New kinds of foods can take years to move from the concept stage to consumers’ dinner plates. Refine, refine, refine – that’s what food entrepreneurs do to make sure their product is at the top of its game when it hits the market.
It helps if you’re riding a wave of consumer interest, such as the plant-based diet phenomenon. Rarely has a movement grown to overwhelm the industry like this. It’s giving budding entrepreneurs an immediate leg up, and opens doors for quality products trying to catch consumers’ imaginations.
Like Willow Lake Cheese.
In March of 2018, University of Guelph masters students Kamil Chatila-Amos and Jane Ong were finalists in the graduate student category of the Project SOY competition at the university. Students are challenged (and rewarded) for finding creative uses for soybeans.
“I’d become a vegan in the past year and lamented about the lack of cheese options on the market,” says Chatila-Amos, a master’s student in Arctic ecology.
He asked his friend Ong, a food science masters student, if she’d consider working on making what they’d both consider a “good” vegan cheese. Coincidentally, they saw a poster at the university advertising Project SOY and decided to try developing a soy-based vegan cheese. Prof. Art Hill, a dairy cheese expert at the university, agreed to offer academic oversight to their project.
Their product, which took seven months to develop, was a hit with judges. They marvelled at how it resembled dairy-based cheese.
“We use a food science approach to make our product, which is why it is so similar to real cheese,” says Ong. “This product is not just for vegans or vegetarians, but for everyone who wants to eat sustainably.”
Judges also liked the developers’ passion for their product. For their efforts, Chatila-Amos and Ong took home a $2,500 first prize, provided by sponsors – SeCan, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, Grain Farmers of Ontario and Oilseed Innovation Partners.
Under some circumstances, their project might have ended there. But at the Project SOY finale, program MC Malcolm Campbell, the university’s vice-president of research, introduced the pair to Dana McCauley, director of new venture creation at the institution’s Research Innovation Office.
With her encouragement, they enrolled in a program called Accelerator Guelph, and incorporated as Neophyto Foods. As their business concept developed and matured, they became eligible for – and were ultimately awarded – a $100,000 product development grant through the Gryphon’s LAAIR program.
“We learned a lot about bridging the gap between science and business and the basics of bringing a product to market,” says Ong.
They’ve grown by leaps and bounds since then. In August, they presented their product, now called Willow Lake Cheese (in honour of a lake near a farm near Woodstock, where they procured their first bag of soybeans), at a booth at the Canadian National Exhibition’s Innovation Garage.
There, curious visitors gobbled an estimated 7,000 samples of their cheese and contributed to the entrepreneurs’ ongoing quest to understand how consumers perceive Willow Lake Cheese, through a survey and individual comments.
Ultimately, their product won first place and $5,000 in the food technology and urban agriculture category.
By this point, they’d changed their formula – whereas it once emulated goat cheese, it was now similar to cream cheese instead.
“The soy base makes it the creamiest and smoothest plant-based cheese we’ve tried,” says Chatila-Amos. “When we showcased it at the CNE we realized that there is a greater demand for cream cheese than goat cheese, especially among lactose-intolerant people.”
Willow Lake Cheese makes its Guelph debut Sunday at the Taste of Guelph, a fundraiser for St. Joseph’s Health Centre Foundation. Then on October 3, it will be featured at the 2019 Innovation Expo, from 3-4:30 p.m., at the Guelph Banquet and Event Centre, where the duo hope it will find favour with area restaurants.
“We’re very excited for what’s in store for us,” says Chatila-Amos. “It’s certainly been an exciting whirlwind of a journey.”
On social media, you can find Willow Lake Cheese on Instagram.