From the ground up: Vegan cheese business flies high stateside
In 2019, we saw the plant-based meat segment boom, with innovative start-ups bringing new products to market and, while 2020 spells further growth, we are already seeing plant-based innovation ramp up in other areas.
Veronica Fil and partner Shaun Quade are the team behind Grounded cheese, a vegan cheese product that stemmed from the kitchen of their fine dining restaurant in Melbourne and has since attracted a $300,000 investment and rolled out to food service outlets in New York.
Quade, a chef for the last 20 years, began experimenting with cheese alternatives to cater to the high volume of vegan consumers and those with allergies and intolerances.
“Shaun was getting so frustrated having to create separate menus for everyone that he thought, ‘I’m just going to create something that ticks all the boxes, and no one’s even going to realise that it’s vegan’,” Fil told Inside FMCG.
“What he created was just incredible, you wouldn’t even think that it was vegan. And unbeknown to a lot of us he actually started giving one of the initial cheeses that he’d made to people to sample, just telling them it was another regular cheese. No one realised for about a year.”
The surprising thing about Grounded is the simplicity of its base ingredients: cauliflower and hemp seeds.
“There’s a lot of tasty stuff out there but a lot of them are made from nuts and soy, so it’s not even an option If you’re worried about allergens and intolerances. And they’re actually really unsustainable and expensive to produce, because of the issues around almond and cashew processing. At the other side of the market, you’ve got the cheaper ones that are pretty much just a block of coconut oil and starch,” she said.
Fil has her own food and beverage marketing agency and a background in economics, so after spotting an opportunity in plant-based cheese, she convinced Quade to let her commercialise some of the vegan recipes as a side revenue channel. The duo were in the process of bringing their restaurant concept to the US when they realised that their vegan cheese was garnering the most interest.
“The first investor we pitched to thought it was a great restaurant concept but pretty much said, ‘I’ll buy the cheese company off you for $2 million right now’.”
With offers flooding in to buy the product, the pair decided it was worth holding on to and began exploring how to bring it to market.
Last year, they were among six start-ups selected to take part in the Seeds of Change Accelerator, run by Food Innovation Australia Limited (FIAL) and Mars Food Australia.
“It was a really pivotal moment for us because I remember it actually happened while Shaun was in the US talking to people about the restaurant. As soon as I found out we made it, I told Shaun, ‘Come back home, we’ve got access to 20 mentors that can guide us through this’.”
Five weeks into the program, Fil met a venture capitalist from New York who runs a plant-based food fund, who offered to help the business get off the ground.
“Two weeks later, we were in New York with a $300,000 investment behind us, preparing to commercialise our products,” Fil said.
“I’m incredibly grateful that Shaun trusted my instincts on this. I really had to convince him that it was a good idea to leave the career that he’d spent 20 years building to come and join my company and be my R&D chef.”
When it comes to Grounded’s target market, Fil said it would be in poor taste to promote a vegan product without making it clear that they’re not vegan.
“We’re actually aggressively marketing not at vegan consumers, because they’re about 0.3 per cent of the market, and I think we’re actually going to get people to change their consumption patterns and their behaviour towards making more sustainable options and options that are better for their health. We’ve got to go after the more mainstream market and actually create something that just tastes bloody good, but also is at the same price point.”
Grounded recently launched into food service in New York and has had a phenomenal response but ultimately they plan to bring the product back to Australia.
“We spent a year planning and working on the strategy, intending to launch in Australia but when we got the opportunity to take it straight over to the States where it’s a bigger population, we thought if we’ve got the opportunity let’s take it, then we can bring it back home and go anywhere we want with the business at that point.”
“Our rollout plan is to go through food service first then we’ll be launching direct-to-consumer, and finally we’ll be doing retail.”
Grounded has about 30 different varieties of cheese in its portfolio and is also planning to follow up with a mass premium product aimed at the general market.
“It’s got a lot of focus on convenience style food. It’s a range that we’ve developed with grab-and-go packs, frozen products like pizza bites, that kind of thing.”
“I think a lot of people, when they see our products, get confused thinking that we’re kind of a small scale, artisanal speciality cheese brand, but our products are made out of cauliflower offcuts; it’s never been more scalable, and low cost to manufacture. We’ve finally got the opportunity to make plant-based high quality products available at a massive scale.
“I get really excited by the fact that we can make it a comparable price point to dairy products, that’s when it gets really interesting instead of being something that you can only afford once a month or only a certain segment of society.”
For now, the pair are pursuing the dream in New York and taking it one day at a time.
“We’ve been living in New York in a one-bedroom apartment with the dog. We’re in the office together, we spend 24/7 together. You can imagine exactly what it’s like, it’s extreme, but then we’re extreme people. Anyone who knows us knows that we don’t do things by halves – I think we’d actually die if we didn’t challenge ourselves. It’s our only option.”