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Great-Tasting Vegan Cheese: How One Innovator Made It Happen

Great-Tasting Vegan Cheese: How One Innovator Made It Happen

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  • by Zak Shelton

“I could go vegan, but I just really love cheese too much.”

Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard someone say that…

I see you. I see you with your hand raised. I mean I don’t actually see you, but I know that you’ve got your hand raised. How can I know that without actually seeing you?  It’s because we’ve all heard someone say that before. Every single one of us.

Many of us battle with having those conversations on a regular basis. And up until relatively recently, there hasn’t been a decent response to that statement, especially with regard to flavor. Giving a lactose junkie a taste of the plant-based cheese that you started putting on your black bean tacos after you decidedly went vegan likely is not the best response. Why? Because when someone is madly in love with the flavors and textures of dairy cheeses, plant-based counterparts haven’t often lived up to being the best substitute.

Enter stage left: Treeline Treenut Cheese—a luxuriously high-quality, cashew-based vegan cheese.

I first discovered Treeline several years back when shopping in Whole Foods with another vegan friend of mine, looking for the perfect cheese to pair with a cabernet. Somehow, in a stroke of incredible fortune, we came across Treeline Treenut Cheese’s Cracked Black Pepper and Original flavors, the perfect pairing for our wine. When I say “perfect,” I must add, I didn’t know just how perfect it was. The experience that occurred in my mouth that night was… INDESCRIBABLE.

 

Since then, I have been an enormous fan of Treeline and all of their flavors. One of the best things their products have given me, besides incredible enjoyment from eating them, is the ideal response to that unfortunate statement, “... but I just love cheese too much.”

Now, my response to those who say that is, “Oh, me, too! I eat cheese all the time. Here, try this.” Then I ask them to describe to me what they’re experiencing. Most of the time, I can’t understand what they’re saying through the mouthfuls of cheese they’re devouring, but from what I can make out, they are happy, very happy.  They don’t miss a thing.

So, it was my immense pleasure to sit down recently with the founder and CEO of Treeline Treenut Cheese, Michael Schwarz. Here’s what we got into:

Zak:

Tell us the story of how it all began.

Michael:

Well, I used to be an intellectual property lawyer. I travelled to Europe for clients quite a bit and I really came to love the amazing cheeses I found there. Then I became vegan and, naturally, started to miss cheese. At home, as I looked for replacements, I saw a gap in the marketplace. I didn’t see any vegan cheeses that compared with what I had eaten in Europe. I had started a very successful new business (a medical technology business), and I really wanted to do something impactful. So I started experimenting in my home near New Paltz, New York. Not long after that, I moved my lab into a chocolate factory in New Paltz and started making and selling cheese there and then selling it at a vegan market in Brooklyn. After that, I leased a 7,000 square foot space and started producing on a larger scale. We now have about 12,000 square feet.

Zak:

What has been your biggest accomplishment so far, as a brand?

Michael:

Well, I’d have to say, it was getting into Kroger stores nationwide. That’s when I really started to realize that vegan cheese was taking off. Kroger is the largest supermarket chain in the United States. Getting into supermarkets is an incredibly difficult process. Most vegan cheeses are sold in the dairy section of the supermarket. So when you’re working with a buyer who makes their living working with dairy-based businesses, if they often don’t understand your product, rejecting you is as easy as their saying, “No, we don’t like it. Sorry, we’re not buying.”  It’s an incredibly difficult sale.

Zak:

What is the hardest lesson you’ve learned?

Michael:

The retail food business is such a difficult business to get into. The retailers have to make their money, the distributors theirs, and so on. So you end up not seeing a big part of every dollar you sell. Retailers make their own decisions, and we just have to go by what they tell us. If we go out of business, they can just replace us. The supplier, us, really bears all of the risk. When the consumer sees something on sale, that’s not the retailer discounting it, that’s the supplier. When you see Treeline discounted, we are usually losing money on that sale.

Zak:

So why put it on sale?

Michael:

To offer it to new customers. Or if it’s close to the sell-by date and they want to move it off the shelf. When a product gets close to the end of its shelf life, a lot of stores will either discount it or throw it in the garbage. I’m sure you’re aware, about 40% of food in the US is wasted. From an animal rights perspective, think about how terrible that is for the cow. It suffers tremendously to make the product and then it’s not even given the dignity of having it eaten, it’s just thrown away. Also, most retailers require discounting. So when we’re first meeting with them, one of the things we determine is when to discount and how much. Many retailers also require at least one case for free, to test their market.

Zak:

Wow, that is definitely a difficult lesson to learn. How has that lesson helped you to move forward more effectively or quickly?

Michael:

I’ve accepted that you have to learn to live within an imperfect system and that there is an inequitable shifting of risk between very powerful companies to very unpowerful ones. Why am I dealing with this very imperfect system? Because I am trying to change things for the better— for the animals. I am trying to eliminate dairy products from people’s lives.

Zak:

Tell our readers a little known or most interesting fact about the company.

Michael:

I started the business because I believed in animal rights. It’s very purpose driven. We support lots of animal rights groups. Mercy for Animals, Compassion Over Killing, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, The Humane League. But that's really not enough. It’s important that we pay close attention to humans as well. For example, we source our cashews from Brazil, mainly because of child labor concerns in Asia. We could save lots of money sourcing from Asia, but we decided that we have to be compassionate to humans if we are going to be a compassionate brand. There will always be imperfections, but we decided to lower the risk of these imperfections as much as possible by sourcing from Brazil.  In Brazil, cashews are shelled by machinery, whereas in much of Asia they are shelled by hand. There’s an oil around the nuts that’s a bit like poison ivy, so it’s very unpleasant for the workers who are shelling them by hand, And they often do piecework at home, so labor standards are not great.

Zak:

How do you see the future of vegan food impacting the everyday consumer?

Michael:

Firstly, when I started the business and we were making sales calls, lots of people didn’t even know what vegan cheese was. Imagine the first guy who invented cereal trying to call and sell it to a retailer and the retailer asking, like, “What, it’s just a bunch of grains that you put in a bowl with milk?” Now they know what cereal is, and it’s ubiquitous. The more something is available, the more people become aware. Businesses are becoming increasingly aware that animal-based foods are not sustainable, so investors are beginning to take huge interest in plant-based foods. This brings up a really tough issue, too: the question of the ethics of a vegan company being owned by a nonvegan or meat company. A lot of companies that make vegan substitutes are at least partly owned by nonvegan companies. For example, Beyond Meat is partly owned by Tyson, Field Roast is owned by Maple Leaf, and General Mills owns part of Kite Hill. And to be clear, I’m merely posing the question. I don’t know the answer, but it’s definitely something that I think about.

Zak:

But, in my mind, nondairy cheese brands’ being owned by a massive company, vegan or not, gives many, many more people the ability to have access to vegan food. And like you mentioned earlier, the more it’s available, the more people become aware—the more people that become aware, the more people who have a chance of buying it; therefore more animals’ lives being saved. Won’t this help push the movement forward?

Michael:

Absolutely yes. Let me respond to that by asking another question. Should vegans have a parallel universe or society? People who say that vegan businesses should be completely pure should not be shopping at Whole Foods or Kroger, on that same principle. If I were only to sell my products to vegan retailers, I wouldn’t have a business. I haven’t had to make the decision on whether to take an investment from a nonvegan company yet. I have had dairy companies approach me, but those conversations haven’t gone anywhere, which is a bit of a relief, because at least I can still say we are vegan owned.

Zak:

Tell us in your words what separates you from your competitors.

Michael:

The main thing is that our product is truly fermented. We get flavor and texture from adding probiotics. We don’t add any oils or gums. I urge your readers to look at our ingredients and compare them to other plant-based cheeses. Lots of others are using guar gum or xanthan gum or are using coconut oil or, in very extreme cases, palm oil to get flavors and textures.

Another thing I want to say here is that in six years we have never failed to fulfill an order. We ship our orders out on time every single week. In fact, we’ve just purchased some new manufacturing and packaging equipment to ensure that continues. There’s never been a time where the demand has outgrown our ability to meet it.

Zak:

Any new products or special events that you can share with our readers?

Michael:

We are about to launch our newest product, Premium New York Style Cream Cheese. I am very proud of it. It’s so good. It only has five ingredients: cashews, water, salt, lemon juice, and acidophilus. I don’t think there are many other products on the market that pure.

Zak:
I can’t wait. Well, Michael, thank you so much for sitting down with me. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed speaking with you and getting to know your brand better, and I know our readers will really love it.

Michael:

Thank you for having me, Zak. I’ve really enjoyed it.

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