The first time Miyoko Schinner tasted vegan cheese, all she could think of was spitting it out.
It was the 1980s, and she was in the United States after living in Japan. She grabbed a sample at a natural foods expo and quickly realized it was a bad idea. What passed for vegan cheese at that point was based on oil and starch.
“It was the laughing stock of the natural foods world,” Schinner told Food Dive.
Schinner has taken that bad experience and improved upon it exponentially. Her Miyoko’s Creamery brand is well known for its delectable plant-based cheeses. The company’s year-over-year growth has been in the triple digits, with a 170% increase in 2018, she told Food Dive. She expects growth to continue at a similar rate.
Miyoko’s Creamery's butter and cheeses are available in about 12,000 stores nationwide, including Whole Foods and Target. She estimated annual revenue in the $20 million to $50 million range. The company has raised a total of $12 million in two funding rounds, each led by JMK Consumer Growth Partners.
A serial entrepreneur who has worked with baking, restaurants and natural foods, Schinner grew Miyoko’s Creamery as consumer hunger for tasty plant-based options increased. As her business expands, her goal is to be part of the larger movement toward a sustainable plant-based food system.
“I think we were all in the dark ages of food for a long time, when we were just eating whatever was available,” Schinner said. “And today, we're realizing we have a choice. And all these innovators are recreating the future, (they) are creating the future of food. So it's a very exciting time in human history.”
The book that launched a thousand startups
It took years for Schinner to get the bad taste of her first vegan cheese experience out of her mouth. In the 2000s, she had enough. She’d been without cheese for too long and wanted to have it again.
“I read a bunch of cheese books, like real cheese books,” Schinner said. “I took some dairy cheese classes — I was the only student that didn't eat the cheese — but I learned the techniques and I thought, OK, how can I apply this to plants — you know, plant ingredients. And I just started experimenting.”
“I think we were all in the dark ages of food for a long time, when we were just eating whatever was available. And today, we're realizing we have a choice. And all these innovators are recreating the future, (they) are creating the future of food. So it's a very exciting time in human history.”
Founder and CEO, Miyoko's Creamery
Schinner has written several vegan cookbooks, and she collected what she learned into “Artisan Vegan Cheese.” The book took off in vegan culinary circles, and she jokes that it’s the book that launched a thousand vegan cheese companies. Every time Schinner travels, she says she meets more small cheesemakers who use her book as a bible of the business.
The experimentation launched her business, too. Schinner said the secret of her success has been figuring out how to commercialize her cheese and gain traction in the market. The company started out with tastings, which provided both feedback and awareness. Social media helped supercharge the exposure the brand received, but she said her company wouldn't be a success if the food wasn't good.
The difference is in the ingredients
While the early vegan cheese was processed oil and starch, Schinner now concentrates on more natural ingredients. She told Food Dive she works to maintain a clean, vegan-friendly label on her products — but create things that taste as close to the dairy-based original as possible.
“I mean, we're not kale. Don't get me wrong — if you want maximum nutrition, you’ve got kale and chia seeds,” Schinner said. “We are making things that are (out of) whole foods like cashews, and we've got a new line of products, some new cheeses that are going to be coming out that are made out of legumes and potatoes and grains. So we're still talking, you know, relatively whole foods and nutrition.”
Getting that done takes a lot of experimentation. Schinner said her team — which is small — is constantly working with ingredients to try to make things that aren’t dairy replicate the taste, nutrition and texture of it. And they’re constantly improving the products. New cheddar and pepper jack cheeses coming out later this year, she said, will incorporate hemp protein — both for the taste and the lower price point. She also has a cheddar cheese that gets its distinctive flavor from fruit.
However, because the ingredients are all non-dairy, Schinner is coming up against legal challenges to her product labeling, which uses traditional dairy terminology like “cheese” and “butter.” A New York consumer sued the company last year, saying that its vegan butter “basks in dairy’s ‘halo’ by using familiar terms to invoke positive traits.”
The company’s packaging clearly says the butter is vegan and has the words “Made from Plants” on it. The lawsuit was voluntarily dismissed in May, but terms of the dismissal were not disclosed. Schinner didn't say much about it either.
“We're not changing our packaging,” Schinner told Food Dive. “It was an unexpected and happy ending.”
The labeling on her products continues to be challenged by state-based laws and regulations that restrict dairy terminology to products produced from milk. Schinner said she plans to hold firm.
"We're just gonna do what we think is right. We don't believe that consumers are confused,” Schinner said. “We don't feel we're doing anything deceptive or misleading. We think we're redefining the future of dairy just like the automobile redefined the future of transportation when they replaced the horse and buggy. Dairy is obsolete.”