ARTICLE / THE MAKING OF... SERIES
The making of...
The Vegan Dairy
As the plant-based revolution takes the FMCG world by storm, at Hunter, we’ve been talking to the brands who are shaking up the category. Each one has something in common - their burning desire to change the way we consume food and the antiquated ills associated with it. So when we caught up with Brittany Bertschinger, co-founder behind The Vegan Dairy, we learned all about their inspiring story and how they launched a plant-based dairy business… in search of that perfect Persian Feta.
The making of... Series
Hey Brittany and welcome to The making of… blog series. First off can you tell us how you came up with the idea of The Vegan Dairy?
The Vegan Dairy has been a wonderful ‘accident’ and a really fortunate organic journey. I was vegetarian at the time and working for my mum's business making dairy cheeses. I worked with her for about three years learning all about dairy cheese making which was something I never in my wildest imaginations would have thought I would be doing! I was bringing home a lot of cheese from work, and eventually my husband Bronson started feeling unwell from all the cheese and decided to cut dairy out of his diet. His favourite cheese of my mums was her gold medal winning Persian Feta made with goats milk. So when he stopped eating it, and there was nothing good around at the time in the vegan cheese world, I thought I would use the skills I had learned working with my mum to make a vegan feta for him. I did a lot of research, gathered a bunch of recipes, and got testing. I did a lot of tests - most of them pretty revolting - but by discovering what I didn’t like about vegan cheesemaking, and combining that with what I loved about dairy cheese making, I tweaked test batches until I had something I was happy with. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was to become our first cheese - our Persian Feta which is still our most popular cheese now. My mum actually enjoyed it which was a huge win! She asked if she could take it to her markets for lactose intolerant customers, or those with vegan family members. So I started making tiny batches to send with her. People liked it! And asked for more. Our friends who couldn’t or didn't eat dairy also liked it and kept asking for more. The name itself was one of those moments that at the time is just a passing comment but sticks and becomes something monumental. I was in the cheesery with my mum working as usual, talking about this vegan Persian Feta and wouldn’t it be funny if it became something bigger. We joked about different potential business names, and my mum said ‘hey what about The Vegan Dairy?’ to reflect it being a vegan version of dairy. And it stuck. In the most natural and normal of moments, The Vegan Dairy was born.
Brittany Bertschinger, co-founder of The Vegan Dairy
So while challenging yourself to create something just as good as your mum’s gold medal-winning Persian Feta… what research did you do to arrive at what you've got now and how did you go about testing your product-market fit?
I feel like I could say I didn’t do any research. But at the same time I did so much, and am forever doing research. I guess in a way I live and breathe this business. It came so naturally to me to WANT to continue to create these things. We would have way more products in our range if I was allowed an endless leash. I am always looking for new ways to do things, new techniques, playing with new ingredients or methods. I have ideas in the middle of the night sometimes that I get up the next day and have to test to see if it worked. I guess my ‘research’ is completely unstructured and unconventional, so to me it doesn't really feel like ‘research’. Same with testing a product-market fit. I made something because I wanted to make it for my husband. People liked it so I made more. I never planned for this to be a “thing” and yet, before I knew it, it was. We’ve been very fortunate to become part of the vegan world right at a time where people were craving something better, and more and more people were becoming interested in a plant-based lifestyle. And we became part of it with a product I was incredibly picky about (if it didn't satisfy the dairy cheese eaters in my life, it wasn't good enough) and that remained clean and healthy in its ingredients which was rare in vegan cheese at the time. I feel we were fortunate that my own personal standards and desires for our product aligned so strongly with those of the public.
What were the first batches of the Persian Feta like?
The first batches were both frustrating and exciting! The very first few tests were horrible - I was not a fan of other ‘recipes’ out there at the time. But as I tweaked things and came to something I enjoyed, my first batches of our Persian Feta were so exciting. I loved that I could make something delicious with techniques I had been doing day after day with dairy for so long. I loved that I could create something new with techniques so old. I loved that my mum (she is so picky) actually liked it! The blenders I was using at the time took forever to make batches with. So it was time consuming to get to a consistency that I was satisfied with as ‘gritty’ was simply not good enough.
So after nailing the recipe… How did you go about funding everything?
Ourselves, for the most part. I was lucky to start from my mum's old workspace that had become too small for her, so very little ‘investment’ needed in the beginning. Just one machine, and my time! I paid myself virtually nothing in the beginning, and anything I made went straight back into the business. Eventually as the business grew and seemed to have ‘potential’, my husband and I contributed our savings to help with purchasing some upgraded machinery, etc. Since then we have continued to pay ourselves a little whilst reinvesting everything back into the business. So for the most part we have been self-funded (with the exception of some financing and loans on key machinery, etc, that we have needed as we scaled).
Bootstrapping a business is never easy… especially when it comes to branding. So with that in mind, can you tell us about your process and how you arrived at where you are today with The Vegan Dairy?
Our branding also came very naturally and organically, and is something we constantly get positive feedback on which is really cool. When the name The Vegan Dairy first came up, I went and got a logo done so that the product looked more ‘professional’. The logo was done on an online job bidding service and was again one of those things that just ‘worked’. One of the people that responded to the job proposed the logo that we have now and I was like YES! It was clean, simple, and yet noticeable and recognisable. As we started packaging our products I kept things very minimal and simple. I didn't like all the overloaded packaging on other products I was seeing, that all had so much writing all over all the labels on all sides of a product. I just wanted the bare essentials, and I wanted our products to speak for themselves. For the cheeses to look colourful and natural in their herbs or spices, and for people to be intrigued to want to pick them up and turn them over to see what they were. At the time we had some customers asking if we could put the names of the cheeses on the front of the packages / jars. It didn't feel right to me, and I am glad I stuck with my gut. The packaging we have today came out of both the default of what we were using to package, and our desire to keep things simple. And I now regularly come across people who make a point of commenting on how much they like the simplicity and allure of our packaging and labelling.
As a bootstrapped startup, we will always recommend taking a minimal approach to your branding, so well done. With the branding ticked off, how are you getting the word out there and how are you scaling the brand?
At the moment we are exploring options with the ‘big retailers’. We have always really valued working with other small businesses, supporting each other in the growth of the plant-based space and through these challenging new times. But the reality is that most people do their ‘core’ shopping at supermarkets and we have so many customers who come to us and tell us they wish we were in their local supermarket. We want to make HEALTHY ‘plant-based’ accessible to more people, so we’re looking for a balance between working with both fellow small businesses and larger retailers. This will mean we can connect with different customers wherever they look for their food and specialty items. We also connect with our community through social media and our monthly Open Days - we believe really strongly in the importance of connecting with people naturally and ‘getting the word out there’ through people who already believe in our brand and love our products. We have to be worthy of ‘getting the word out there’. So if our customers love us enough to pass us along to new customers, then that is the best way we can continue to connect with new people and try to get more healthy, delicious products (that happen to be vegan) into peoples bodies.
This has been fun and we’re sure a lot of entrepreneurs will get a lot out of your story. So for the final question. What’s the biggest challenge you think you'll face moving forward?
Biggest challenge? Gosh, where do we start! The plant-based world is going so crazy so quickly which is an enormous opportunity, but also an enormous challenge for us is to ’stand out’. New producers are coming into the scene all the time, and the research and development (and money in some cases) that is going into new products is amazing. Keeping up with that - staying innovative enough whilst also staying true to our core values of health, quality, and human connection - will probably be a really big challenge as we (hopefully) grow and larger businesses want to undercut us. But I also feel if we are true to who we are, and what we believe is important to achieve with our products moving forwards, then whatever happens we will be in a place of gratitude and excitement to be part of this very fortunate and amazingly cool journey. Also we are working on Parmesan and another traditional European hard cheese at the moment - that is a pretty big challenge!