Long before plant-based cheese options were almost as diverse and delicious as their traditional counterparts, Daiya co-founders Andre Kroecher and Greg Blake were experimenting with stretching the capabilities of tapioca. When the pair debuted its mozzarella-style shreds in 2009, it revolutionized the world of vegan cheese at a time when options had previously been limited to mostly unmeltable, dairy-free alternatives with lacklustre flavour.
More than a decade later, Daiya continues to stand out among the growing category of plant-based cheese. “One of our goals is to be free of the top eight food allergens,” says Greg Acken, director of Foodservice, North America at Daiya Foods. Many vegan cheeses are nut-based, but Daiya uses bases such as oats and chickpea protein, which are free of nuts and soy.
Although plant-based food has seen a significant increase in popularity since Daiya’s founding, Acken says some operators are still slow to add vegan options to their menus. “People look at it – especially the established chains – and say ‘we know it’s coming, but we don’t need it now,’’” he says. “But plant-based continues to be this massive growth vehicle. It’s going to be $162 billion in the next decade and represent about eight per cent of the global protein market.”
Acken notes the importance of plant-based options in creating more inclusive menus. “There’s that veto vote you see a lot at foodservice with families. If they’re going to dinner and there’s not something on the menu for everybody, they’re going to go find someplace where there is,” he says. “We’re really appealing to that customer base that are either hardcore vegan, vegetarian, or flexitarian.”
Daiya’s meltable cheese alternatives have made it a popular choice for pizza chains such as Blade and Pieology. “Taste is always king – especially in foodservice,” says Acken, “but it’s got to work. Pizza, for example, you can’t have it come out of the oven and then harden or congeal or not really melt or stretch anymore.”
Over the past two years, Daiya has expanded the SKUs it offers at foodservice from two to seven. Some of its most recent launches include Mexican 4 Cheeze Flavoured Blend and an Italian 4 Cheeze Flavour Blend. “It melts really well. It’s got a wonderful taste profile,” says Acken.
In retail, Daiya has expanded beyond cheese alternatives to offer other plant-based products such as salad dressings, mac & cheese, and desserts. Acken says we may see some of those products making their way to foodservice in the future. “The shortest path for us right now has been adapting retail innovations to foodservice,” he explains.
Daiya also recently traded its previous 40,000-sq.-ft. Vancouver facility for a new 400,000-sq.-ft. headquarters.
As new brands enter the market, the plant-based cheese space is far more competitive than it was when Daiya first launched, but Acken says the growing popularity of vegan cheese has been a positive development for the brand.
“Three years ago, there were three or four of what I would call big players, including us, in the foodservice space in plant-based cheese and now there are at least 15 in North America,” he says. “But that’s not a bad thing. It keeps us all on our toes. It forces us to innovate.”
By Jessica Huras