Miyoko's Kitchen of Sonoma County expands production to capture rapid growth in plant-based foods

Among the string of food companies that have expanded production to Petaluma, the southern Sonoma County city known for its Butter & Egg Days, is a fast-growing business looking to attract a growing number of consumers eschewing livestock products.

In fact, the still-expanding new home of Miyoko's Kitchen (miyokos.com) has a posted warning that meat, dairy and other animal-based items aren't allowed in the certified-vegan facility. But with sales this year set to be two and a half times those of 2017 and similar growth eyed for 2019, the 4-year-old Petaluma company is finding the appeal of its vegan cheeses, butter and other plant-based foods reaching well beyond the traditional natural-foods market, according to founder Miyoko Schinner.

'We have crossed over from natural foods to conventional grocery stores like Target,' Schinner said. 'Kroger plans to outsell Whole Foods in plant-based foods.'

Sales of plant-based food sales are growing at 20 percent (milk analogues) to 40 percent (cheeses) per year, compared with about 2 percent for conventional grocery products. Miyoko's Kitchen is targeting the estimated 43 million Americans who regularly consume plant-based foods, and 86 percent of them aren't vegans or vegetarians. These 'flexitarians,' as they're sometimes called, are making the switch for perceived animal-welfare and health benefits.

And speaking of plants, the 29,000-square-foot facility that opened late last year at 2086 Marina Ave. is a significant step up in production capabilities from the Marin County facility where the company got its start in 2014, she said. The Fairfax facility was able to handle 40-pound batches of vegan cheese formulations, but the new plant is set up for multiple 1,000-kilogram (2,205-pound) batches daily. The break-even point in the early days was 30,000 units (tubs and packages) a month, and now the Petaluma plant is making that much each day.

And the product throughput is poised to go up further. The company has been rolling in equipment that is transitioning production from batches to continuous processes, Schinner said. The European Style Cultured Butter, made from organic coconut oil, is now made continuously, and the cashew-based Vegan Mozz mozzarella cheese is set to take the continuous route to market by year-end.

'It's a novel way to make this product,' Schinner said. 'No one has scaled production of fermented nut cheese to this level.'

But scaling production to meet demand has been a challenging road, she said. The company brought in process engineers, but methods adapted from other product types ended up destroying the product, Schinner said. Ultimately, it took more experimentation than adaptation to make it work.

From an original staff of four, including Schinner and Chief Operating Officer John Breen, the company had grown to 50 employees before the move last December. The company now has 85 employees and an expanding organizational structure. There are now research-and-development and marketing departments, with their own vice presidents, and a newly created chief financial officer position is set to be filled next month. The two-person salesforce is set to get a vice president and become its own department.

Schinner is gearing up the company to take advantage of a 'tipping point' for plant-based foods among consumers. She's even started a social-media campaign to convince dairy farmers in Marin and Sonoma counties to shift to growing plant-based foodstocks such as oats or rice that can be used to make vegan products.

An invitation only party for the new plant is set for Oct. 20.

Interactive Editor Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Reach him at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4256.

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