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A cultured choice

Nuts for Cheese’s Margaret Coons wants to prove non-dairy can be delicious

Margaret Coons’ vision “has always been to share great-quality vegan food with as many people as possible,” says the founder and CEO of Nuts for Cheese, a London, Ont.-based maker of organic, non-dairy “cheese” made from fermented cashews. “Food is totally my passion, so it’s amazing for me to be able to create a product that helps people eat better food and shows them vegan food can taste really good.”

A vegetarian—and then vegan—since her early teens, Coons always knew she wanted to work in the food industry. It was while working as a chef at a vegan restaurant that the young entrepreneur hit on a significant gap in the market. “There wasn’t a ton of really good vegan cheese products available, so I started making my own. I’ve heard so many people say ‘I would totally go vegan if I didn’t have to give up cheese,’” she laughs. “I started thinking, OK, there’s something here. Cheese is a delicious thing, and I wanted to be able to provide consumers with a viable alternative.”

Coons decided to try selling her cheese alternatives at London’s farmers market in 2015. She knew she was on to something when word got out and local businesses began placing orders before she had even finished making the products. “I quickly looked up how to make proper labels, and I was printing stickers on my home printer,” she recalls. “It really snowballed from there.”

Moving her fledgling company to a shared plant, and in 2017 to its current 20,000-sq.-ft. facility, was a “massive learning curve,” says Coons. As well as the usual startup demands, one challenge was scaling up recipes for high-volume production. “We make our own cultures, we ferment and age all our products, and they’re cut and packaged by hand, so there are lots of things that are very artisan, which are important to the quality of the product, but which make it a bit challenging to scale,” she explains. “But we’ve been profitable since the beginning, so in the earlier stages it was easier for us to funnel our sales right back into the company and invest in our growth.”

Today, Nuts for Cheese is sold in more than 1,500 grocery stores across Canada, including major chains and independents. “People, unfortunately, tend to associate vegan products with something that’s kind of bland or not tasty, and I think our product really dispels that myth,” says Coons.

The products can be sliced, melted, spread and shredded just like dairy cheese, and sell for about $11.99 per 120-gram wedge. While calories, protein and fat vary, they are all generally lower in calories, sodium, cholesterol and saturated fat than dairy cheese.

The company’s six SKUs are made with organic, fair trade certified ingredients, and mimic the look and flavour of the dairy-based cheese varieties they’re named after: Chipotle “Cheddar” Flavoured Wedge; Un-Brie-Lievable; Red Rind; Smoky Artichoke and Herb; Super “Blue”; and Black Garlic. “Because they’re all fermented ... they have a sort of tangy, cheesy flavour,” explains Coons. “We try to emulate things as much as possible. For instance, the Un-Brie-Lievable, our top-seller, is made with coconut milk and is rich and creamy like a traditional Brie, while the Blue is sharper, and has a pungent earthiness from the spirulina.”

Coons says the changes in the plant-based and better-for-you categories have been incredible to see. “The availability of products in the market now is like vegan paradise compared to 10 years ago. Our timing has been really lucky, for lack of a better word, because we were right ahead of that curve of vegan products being mainstream and in high demand. So, we have been able to leverage that.” She adds that “the number of Canadians who are lactose intolerant is quite high, so people are avoiding dairy for many reasons.”

This summer, Nuts for Cheese will launch two SKUs of vegan “butters”— original salted and herb & garlic—made from a fermented cashew and coconut base. It will also be expanding distribution into the United States. “I feel so grateful that things have worked out how they have, and I definitely don’t take it for granted,” says Coons. “Part of the success of the company has been about just jumping at every opportunity that’s been presented to us. And it’s been a really great, fun journey.”

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer‘s May 2020 issue.

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