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Plant Ahead seeks to bring quality alternative products to U.S. market

Editor’s note: Welcome to Ingredient Innovation, CMN’s new segment exploring recent innovations and trends in the dairy ingredients sector. For this segment, we will profile a leader in the ingredients industry as well as share updates on mergers and acquisitions and new offerings for cheese and dairy in ingredients — where flavor begins.

Photo courtesy of Plant Ahead

VEGAN VARIETY — Plant Ahead offers a variety of plant-based cheese products including cream cheese, Smoked Gouda, Mediterranean Herb Mozzarella and assorted single-serve plant-based rounds and pucks. The brand’s products are kosher, gluten-free and non-GMO.

Photo courtesy of Plant Ahead
FETA-LICIOUS — Plant Ahead’s Feta in Brine is a category leader when it comes to looking at items to merchandise, says Bob Starkey, general manager of U.S. sales and distribution. The product is made in a facility in Greece that has been making Feta for more than 100 years.

By Alyssa Mitchell

MONTRÉAL — Montréal-based alternative dairy brand Plant Ahead is launching top-quality plant-based products in the United States to meet consumers’ increasing demand for flexible dietary options.

Plant Ahead Vegan Cheez features plant-based products including Parmesan, Feta, Mozzarella and Blue cheese-style products, Mexican blends, and cream cheese and spreads as well as smoked salmon and alternative ingredients. The brand is owned by Weins Foods, St. Léonard, Quebec, and has been available in the Canadian market for the past few years.

Now, the brand is expanding into North America with the help of longtime cheese industry executive Bob Starkey, general manager of U.S. sales and distribution for the Plant Ahead brand. Prior to Plant Ahead, Starkey was with Wisconsin-based Winona Foods, a cheese company that long has offered alternative products as part of its lineup.

“At Winona, we had been making plant-based cheese for more than 15 years,” Starkey says. “The space has been growing for some time, and today’s consumer is really looking for a quality and taste that emulates ‘the real thing.’ Plant-based cheeses provide an option for those who have certain allergies, are concerned about animal welfare, or are just looking for different choices in a flexitarian diet.”
The Plant Ahead brand currently is working on revamping its packaging to meet U.S. standards and measurements, also aligning its UPCs and ingredient statements to reflect the interests of U.S. consumers.

“We’re kosher, gluten-free, non-GMO, and our ingredient list is very succinct,” Starkey says. “We can offer extended shelf life while keeping our ingredient list simple.”

He notes most of the brand’s products are sourced from Europe but have had a following in the Canadian market for some time. While Weins Foods doesn’t have its own manufacturing facility, the company invests in some of the equipment used in the overseas facilities it sources products from.

Starkey notes safety is the brand’s No. 1 priority, and all facilities it sources from are compliant with either the BRC Global Standard for food safety or are Level 3 Safe Quality Food-certified.

• Alternative buzz

Starkey says late last year he attended Plant Based Foods Association’s (PBFA) Plant Based World Conference and Expo in New York to learn more about what U.S. consumers are looking for when it comes to dairy alternatives.

“It was eye-opening, just how much this category is growing,” Starkey says.

The first Plant Ahead product line in the United States will be the brand’s vegan cheese alternatives. These are coconut oil- or pea protein-based, dairy-free products that first will be sold on the East and West Coasts with the intention to further expand across the country.

“A lot of the recipes are unique to the Plant Ahead brand,” Starkey says, noting the brand has a “lean” staff — with just Starkey and Brian Lenz representing U.S. sales — but will be expanding the team later in the year.
He adds recent SPINS retail sales data released by the Good Food Institute (GFI) and PBFA shows that the U.S. retail plant-based food industry grew by 6% to reach $7.4 billion in 2021.

Plant-based milk dollar sales grew by 4% in 2021 to reach $2.6 billion, while animal-based milk dollar sales declined by 2%, the data shows.

“I wanted to move into this sector due to the growth in the category. And with the Plant Ahead product line, we’re not trying to be a ‘me too,’” Starkey says. “We want to have products that at the end of the day are the best of the best. They taste great, they perform and look like their dairy counterparts, and they’re friendly to the environment and animal welfare.”

He notes the brand’s focus in the U.S. market is not only in retail/foodservice and club stores, as it also is getting great feedback from an industrial ingredient standpoint.

“We have lots of dips, sauces — our cream cheese is being used for a lot of plant-based dips,” he says. “Entrees also are growing. We do some pizza sales with our plant-based mozzarella.”

Starkey notes some other ways the company’s products stand apart are the way they are made.

“Our Feta, for example, is made in a facility in Greece that’s been making traditional Feta for more than 100 years,” he says. “They’ve recognized this is a growing category of sales, so they’ve had to pivot their business a bit to add this product line. We also still do our Feta alternative in brine, which I think sets it apart. Feta in Brine is our category leader when it comes to looking at items to merchandise.”

The company also is offering plant-based Mozzarella and Parmesan in various sizes and formats ranging from retail to club store. It also has a Tex Mex shred offering and a Blue cheese-style offering in crumbles.

With some of its products like dips and spreads, the brand also is offering single-serve “pucks” — half-dollar-size options for consumers on the go.

All of the brand’s offerings, including ingredient lists, are available at www.plantaheadvegan.com.

“We’ve got some solid formulations and recipes put together, but we’re still exploring new ideas and products,” Starkey says, noting one of the brand’s challenges has been finding a suitable alternative to protein.

“With zero protein, you’re never going to sell to a school, for example. So you have to look toward chickpeas, fava beans and other sources of protein, and we’re exploring some different options,” he says.

• Here to stay

Starkey says he thinks more U.S. dairy manufacturers will start to see the opportunity in adding a plant-based line to their existing product offerings.

“Many view this category as a threat, but we think it should be embraced,” he says. “You’re not necessarily losing a customer by adding a plant-based line; you’re just giving your customers additional options.”

He adds that process cheese manufacturers can potentially use some of their existing equipment to accommodate a plant-based line, as some of the processing procedures are similar.

“I think some are starting to recognize they’ve got the workforce and equipment, and the make methods similar to process cheese but not all the same ingredients,” he says. “As process cheese sales may wane, these manufacturers may be able to seize an opportunity in the alternative space.”

Starkey says he thinks the plant-based category will continue to evolve over the next few years with accelerations in flavor, texture and performance — things that were not prominent in the plant-based sector more than two to three years ago.

“Then I think we’ll see more specialty items emerging as well,” he says, noting the Plant Ahead brand is working on some items in this category including a plant-based Fresh Mozzarella log and a Ricotta offering.

“Compare it to growth in specialty cheese,” Starkey says. “Fifteen to 20 years ago that exploded as people recognized they wanted something a bit different, something that tastes different than what they were eating. We think that’s where plant-based is headed, and we’ll be offering more specialty varieties of plant-based as well.”

Plant Ahead also is working on specialty slices enrobed in spices.

“We’re taking Cheddar, Gouda, Monterey Jack, Mozz — and we pack these into sleeves lined with spices. Then we take the wrapper off, and the seasoning is left on the product. It’s part of a wrapper you’re molding the product in — and that’s totally different than what we’re seeing in the market today,” Starkey says.

He adds the brand is careful not to create products “just to do it — we want to make sure that when you put these products in your mouth, the experience will bring you back.”

Starkey says Plant Ahead seeks to be a leader in the industrial ingredients space as well to help cheesemakers who want to dabble in alternative products and guide them through the process and the way products are made.

“That’s what we’re going to continue to drive with customers who want to get into the space,” he says. “To be that solutions provider in this space is something we want to aim for, whether it’s different plant-based cheeses, make methods or whatever else is needed to support the concept or idea people are looking for.”
Starkey adds retailers are eager to add these products to their store offerings, but they need a product that really replicates dairy or it’s going to go somewhere else in the store.

“We feel the same customer being targeted in the natural space is interested in the alternative product line as well, but they won’t be a repeat customer if it doesn’t taste good or perform well — period,” he says.

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