As the competition for faux burgers continues to heat up, Eclipse Foods has its sights set on dominating a different plant-based category.
Aylon Steinhart, co-founder and CEO of Eclipse, calls his company "the Beyond Meat of dairy products." While there are other vegan ice creams on the market, Steinhart told Food Dive that its plant-based ice cream is the first that is "indistinguishable" from its cow alternative.
Steinhart said that Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have proven that if a company creates a product that has the taste, texture and functionality of its animal counterpart then any type of consumer will be interested.
"So that's exactly what Eclipse is doing," he said. "We're creating products that require no sacrifice on the consumers' end so we can bring in that mainstream consumer and really change the food system."
Similar to Impossible Foods, Eclipse started out exclusively in foodservice, selling in places like ice cream shops and restaurants. Although the company always planned to move into retail, the pandemic changed its timing as foodservice operations shuttered during lockdowns.
"We're creating products that require no sacrifice on the consumers' end so we can bring in that mainstream consumer and really change the food system."
CEO, Eclipse Foods
"With shelter-in-place, obviously, things changed a lot and we knew that we as a company wanted to keep growing," he said. "We were always expecting to go to retail, and the pandemic definitely blew that timeline forward."
In early July, its own direct-to-consumer website launched nationwide. Its products are also now on Uber Eats in the San Francisco area, as well as at a grocery store and food hall called The Market, which sells local and organic groceries alongside other shops. Steinhart say these moves are the beginning of the company's retail expansion.
Making it 'indistinguishable'
Eclipse was founded in Berkeley, California by Steinhart, an expert in the alternative protein industry who previously worked at the Good Food Institute, and Thomas Bowman, a chef and food scientist who had developed many other plant-based products like Just Mayonnaise, Cookies and Dressings.
Bowman has an expertise in figuring out how to recreate the molecular composition of animal products using plants, Steinhart said. So Bowman knew where to start to develop a plant-based ice cream. They conducted several tests — in a kitchen and not a lab — to create a plant milk that would function the same way as cow's milk and could be used to make anything from ice cream to cheese and sour cream. Eclipse is made with ingredients such as potato, corn, cassava, canola oil and cane sugar.
Eclipse, which is backed by big name investors like Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, Gmail creator Paul Buchheit and Daiya Foods' former chairman Eric Patel, was able to have its big breakthrough of producing the milk in the company's first year.
"The result is that we can create plant-based products that have the taste, texture and functionality of a dairy product," he said.
The ice cream label lists the product as "cowlessly creamy," and the company plans to expand its ice cream retail and foodservice reach while "rolling out new products to really transform the dairy industry." Steinhart said the milk the company created can be used to make any alternative dairy product so there will be many different product lines in the future.
Shifting gears from foodservice to DTC
When foodservice operations shuttered, Steinhart said people were asking for their ice cream. The DTC website now allows consumers to ship their pints nationwide in their three signature flavors: vanilla, chocolate and cookie butter.
"We really said, 'If we can't get consumers the product in one channel, let's make it available in another channel,'" he said. "The exciting thing with being able to launch direct-to-consumer is that it gave us a lot of control when it came to the product."
More CPG companies are deploying DTC shipping as consumers turn to ecommerce during the pandemic. Along with launching the site, Eclipse also kicked off a collaboration series to introduce limited-edition flavors in July. The company partnered with top chefs across the U.S. to release new flavors for the summer, with 100% of proceeds going toward the chefs' charities of choice.
"We got in touch with them and we said 'Okay, Eclipse is coming out to the world, and the world is hurting. So let's do something that is good for everyone,'" he said.
The company is working directly with these chefs to develop limited-time flavors like Blackberry Tarragon, Oolong Milk Tea and Toasted Almond Thyme. Eclipse is continuing the chef series for the next couple of months, with a new set of flavors with different chefs each month.
Steinhart said working with these chefs proves to consumers that this ice cream is the real deal because they are "not going to work with a product that's not good unless they're paid heaps of money, which we're not. These are all organic partnerships."
So far, the DTC launch has been successful, he said. Eclipse had to rush a bunch of production around because everything was selling out, Steinhart said.
Now could be a prime time for expansion since plant-based food has seen a higher growth rate than general food sales during the pandemic, according to SPINS data.
Steinhart said once plant products reach a point where they require no sacrifice in taste and price, consumers will naturally gravitate toward them because they're more sustainable and often considered better for you.
More companies are getting involved in plant-based and vegan ice creams recently. HumanCo just acquired a majority stake in vegan ice cream Coconut Bliss, dairy-free ice cream brand NadaMoo is doubling down on its growth and Ben & Jerry's has recently expanded its plant-based portfolio.
"We're going to hit that tipping point," he said. "You can see there's been tremendous mainstream adoption of plant-based foods recently and that's why the big food companies are so interested, excited and getting involved as well."