Miyoko’s Kitchen plans Petaluma home for artisan vegan ‘cheese’
Sonoma County’s epicenter for fast-growing artisanal dairy is about to become the new, much-larger home for a rapidly expanding food artisan that’s decidedly dairy-free.
Not two years after starting to roll out the Miyoko’s Creamery brand of nut-based organic vegan “cheeses” and “butter” in a former Marin County natural foods store, the maker of dairy alternatives using traditional Old World dairy methods is gearing up for a big move to Petaluma next year. And backed by noted entrepreneurs in social media and vegetarian food, the company is raising several million dollars to fund the expansion, which is set to bring 40–45 jobs to Petaluma.
“We’re a plant-based cheese company in the heart of artisanal cheese companies in Marin and Sonoma,” said Miyoko Schinner, founder of Miyoko’s Kitchen and a force in the gourmet vegan food movement for more than a decade. “It’s only natural we would make this place our home.”
The Fairfax-based company leased 28,636 square feet in the Lakeville & Marina complex at 2090 Marina Ave. Located next to the head office of local dairy success story Cowgirl Creamery, the new facility will become the startup’s headquarters and production plant, configured with more automated features to significantly increase production without adding many more workers.
The company has been working out of 8,000 square feet in a former Good Earth natural foods store since late 2014, but sales quickly outstripped what Miyoko’s Kitchen could do there, according to Billy Bramblett, chief operating officer, an early investor and a recent Marin natural foods entrepreneur. Sales passed $1 million last year and have grown 400 percent since. Since the plant opened, the staff has grown from four to 40.
“We’re a little constrained, because we could sell more if we could make more,” Bramblett said. “We’ve not been making all the efforts we could, because I could see the ceiling coming.”
FAST SALES GROWTH
Dairy alternatives are a fast-growing grocery segment, particularly in the natural-foods arena. Of the 250 cheese and dairy alternative brands in the SPINS natural-foods store checkout scanner data (except Whole Foods), Miyoko’s Kitchen ranks No. 10 in sales, even ahead of some North Bay cheesemakers, Schinner said.
The brand is also No. 3 nationally among cheese alternatives in SPINS data, she said. Sales of the brand have tripled in the past four weeks from a year before.
The idea for the Fairfax plant was similar to how Cowgirl started in Pt. Reyes Station, with a production facility and a shop next door, Schinner said. But the shop never materialized, as the space was reworked for offices and e-commerce. Though direct sales now are a small fraction, they’re very important for getting feedback on new products, Schinner said.
USING CHEESEMAKING METHODS
Miyoko’s Kitchen has released 12 “cultured nut products,” called such because regulators limit use of the word “cheese” to products made with animal milk. The most recent additions are European-Style Cultured VeganButter ($8 retail), designed to bake, melt, spread and taste like butter, and Fresh VeganMozz ($9), made to slice, melt, brown and taste like traditional Italian water buffalo mozzarella.
The base ingredient for the products, which retail for $8–$12, is organic cashews. The nuts are ground, mixed with water and cultures then left to sit for 24 hours. The softened mixture is blended with organic coconut oil and various organic vegan flavor enhancers such as chives, herbs, garlic, chickpea miso. Some get extra treatment, such as a dusting of vegetable ash (Mt. Vesuvius Black Ash, $12), a wine-soaked leaf wrap (Fresh Loire Valley in a Fig Leaf, $12) and an herb-encrusting (Country Style Herbes de Provence, $12).
Products made in the fresh-cheese style are packaged for shipment within two days. Others are aged for three to six weeks to reach a desired hardness. One is smoked then aged.
Miyoko’s Creamery is sold in independent markets nationwide and in nine of Whole Foods Market’s 11 regions. The Raley’s grocery chain started carrying the brand recently.
ATTRACTED BIG BACKERS
Backing for Miyoko’s Kitchen came through competition. After starting the Now & Zen bistro in San Francisco in the early 1990s, she created a wheat gluten-based turkey alternative - UnTurkey - and marketed it at the 1995 Natural Products Expo. There she met Seth Tibbott, creator of the major meatless Thanksgiving alternative at the time, Tofurky. Years later, he would become an investor in Miyoko’s Kitchen.
After a overheated ramp up of production to fill orders for UnTurkey and other products for special diets plus a family crisis over the next eight years, she sold the company in 2003.
But her early career in culinary arts started calling again. Schinner had published “The New Now and Zen Epicure” vegan gourmet cookbook in 2001. She took to blogging vegan recipes and later left the law firm to start teaching cooking and offering demonstrations of cultured nut “cheese.” In 2012 she published another cookbook, “Artisan Vegan Cheese,” and she started planning a new company.
In 2013 Schinner sent samples to Twitter co-founders Biz Stone, a vegan, and Evan Williams, a vegetarian. Williams chipped in an investment then rolled it into the healthful products funding firm Obvious Ventures.
These funds helped get the Fairfax plant open, but now Mikoyo’s Kitchen is seeking $8 million–$10 million for a series B equity round to fund the Petaluma expansion.
SCOUTED A DOZEN EXPANSION SITES
After about seven months of work, the Fairfax plant opened in late fall 2014, but by the following year, Miyoko’s Kitchen already was running out of production capacity to meet orders, Bramblett said. The company scouted buildings from South San Francisco and the East Bay through Marin to Santa Rosa.
The goal is to have building permits in hand in coming weeks, so the Petaluma property owner, Basin Street Properties, can have tenant improvements such as adding floor drains begin. Miyoko’s Kitchen plans to move most company operations to the Petaluma plant in about a year.
Because of the investment in the current plant, an existing lease and planned products that may need to be kept separate from production of the rest, the company may hold onto the Fairfax facility.
Christina DeRockere of Front Porch Realty Group represented Miyoko’s in lease talks, and Steven Leonard of Cushman & Wakefield, Basin Street.