New to the US market but not new to the world, Violife was founded in the 90s in Greece as a dairy-free cheese alternative that could be consumed during Greek Orthodox fast days when animal protein is prohibited.
Violife entered the US market in 2015 through a small import business with limited consumer reach. All products are currently still imported from Greece and in January 2020 the company debuted following the acquisition of Violife’s parent company, Arivia, by US company Upfield, increasing its scale and operations to sale.
In just under two years, Violife has become the #1 vegan cheese brand in terms of category share, according to Nielsen xAOC data reported over the past 13 weeks, which showed Violife holds the #1 share in the category. non-dairy cheeses, followed by Daiya in #2 and Follow Your Heart in #3.
“Organic consumer advocacy is one of Violife’s key growth drivers and one of the #1 reasons we were able to become the #1 equity position,” Violife chief executive Andy Reichgut told FoodNavigator-USA, adding that the brand’s ingredients are “very simple” (refined coconut oil and various gluten-free starches) and that the secret sauce is in the making.
“What makes us unique in taste and performance is really our process, which has been perfected for over 20 years,”said Reichgut.
Biggest Obstacle: Consumer Taste Perceptions
Reichgut believes the success bar for dairy-free cheese is much higher than other plant-based dairy categories due to the indulgent nature of the products, which in some ways has held the category back and some something that Violife seeks to correct.
“We really believe that we have products that, once consumers have tried them, change their whole perception of this category,“, said Reichgut.
Its flagship product, soft and creamy feta, is the brand’s most successful product and a gateway for many consumers to become loyal consumers of Violife, Reichgut said.
“In consumer taste tests, our cream cheese was preferred 3 to 1 over competitors,”said Reichgut who added that unlike many other competitors in the plant-based soft cheese subset that use a cultured nut base (e.g. Miyoko’s, Kite Hill), Violife’s formulations are nut-free and, like the rest of its portfolio, uses a combination of refined coconut oil and gluten-free starches.
Violife has also done extensive benchmarking studies for its other products – grated and sliced - which have shown similar positive results, according to Reichgut, who added how its cheese can perform all essential sensory functions (i.e. melt and stretch) dairy cheese, including melt and stretch.
“We have products that have the taste and performance of dairy cheese and we are delighted with that,” he said.
Vegetable cheese category, big fish in a small pond?
And although Violife has achieved the top spot in the plant-based cheese category, there is still plenty of room for growth in terms of household penetration and attracting new consumers to the segment, Reichgut noted.
“Only 1-2% of consumers who eat cheese also buy plant-based cheese, and with milk it’s almost 20%. Even yogurt is higher.”he noted.
In 2020, the plant-based cheese category was worth around $270 million, a fraction of the $2.5 billion plant-based milk category and less than plant-based yogurt which reached $343 million. dollars last year, according to retail sales datafrom the Good Food Institute.
However, growth in the plant-based cheese category has outpaced other plant-based dairy categories, growing 40% in 2020 and 70% between 2018 and 2020, according to GFI.
“In many ways, we’ve become the big fish in the little pond. The real unlock to category growth will come from ‘dairy avoiders’ and people curious about plant-based foods,” said Reichgut, who believes that in the not-too-distant future, plant-based cheese can reach the same level of household penetration as non-dairy milk alternatives.
“I think there will be huge innovations over the next 10, 20 years. We see Violife doing to plant-based cheese what companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have done to plant-based meat. “,added Reichgut.