Online investing marketplace CircleUp recently announced the winners of its annual awards program that recognizes pioneering companies producing innovative consumer products—many of which are in the natural products space. Kite Hill, makers of dairy-free cheese and yogurt, is among those companies recognized.
New Hope talked to CEO Matthew Sade about the innovative methods Kite Hill is bringing to the alternative dairy category and the future of plant-based foods.
Congratulations on being named one of the CircleUp25. How does it feel to receive this recognition?
Matthew Sade: There are a lot of venerable brands that have been chosen in the past. It’s terrific recognition of what the company’s been able to accomplish. I think it speaks to what people perceive to be the future for plant-based foods. It bodes well that there was an acknowledgement that we are doing something that is innovative and also puts us squarely in the crosshairs of all these very favorable changes in the market.
In what way do you think Kite Hill is a trailblazer?
MS: I think everybody is being recognized for work in their own field. We were recognized as a trailblazer in the industry because of what we're doing in plant-based dairy. We've got a broad line of products that are based on some unique intellectual property that was developed at Stanford. On top of that, we've built a lot of know-how process engineering around how to take nuts and transform them into
great tasting alternative dairy products, which is kind of amazing in concept when you think about it. We're taking nuts in one side of our facility and out the other side come cheese, cream cheese and yogurt.
For anyone who, for whatever reason, doesn't consume dairy, we’re for the first time giving people options that they would tell you actually taste good. Up until now people have had to choose, on shelf, between lesser evils. Food, in its most basic form, should be something people enjoy. It should taste good and it should be enjoyable—not something you are forced to consume for a lack of better options on the shelf. That has changed.
What sets Kite Hill apart from other dairy-alternative brands?
MS: It's so easy to say in concept: plant-based, non-dairy and tastes good. That is the intersection where companies should aspire to live, and unfortunately, I think it’s been very difficult up until now. What allows us to do it is this deep understanding of how to make cultured, alternative dairy products out of nuts. We’ve taken great strides forward by using the same time-honored techniques that have been used in the dairy industry for centuries. Every other non-dairy company is basically taking ingredients that have nothing to do with dairy. They’re using processes that have nothing having to do with how dairy gets made, and they’re creating as a result this substance is a cheese-like food that is trying to approximate the taste and texture of dairy.
What we’re doing is taking milk and inoculating it with enzymes and cultures and a dash of salt, like the ingredients of cheese, and we’re using the exact same equipment that is used in the cheese-making process. The output is not something that has to try to compensate for a lack of ingredients and processes but actually tastes a lot like the real thing. But what’s kind of cool is that we’re actually taking strides forward by returning to the way it has traditionally been made.
What are some of the lessons learned from your early fundraising rounds?
MS: I think that as with any company, fundraising is about finding partners that you are aligned with from a values standpoint. If you’ve got good product, good management and a good plan, the money will come. But what you won’t necessarily find is the right people. Finding values-aligned partners should be the first thing you look for, but usually that’s the last question I think people ask only because they’re so excited to have somebody write them a check. This is general fundraising advice that I give to a lot of young companies that I meet with.
You’ve recently acquired financing from General Mill’s 301 INC and CAVU Venture Partners. What is in the pipeline?
MS: We are working on continuing to build on our success in existing categories, like cheese, cream cheese and, most importantly, yogurt, which has been a runaway success for us. We’re also in the process of commercializing some new product lines that I think will be very exciting when we bring them to market.
What is a challenge Kite Hill has had to overcome to get to where it is now?
MS: Challenges that we have in alternative dairy are not fundamentally different than those that any new company has, but it’s one thing to develop products in an existing category and it’s another altogether to develop and launch a company and build a business around an entirely new category. We’re simultaneously bringing products to market that are both a statement about our brand and the quality of products we make, but also are in many ways starting to define this new category of plant-based dairy, specifically nut-based dairy, that is totally new to the world.
It’s both a brand pitch as well as a category sell, so there are different considerations and they’re more complicated, but it’s something we’re enthusiastic about doing and part of what it is to be a pioneer in the market.
Are there any particular disruptive food companies that have inspired your journey with Kite Hill?
MS: There are a lot of companies that are doing great things that have informed different parts of our journey. I think what Impossible Foods is doing and the fact that we have a lot of commonality with them, we learn a lot as it relates to their approach to research and development. I look at how other companies have built new categories in the store, which is something we are in the process of doing. These are all parts of our playbook.
Personally, I’ve always inspired by the original story of Ben & Jerry’s. The way in which they pioneered, in many respects, super-premium and built a brand that had authenticity and realism and brought that to life for consumers in a way that no one else had done. And how that was a part of the company, its culture and the people that it attracted I think was spot on.
Where can Kite Hill products be found?
MS: We're in Whole Foods Market nationally. I expect you will be able to find us in the not too distant future in some of the better conventional grocers in the U.S. We’re excited to put our products in front of more consumers and make these products accessible to a larger audience. You have to be sold where people shop, and that is our intent.