When I was doing Vegan January (also known as Veganuary) this year, there was only one thing I missed: cheese. While there are relatively good substitutes available for ice cream, butter, milk, yogurt, and even eggs, cheese was the one thing that I just could not find an animal-free replacement for that didn’t taste bland, rubbery, or worse.
So when I went into the Big Idea Ventures (BIV) office in New York City this week to taste a new plant-based cheese from startup Grounded Foods, part of BIV’s latest alternative protein accelerator program, I came in with a healthy amount of skepticism. Especially since I knew that the main ingredient in many of the cheeses was one of the unsexier vegetables on the planet: cauliflower.
But before we get to the taste test, here’s a bit of background. Founded in Australia in July of 2019, Grounded Foods grew out of co-founder Shaun Quade’s efforts to develop a plant-based Roquefort (blue cheese) for a new high-end restaurant concept. As he and his co-founder (and wife) Veronica Fil started looking for funding for the restaurant, they realized that people were actually interested in investing in the Roquefort itself. “They just wanted to give money for the plant-based cheese!” Fil said.
Since then the company has participated in the Mars Seeds of Change accelerator, for which they earned $40,000, and just relocated to New York a few months ago to join the latest Big Idea Ventures cohort. As part of the alt-protein accelerator they receive $250,000 in funding. Next up Fil and Quade plan to move to the West Coast, where they believe there is the largest audience for high-caliber faux cheese. Fil and Quade hope that their products will attract not only vegans but flexitarians who either have dairy sensitivities or are looking for healthier ways to get their “cheese” fix.
The pair plan to launch their cheese through high-end restaurants later this year in order to establish the Grounded Foods brand before branching into direct-to-consumer sales and, eventually, retail. Ambitious plans to be sure, but Quade revealed that they’re prepared to scale; in fact, they’ve already secured a location on which to build their first large scale manufacturing facility on the West Coast. They’ve also filed a patent for their fermentation protocol, which Fil told me is the secret sauce that makes their cheese so “addictive” and full of umami (savory) flavor.
Pricing isn’t set in stone, but Fil told me that they expect to be cost-competitive with other cheese alternatives right out of the gate. Since their product is made using relatively inexpensive ingredients and low-tech processes, she claims it’s not expensive to produce. Grounded Foods is also cutting cost by using “ugly” cauliflower — vegetables that are aesthetically unfit to sell to grocers — to make their cheese.
Now for the moment of truth: how did the Grounded Foods cheese taste? I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised. Most of offerings were a home run, successfully imitating the things I love most about cheese: the umami flavor, silky texture, and creaminess. The camembert (cauliflower + hemp) was a standout; it actually emulated the funky “stinkiness” that you taste with aged French cheese. The gruyere (oats + cauliflower) was slightly less similar to its namesake, though it had a sharpness that would take well to being melted over pasta or tucked in a sandwich. The Australian feta, which was marinated in olive oil and herbs, was pleasantly smooth and fatty, and the scallion cream cheese would honestly have fooled me in a taste test. It was that good.
The only miss for me was the “cheese” sauce, which is meant to replace Velveeta. While tasty it tasted distinctly vegetal and reminded me more of a butternut squash sauce than the beloved neon-orange cheese sauce.
The offerings I sampled were only the tip of the faux cheese iceberg. Quade is already developing other vegan cheeses to add to the Grounded Foods portfolio, including a mozzarella and blue cheese. “We have not fully explored the potential of vegetables,” Quade told me. There’s also another product line in the mix meant specifically to appeal to Gen Z diners.
Besides being quite tasty, Grounded Foods’ biggest advantage is its ingredient list. Most plant-based cheeses are made of nuts, soy, or coconut oil. The first two eliminate consumers who have certain food allergies, and the oil-based cheeses don’t have much nutritional content to speak of. Instead they’re made just of cauliflower, hemp, and oat, transformed through Quade’s proprietary fermentation process (which he, unsurprisingly, was hesitant to reveal too many details about).
While Grounded Foods is trying to crack the animal-free cheese code with plants, other companies are using a decidedly more high-tech approach. Perfect Day and New Culture have developed a method to ferment dairy proteins using genetically engineered microbes; in essence creating milk without the cow (which can then be turned into cheese). However, there’s no word on exactly when these offerings will go to market — or how costly they’ll be when they get there. Next-gen dairy startups like Eclipse Foods and Noquo Foods are also using plans to develop better-tasting cheese alternatives, but neither has announced a concrete timeline to enter the market.
Grounded Foods has been moving incredibly quickly considering it’s just over 6 months old. However, it’s still a young startup with only two full-time employees (Fil and Quade), neither of whom have experience scaling an alternative business. We’ll have to see if they can establish all the tricky parts of running a food manufacturing business, like establishing a supply chain, branding, and finding effective restaurant and retail partners.
However, with demand for plant-based cheese on the rise, there’s a lot of space for a market disrupter who will make vegan cheese that’s actually worth eating. And as far as taste goes, Grounded Foods takes the cake — er, camembert.