The round – also backed by Cult Capital, Obvious Ventures, Stray Dog, and CPT Capital – will help the Petaluma, CA-based company build its brand in an increasingly competitive marketplace, founder and CEO Miyoko Schinner told FoodNavigator-USA.
“In 2020 we grew 70% – we actually could have grown more, but we have a lot of pandemic constraints – and we’re expecting to grow as much this year, if not more, despite the fact that we haven’t done a lot of marketing.”
She added: “To get to the next level, we need to pour money into marketing both at the trade level and for general brand awareness and product marketing, so we’re are building the team, and we’ve got some really exciting campaigns coming up.”
Animal welfare: ‘I see it as my job as an industry leader to get people to care’
So what’s the message?
While consumer research shows that consumers tend to be more focused on taste, health and sustainability, which are all key to Miyoko’s brand, animal welfare is moving up the agenda, especially for young people, claimed Schinner, a passionate animal rights advocate who secured remnant billboard space in Times Square featuring the strapline: ‘Milk Plants, Hug Cows.’
“Everything we’re trying to do is to connect. It’s not just about the planet and eating plants; we want to change human perception towards animals.
“If consumers don’t care enough, I see it as my job as an industry leader to get people to care. We can’t just react based on what consumers tell us in surveys [about purchase motivations]. If we are trying to re-envision a new future of food that’s going to take all stakeholders into account, it’s our responsibility to talk about the things that matter, and I believe if we’re going to save the planet we have to save animals.”
‘I am trying to create flavors through fermentation, enzymatic processes, not by adding a bunch of natural flavors’
On the innovation front, Miyoko’s is developing a protein-packed (10g per serving) plant-based cottage cheese with five ingredients that will debut at Expo East next month, and a retail version of its ‘liquid’ pizza mozzarella, which has been a success in the foodservice channel and “forms a stretchy cheesy mass when you bake it,” said Schinner, who wouldn’t say what’s in the cottage cheese, but confirmed that “there is no added protein powder of any sort.”
Farmhouse Cheddar and Pepper Jack: ‘I’m the first person to say I wasn’t happy with how we rolled them out…’
It is also reformulating its Farmhouse Cheddar and Pepper Jack cheeses, which were launched in early 2020 but were not quite ready for prime time, acknowledged Schinner, who initially produced all her wares in-house, but has started working with co-packers over the past year or two as the company has expanded its portfolio beyond artisanal cashew-based cheeses to a broader selection of products from plant-based ‘butters,’ to slices made from a wider set of ingredients from oatmilk to legumes.
“I’m the first person to say I wasn’t happy with how we rolled them out. There were just problems across the board,” said Schinner. “We’re reformulating those products they’re going to launch as fully organic versions, with a better taste profile, and no added natural flavors. I am trying to create flavors through fermentation, enzymatic processes, not by adding a bunch of natural flavors.”
She added: “Part of our brand promise is to make products with minimal inputs, so we start out with a plant milk inoculated with cultures, enzymes, yeast, and then we let the magic take place. We don’t want to rely on a bag of tricks.”
Formulation in plant-based cheese: ‘We don’t want to rely on a bag of tricks’
But if you’re trying to replicate the taste, functionality and structural properties of traditional animal-derived products such as cheese, don’t formulators have to rely on a ‘bag of tricks’ to some degree?
Yes and no, said Schinner, a founding member of the Plant Based Food Association who argues that there are still plenty of tools that haven’t been properly explored in the plant-based toolkit before you move into the ‘animal-free’ territory (utilizing ‘real’ dairy proteins such as whey and casein produced via genetically engineered microbes).
“There are definitely going to be more options in future, which I think is great. But my hope is we don’t have to use precision fermentation. I think there’s an alternative that doesn’t have to be oil and starch that can utilize whole food plant-based ingredients, and use natural fermentation rather than precision fermentation, without genetic modification, to create the flavors and textures we want.
“So we’re working very closely with different culture houses for example, in developing proprietary cultures that are specific to different plant milks. We’re also working on creating proprietary composite milks from a variety of plants that have the nutritional equivalency of dairy, and utilizing natural fermentation to create natural cheeses that I think will resonate with consumers.”
‘Companies to date have relied on starches to get that stretch, but we’re exploring different plant proteins’
But can you create the kind of melt and stretch you get in cheeses such as mozzarella without (the dairy protein) casein?
“Companies to date have relied on starches to get that stretch, but we’re exploring different plant proteins, for example zein [a corn protein with some interesting functional properties] which performs like casein but has a strong corn flavor.”
‘We have to create a world where we stop looking at animals as food’
While high-tech reverse engineering is all the rage in meat and dairy alternatives right now, consumers do not necessarily want animal-free products to precisely replicate animal counterparts, which should not always be the nutritional benchmark, stressed Schinner.
“Consumer tastes are changing… it doesn’t have to bleed like a cow. But we also have to create a world where we stop looking at animals as food. And that means over time we should perhaps stop trying to replicate animal foods.
“You can make something that melts on a pizza, makes a great grilled cheese sandwich, without having to have an identical flavor to animal-based foods.”