NEW 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 are riding a wave of consumer interest, such as the plant-based diet phenomenon. Rarely has a movement grown to overwhelm the industry like this has. However, it is giving budding entrepreneurs an immediate leg up, and it opens new doors for quality products trying to catch consumers’ imaginations.
Willow Lake Cheese is one such product.
In March 2018, University of Guelph 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 master’s student, if she would work on making what they would 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. Professor Art Hill, a dairy cheese expert at the university, agreed to offer academic oversight to their project.
Their product, which by that point had taken 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.”
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 — Grain Farmers of Ontario, SeCan, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs 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 had 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 made its Guelph debut in mid-September at the Taste of Guelph, a fundraiser for St. Joseph’s Health Centre Foundation. Later that month, it was featured at the city’s 2019 Innovation Expo, where the duo was hoping it will find favour with area restaurants. At press time, the entrepreneurs were meeting with the food procurement team at the Brass Taps pub at the university, which now serves breakfast fare such as bagels — which are perfect for Willow Lake Cheese.
“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. •