Behind the scenes with Left Coast Culture

Ella Clarke left Canada for Scotland to start her own vegan cheese company.

Lisa finds out more about Ella’s (accidental!) business journey and if the Scottish Highlands were ready for vegan cheese.

Find out more at Left Coast Culture’s website here.

So, we have to ask – how did you get into making vegan cheese?!

I first started going to farmers markets selling vegan ready meals I had made. Being new to the area, I thought it would be a good idea to get to know the local community, with the intention to introduce tasty vegan food and start putting the word out to build my nutritional therapy practice. It was a great way to have conversations about how food affects our health and show people that vegan food isn’t just tasteless rabbit food. It can be tasty with layers of flavour and texture. I was selling things like sweet potato buddha bowls, Mexican rice bowls, Dahl, beetroot hummus, savoury beefless potato stew – and the response was amazing.

Then at one market I brought some vegan cheese that I had made and it went down a storm. The next weekend, I had a queue of people wanting and asking about the cheese. At the time I had just taken out a small business loan to start a vegan food truck, but I had to make a decision whether to pursue that (a relatively risky venture with an unknown outcome) or to use that money to focus 100% on the cheese as I had proven that there was demand for it. By January 2019, Left Coast Culture was born and I was making and selling the cheese full time, which is why I always say I accidentally started a vegan cheese company! 

You get great feedback on social media about how much your cheese replicates the experience of dairy cheese (it actually melts!). How difficult was that product development journey?

I had been making vegan cheese for myself for years, so I’d put recipes together over the years. But as demand grew, I needed to start making larger batches – and the bigger the batch, the more tweaking the recipes needed. I had to experiment with the ingredients, needing more plant milk here or less nutritional yeast there and there was quite a bit of trial and error. I also had to start thinking about shelf life and packaging that didn’t make them sweat and kept them fresh. At that point I was still making them out of my home, and if you saw me in the kitchen it really did look like a mad scientist at work!

My first range were ‘dairy analogues’ as they’re called in the vegan cheese making world. They use ingredients like nutritional yeast, herbs and spices to get their flavour. For me, it’s always been a struggle to find good tasting vegan cheese that actually melts. So, my focus was to develop and perfect these first before moving on to aged cheeses where traditional bacteria cultures are used. It’s those cultures that actually give these types of cheese their flavour (and my company its name!) just like in traditional cheese making. That was quite challenging because I’m not a food scientist and you almost need to become one when you’re doing this sort of thing. You need to know what ingredients make it melt, what can you do to make it more ‘cheesy’, what does lactic acid do, how does this ingredient react with that ingredient and how does it make the cheese behave? But the science nerd in me loves all this, so I’ve really enjoyed the development process to get it to where we have now! 

 

Cheese is often cited as being the last barrier to becoming vegan, so how much are you aiming your product at non-vegans?

The farmers markets provided an incredible platform to speak to people from all walks of life and dietary backgrounds: vegans, flexitarians, foodies, those wanting to lower their carbon footprint and reduce their dairy consumption, those that were curious about making the leap but just couldn’t imagine giving up dairy cheese – and of course those that still chose to eat meat and dairy but were open to trying something new. 

In that first year I didn’t aim to entice any one demographic. On the contrary, everyone was welcome to try it! Many of the conversations I had at the markets were with people worried about their health, mostly non-vegans who had recently been told that they had a dairy allergy or that their cholesterol was too high. It was always an opportunity to just be kind, to share information about how healthy plant-based foods can be and what it has done for our own health and lives. And my view on this hasn’t changed. It’s about inviting people in (even the naysayers), letting them try it and having open and respectful conversations. Show them that they aren’t giving up anything but are actually enriching their life and health, while helping the planet and the animals at the same time.

"I brought some vegan cheese that I had made to the market and it went down a storm. The next weekend, I had a queue of people wanting and asking about the cheese"

You moved to Scotland from the West Coast (or ‘left coast’!) of Canada. How does the vegan scene in Scotland compare?

I grew up in two places in Canada: Alberta (also known as ‘beef country’) and Vancouver Island (also known as ‘the land of the granola people’) in British Columbia. So, although there were pockets of people doing vegan in Alberta, there wasn’t a lot being offered. British Columbia however was a completely different story. I was drinking green juice and eating marinated teriyaki tofu 20 years ago there! Even on the small island that I lived on off the West Coast we had a wee cafe that was mainly vegan. The West Coast of Canada is a very environmentally conscious part of the world and people were having conversations even back then about how our food systems affect the planet, it was just the norm. 

But in just the four years since we moved to Scotland, the vegan landscape here has changed so much! There are so many incredible, talented and passionate people here with more vegan and plant-based shops, cafes and brands popping up all the time. When we initially moved to the Highlands, we found it incredibly hard to eat out. Now most places have a vegan menu or are offering vegan dishes. I’m just about to open the first vegan deli and vegan cheese counter in Inverness and I’m very excited to be a part of these changing times. The scene here in Scotland is blowing up: we’ve got vegan chocolate makers, vegan marshmallow treats, vegan food trucks, cafes, even mainstream pubs offering vegan fish and chips or vegan pizzas. More and more people are looking at the future of food sustainability and how dairy and animal affect our health, so the times are definitely a changin’!

 

As well as selling direct to people through your website, you’ve built up quite a business supplying local cafes and restaurants. How did you approach these companies and get them to try your cheese?

To be honest I never had to approach anyone – they approached us! All the establishments that I supply reached out to me for samples through word of mouth. Then once they tried it, they put in their orders! 

I’ve been so grateful for this organic growth and am quite blown away by it all. But it shows the power of word of mouth and that there is demand out there from forward-thinking establishments that want to cater to all their customers. They want to offer tasty alternatives as a regular thing, not just as an afterthought.

Because it was just me for these first few years, we had to create a waitlist of shops that had reached out to us. It’s only been in these last 6 months, now that I have more help, that I have been able to open the door to the waitlist and start bringing on more customers. And to those that I have reached out to, this has been on a recommendation from customers asking if we would be able to supply their local shop. So, I’ve introduced myself via Instagram or email, let them know who we are and what we do and the response has been really positive! 

If someone is making a vegan food product at home in their kitchen and they think ‘I could make this into a business!’, what would your top advice be to them?

100% do it!! But start small. Make sure you can financially support yourself while you build the business and then get out in the community with it! 

Farmers markets are incredible venues to connect with people directly, let them try your product, be kind, be open and talk to as many people as you can about it. Do pop-ups, markets and local events as much as you can, but if you have an idea, then go for it 100%! For the planet, for the animals and for our own health, we need more vegan products and businesses in the world!  

Learn more about Left Coast Culture at their website: www.leftcoastculture.co.uk

Lisa Fox says:

Ella shows that having a successful business is not just about having a good product but proving to yourself that there is also a demand for it. Test out your idea first and engage with your customers, then go in the direction they tell you to go!

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