One of my favorite culinary memories was walking through the heart of Buenos Aires sampling Italian-style “helado” from myriad shops, one scoop better than the next. In going vegan 10 years ago, I had to push experiences such as that ice cream crawl away for my health and growing concern about the issues related to animal welfare. The absence of that flavorful, rich, creamy taste of goodness left a hole in my diet as I soldiered on into the vegan lifestyle.
Thanks to the founders of Berkeley, California-based Eclipse Foods, those on a plant-based diet can enjoy the look and taste of ice cream that replaces even the best dairy products available in scoop shops and freezer cases. The secret is a platform/process devised by experienced chefs in a kitchen using a form of bioengineering that blends plant-based ingredients.
Eclipse Foods believes the answer to satisfying the ice cream cravings of the plant-based food crowd is not to create a substitute, but to create a replacement. Company CEO Aylon Steinhart saw the impact Beyond Meat had on the vegan food scene, creating an actual replacement for those craving hamburgers rather than yet another bean burger that acts more of a substitute for meat lovers.
The Eclipse Food story is bigger than ice cream, its first product to hit the market. Working alongside CTO, Thomas Bowman, an accomplished chef and former head of product development for JUST, the result was to learn the characteristics of the microbe in casein, the main protein in milk, and replicate that leaving the diary properties behind.
“We figured out the magic of milk,” Steinhart said in a recent interview with The Spoon. “The secret sauce is our secret sauce.”
Eclipse has made a lot of progress since The Spoon’s Catherine Lamb wrote about the launch of the company’s limited edition flavors less than a year ago. Lamb compared the Eclipse non-dairy process to that of Perfect Day, a significant competitor in the space whose product also avoids the use of nuts.
“Unlike Perfect Day, which ferments actual dairy proteins using genetically modified microbes, Eclipse’s dairy is made from a combination of everyday plant-based ingredients that the founders claim do a much better job imitating dairy than plain old oat or almond milk,” Lamb said.
The idea to use this magic milk as a building block for ice cream was based on several factors including market opportunity and the decision, as Steinhart said, to go with a product that was “in the center of the plate, not a co-star.” With the ability to create replacements for cheese, sour cream, and cream cheese, Eclipse will likely move forward with those products after they have established a beachhead in the ice cream space. With the plant-based shoppers representing only 18% of consumers, Steinhart believes his products are not in a “winner take all market” with a lot of opportunities.
While I can attest to the sensational taste of Eclipse Foods chocolate plant-based ice cream—which is as good as any traditional dairy product—the company has gone through several blind taste tests to underscore the success of their product.
Eclipse had an independent thirty-party firm conduct a 100-person blind taste test with 73% of those sampling Eclipse versus the best selling ice cream in the U.S. said the plant-based dessert was creamier. While still early in the game, Steinhart is pleased with uptake from consumers who can purchase the product online and the growth in sales for the products on the shelves of independent grocery stores in the Bay Area. Retail has been an important part of the company’s distribution strategy with the closure of restaurant partners due to the pandemic.
Steinhart agreed that the vegan frozen dessert space is a crowded one and given the current market conditions due to the pandemic, product marketing has its challenges. He describes marketing vision as wanting to create “an aspirational product—the best of the best.” The approach to fulfill that idea is to use leading chefs and influencers whose praise and endorsement create a trickle-down effect. The inability to offer in-store product sampling is a thorn in the side of any new product, especially one whose taste and experience is a strong selling point.
As far as a product distribution strategy goes, in addition to retail and direct-to-consumer, Eclipse has created foodservice partnerships with existing brands OddFellow in New York and Mitchell’s Homemade Ice Cream in San Francisco. And it doesn’t stop there.
“We want to be in every Sonic, Wendy’s, Dairy Queen, and Carl’s Jr.,” Steinhart said. This milk product will spin in any type of ice cream machine, meaning it can be used for soft serve and milkshakes. With time and taste on its side, plant-based ice cream lovers have a lot to look forward to.