If there’s a food that tests the willpower of vegans, it’s cheese. It’s delicious and doesn’t scream “animal” the way a leg of lamb or chicken breast does. Plus, nondairy cheeses have long been sorry substitutes; they’re mostly starch and oil mixed with ground-up nuts. Now comes Lyrical Foods, a Bay Area startup backed by Silicon Valley cash, and its new-and-improved vegan cheese made with equipment imported from France and then aged in caves.
Lyrical’s Kite Hill line, which includes ricotta and a truffle-and-dill-flavored soft cheese, was picked up by Whole Foods Market, a coup for a company trying to prove its vegan cheese tastes like the real thing. “We have to match or exceed the sensory pleasure and value that cheese-loving consumers get from conventional animal-derived cheeses,” says Dr. Pat Brown, a medical doctor and Stanford biochemistry professor who’s a Lyrical co-founder. The “cheesemaking world has been working on this problem for thousands of years.”
Regular cheese is made using rennet, an enzyme found in the stomachs of cows and other mammals that causes milk to coagulate. The resulting curds are strained out, pressed, and aged to form cheese. Brown, a longtime vegan, spent a sabbatical experimenting with a plant-based enzyme that mimics rennet when combined with almond milk. He then enlisted culinary experts Tal Ronnen and Monte Casino, who became co-founders, to refine the product.
The results won over John Mackey, the co-chief executive officer of Whole Foods, during a private taste test in 2012. Mackey says he was impressed with Kite Hill’s “rich flavor” and its ability to grow a thick rind, just like milk-based cheese. That got Kite Hill’s line of cheeses on the shelves of about 430 Whole Foods stores across the U.S. by late 2014. They’ll soon be available at Fresh Market, a gourmet grocery chain with about 185 locations, and could be in as many as 1,000 stores by the end of the year.
The five-year-old Hayward, Calif., company logged sales of less than $10 million last year. But Whole Foods’ “blessing means a lot for this type of product,” says Kara Nielsen, a culinary trend analyst for Sterling-Rice Group, a branding firm. “No other retailer has that kind of clout.”
Once the exclusive province of animal rights activists and strict dieters, veganism has come into the spotlight in recent years, as celebrities such as Bill Clinton, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Beyoncé have spoken publicly about what they see as the health benefits of giving up dairy. Still, that hasn’t translated into an explosion of vegan cheese sales: Nondairy products account for less than 1 percent of the $22.1 billion U.S. cheese market.
Lyrical is betting that’s about to change. Matthew Sade, the company’s CEO, sees growth of plant-based cheese mirroring what’s happened in the milk market. Sales of nondairy alternatives, especially almond and soy milk, have surged 54 percent since 2010 and now account for 12 percent of the market, according to researcher Euromonitor International.
A 4-ounce container of Kite Hill’s soft ripened cheese—the company suggests pairing it with grapes and chardonnay—retails for about $10, a price comparable to a premium French Camembert or Brie, and far more than most shoppers are willing to pay. “We had no choice but to go to the premium market,” says Sade, a veteran of Starbucks and Clorox. “I can’t put a $10 piece of cheese into a conventional retailer.”
Lyrical expects the cost of making its cheeses to come down as it ramps up production. That would allow it to price some products more competitively, so they might be carried by conventional grocers such as Kroger and Walmart Stores. With that aspiration in mind, the company has spurned the vegan label, sensing it’s a turnoff for mainstream shoppers. “It’s a backhanded way of saying it tastes like the sole of your shoe,” Sade says.
With Kite Hill, which also includes cream cheese spreads, ravioli, and cheesecake, the company has stuck to soft cheese so far. But Casino says he dreams of using almond milk to make hard cheeses such as Parmesan, Swiss, and cheddar. That might be what it takes to win over average American palates, says Phoebe Connell, a cheesemonger and chef who owns Lois, a wine bar in New York. “Give people something they can put on a pizza,” she says, “and it will sell.”
The bottom line: Lyrical Foods’ Kite Hill vegan cheeses have gained entry into Whole Foods and aspire to be in Walmart one day.