oxymoron at best and a cruel joke at worst. Schinner wanted her products, which employ the live-culture fermentation process used to make dairy cheese, “to add that level of sexiness to vegan cheese”.
Apparently they did: within 48 hours of her company’s e-commerce launch, Schinner had racked up $50,000 in orders for her 10 different flavors of artisanal nut cheese. Today, she sells 19 products in more than 11,000 stores across the country.
Schinner has looked to the success of the Impossible and Beyond burgers – the popular California-born faux meat patties now being served at restaurants across the country, including Carl’s Jr, TGI Fridays, QDoba, White Castle and Burger King – as examples of what is possible when enough advertising dollars are spent on plant-based foods. Those companies, she says, “decided to blow up their marketing and get [their products] on everyone’s radar in a way no one had done before”.
But marketing her products entails the additional challenge of addressing the very specific ways people think about cheese – its function, its versatility (or lack thereof), and its limitations. As Schinner points out, meat, or its plant-based counterpart, is at the center of our plates. Cheese, plant-based or not, never has been.
“What is the role of cheese? Is it just to be a slice on a burger or a gooey middle for a sandwich?” Schinner says. Cheese has traditionally been used to enhance and elevate other foods. So in order to succeed, plant-based cheese has to go beyond what she calls “the goo or stretch factor” – it has to add flavor and umami, too. “There’s a lot that’s perfect for grilled cheese,” Schinner says. “But not a lot out there for elevating cuisine.”
Another struggle in the growing market entails grappling with the question of how to offset the costs of an unconventional product designed to cater to – and win over – as many people as possible. For the founders of Numu, a brand of vegan mozzarella, the answer was tied to a shift in sales strategy. In 2015, when Jill Carnegie and Gunar Elmuts launched Numu, the pair initially conceived of it as a “high-end artisanal product used by the top pizza chefs in the world, the ones who wouldn’t normally touch vegan cheese,” says Carnegie. But the cost of using organic coconut oil, one of the product’s main ingredients, was prohibitive. After discovering that there was no discernible difference in pesticide use between organic and non-organic coconut oil, Carnegie and Elmuts switched to the latter, and shifted their vision away from retail towards the mass market. “We started to set up a structure so we could go big in one fell swoop through food service first,” says Carnegie.
The strategy worked: Numu, which is based in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, has struck deals with large food service companies and has been scaling up with a co-manufacturer in a neighboring state. Beginning in late spring or early summer, the company will begin to expand throughout the country.
Focusing on one very large food category – pizza – has also been advantageous, simply because so many people eat it. And vegan mozzarella is also a good foundation for growth, product-wise, Carnegie says: “Because we’ve started with the most mild cheese, we’re able to relatively easily expand to other cheese because we can use the same [manufacturing] process but add flavor.”
A major challenge for any vegan cheese company, she explains, is deciding on a flagship product – figuring out how far its manufacturing process can go, and how it can be minimally adjusted to improve profit margins. “Our ingredients don’t benefit from the same subsidies that dairy benefits from,” she says. “We’re not getting $1.1bn bailouts from the federal government, and our prices are not being kept artificially low.” If plant-based companies are using ingredients that don’t enjoy subsidies, but want to offer comparable products at comparable prices, then, Carnegie explains, “we must be vigilant about maximizing our margins in other ways” – through production efficiencies, for example.
The idea that Numu can be successful making one product with a very specific function also speaks to how the vegan cheese market has changed over the past several years: whereas it used to be that consumers wanted a good vegan cheese that could do everything – if only because there was such a dearth of vegan cheese that could do anything – now there is enough variety in the market to support niche products.
“What we used to say was that it melted and stretched, the two things consumers were looking for more than anything,” says Michael Lynch, the vice president of marketing at Daiya. Lynch, who joined Daiya in 2012, well understood the importance of those two factors: he had previously handled marketing for Kraft. When Daiya was founded in 2009, most products in the vegan cheese market “were quite honestly terrible”, says Lynch. “I think even people in the industry would admit that the largely soy-based cheeses weren’t very good. They didn’t melt and didn’t stretch, and the flavor wasn’t very appealing.”Back then, Lynch recalls, only a small, dedicated group of vegan consumers were willing to make the tradeoff. But as quality has improved and the degree of compromise between animal-based products and their plant-based equivalents grown smaller, the industry’s growth has been fueled not by vegans but flexitarian eaters. Daiya itself now offers 72 different products, including a line of dessert bars it launched this year.
Growth means growing competition. And while Lynch says that is ultimately “beneficial for everyone” – more competition begets more product variety, which begets more options for consumers – an increasingly crowded industry has also created certain challenges. Take, for example, pea protein, which is a major source of protein in plant-based foods. As more companies begin developing plant-based foods, there’s an increasing demand for high-quality pea protein without tasting too beany, earthy or bitter. Such demand for “some of these limited key ingredients”, says Lynch, is “one of the biggest limitations” for industry growth.
But growth also brings innovation, which could in turn bring advances in the use of other ingredients in plant-based cheese. Some producers are trying to move beyond nuts and soy to allergen-free ingredients like sunflower seeds. Others, like Punk Rawk Labs, a tiny Minneapolis-based company, are using cultured fermentation to make creamy, umami-rich cashew cheeses that are ever-more indistinguishable from their dairy counterparts, a challenge that points to another way in which the plant-based cheese market differs from, say, plant-based milk.
“In the non-plant-based world, milk is milk – people don’t say, ‘I want a particular brand,’ they just say, ‘I want a gallon of milk,’” says Michael Schwarz, the founder of the vegan cheese company Treeline. “Whereas with cheese, people are more particular about what they want.”
Before he became vegan, Schwarz himself loved high-end French and Italian cheeses; when he founded Treeline, his six-year-old Hudson Valley vegan cheese company, his goal was to replicate those artisanal products with naturally cultured cashew cheeses. While he’s been successful in carving out his niche – Treeline’s spreadable flavored cheeses are carried in 49 states – Schwarz says that scaling up a fermented product is a very complicated endeavor: among other things, you have to have the right kind of facility that will ensure your product is still fresh by the time it arrives on store shelves.
Punk Rawk Labs’ co-owner Alissa Barthell echoes that sentiment. “There are a lot of challenges with fermentation; one of the biggest is consistency,” she says. “You also have to control triggers for cultures like temperature and humidity. There’s a science to it. You have to be very consistent to get consistent results. You have to guarantee your sell-by date. There’s a lot more to the process than just flavoring something to taste like cheese.”
There’s also, to add to the challenges of making plant-based cheese, the ongoing labeling issue. The cattle milk industry has (thus far unsuccessfully) tried to restrict the use of “milk” on plant-based milk labels, while beef and farming industry groups have persuaded lawmakers in more than a dozen states to introduce legislation that would make it illegal to apply the word “meat” to plant-based and lab-grown meat products. Schinner was recently the target of a labeling lawsuit over Miyoko Kitchen’s butter, which has since been dismissed.
None of that is stopping would-be vegan cheesemakers from springing up around the country; “there’s even more out there than what I can get my hands on,” says Riverdel owner Grob, who is about to open a second location of her store in Lower Manhattan.
If cheesemakers are focused on anything, it’s the future, and what possibilities it entails. “What we often see with vegan innovation is some codes get cracked, and then new information gets out and a whole wave of innovation follows,” says Numu’s Carnegie.
For her part, she’s looking at bringing Numu’s vegan mozzarella to pizzas around the globe, specifically in territories where there’s high demand for plant-based dairy alternatives but few options, like Mexico, Asia and South America. And while Carnegie is conscious that the vegan cheese market is becoming increasingly crowded, she’s got her sights set beyond it. “We don’t consider other plant-based cheeses our primary competitor,” she says. “We consider dairy our primary competitor.”