Cheese Revolution #6: Interview With Cheese The Queen Founder Vera Tinkova
Cheese The Queen is on a mission to create a new gourmet culture with vegan products
Hello, Market Shaker!
After a fantastic interview with Terra Foods, we’re ready to close the chapter of all things plant-based for now. On the menu today, a terrific interview with Vera Tinkova, founder and CEO of CheeseThe Queen, a vegan cheese start-up founded in 2017.
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At the foundation of Cheese The Queen: a new Gourmet culture
Founded four years ago, Cheese The Queen came to be after a long period of research and development. When she was coming up with her first product prototypes, Vera Tinkova drew her inspiration from the desire to foster a new gourmet culture. She aimed to offer modern people the chance to enjoy the best food while innovating outside the conventional categories.
Before founding her start-up, passionate food entrepreneur Vera Tinkova had completed two of the most famous academies for plant-based food and raw food applications. She was particularly interested in working with enzyme cooking, nutrition, and raw food for their outstanding qualities and health benefits.
Vera Tinkova started her food experimentation journey with cheese, one of the most symbolic gourmet foods, a pleasure you share with good wine and company. But like with many pleasurable food products, moderation is required. Excessive consumption of conventional cheese would harm your health.
Vera Tinkova first worked with nuts and beans. Nuts, especially cashew, offer the best qualities for fermentation. They lose their strong flavor and turn into something entirely different while keeping their healthy fat. In addition, fermented nuts can fuel you with energy.
After her experience in Berlin, Vera Tinkova came back to Sofia. There, she got to work starting with organizing tasting sessions of her prototypes with different focus groups. She collected feedback from friends and family and reached out to more people later on. Vera Tinkova’s origin, Bulgaria, also has a lot to do with her choice of working with healthy bacteria. The country offers the perfect fermentation environment for Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus, a different kind of the Bacillus Bulgaricus bacteria.
Is Cheese The Queen actually called cheese?
When we refer to her products as cheese, Vera Tinkova smiles. In her mind, her creations are before and above all gourmet food and not really vegan cheeses.
Today, when Cheese The Queen has a stand at trade shows, people naturally refer to their products as vegan cheeses. However, the nature of consumers naming the products regardless of regulations and categories shows the market is evolving. The demand for alternative products is growing, despite the dairy industry fighting to keep its appellations off-limits.
Two incubator programs boosted Vera Tinkova in the right direction.
Cheese The Queen joined the Proveg Incubator and the Endeavor Dare-to-Scale program a year after. The experience helped Vera Tinkova get things right from the start to build a strong company and network. Based in Berlin, the Proveg Incubator selected eleven companies from all over the world for a four-month-long program. The opportunity to walk through everything that can take place with her start-up was exciting.
Her incubator experience helped her build the structure in place today and a valuable network of people. She learned how business is done between people, more importantly, between people aligned with their missions and values.
In the Endeavor program, Cheese The Queen won a prize in the first cohort held in Bulgaria. There, the participants learned about networking and scaling up, and generally speaking, all that happens with a company —growth, and investment included.
Cheese The Queen distinguishes itself from other plant-based cheese products.
Cheese The Queen focuses both on gourmet quality cheeses and functionality. The innovation comes from combining the benefits of nuts with the fermentation from the “helpful” bacteria. As a result, the brand’s raw products are perfect to fuel people with energy. They have a low carb count and a high intake of healthy fat and protein.
Cheese The Queen products are 100% made from cashews. The recipe does not add coconut oil, starch, or additives. Instead, they contain lactobacillus, which contributes to good gut health —something attractive for Japanese consumers!
Beyond the product’s quality, the brand’s visual language is also critical. Cheese The Queen’s imaging and message speak to today’s consumers and make them happy and excited about their choice of food.
Another strong point in favor of Vera Tinkova’s healthy line-up: the 12-month shelf life. Cheese The Queen products are aged and very stable. Moreover, they can easily be shipped overseas — their online store is soaring with orders from all over the world.
Cheese The Queen opts for chilled logistics —a choice to preserve its flavors.
Cheese The Queen products are exported, chilled, and sold refrigerated in stores. Because they’re aged, you could keep the cheeses in ambient temperatures as well. Vera Tinkova experimented with keeping them out for a month in different environments. The products did not show any signs of spoilage even after up to three months out of the fridge.
But Vera Tinkova has another reason for wanting to keep her cheeses in a chilled environment: taste. The Lactobacillus’ particularity is to offer a lemony flavor when kept alive.
The start-up focuses on exportations but does well domestically as well.
Vera Tinkova turned her attention to foreign markets. When she started, she did not expect sales to go well in her home country, which is deeply influenced by the hearty and comforting traditional Balkan cuisine.
The younger generations are more prone to open up to the alternative food scene, though older generations are also catching up. They’re seeking quality and novelty. Bulgaria was ready to embrace a change, explaining why Cheese The Queen is doing better than expected domestically. The start-up, however, keeps its eyes turned to the international scene and keeps on expanding.
Cheese The Queen is already available in Bulgaria’s neighboring countries, including Austria and Germany. However, the pandemic has damped the atmosphere in Europe, where markets are less prone to open up to novelty and more conservative. In comparison, markets further away, such as Dubai or the USA and Canada, are more dynamic and search for good quality vegan cheese.
In many markets, consumers appreciate more and more short ingredient lists. They’ll perceive these products as clean and natural and good-for-them. On the other hand, highly processed food products are more and more looked at with suspicion.
Asian countries would offer plenty of possibilities for vegan cheese. Generally speaking, an essential part of these populations suffer from lactose intolerance. In Japan, for instance, dairies, and the cheese in particular, mostly came from imported cuisines.
The Japanese appreciation for aesthetics and the idea of cleanliness— clean form, clean attitude, and eating, would match well with Cheese The Queen’s design and messaging. Furthermore, Japan’s familiarity with fermentation and probiotics would make the Japanese consumers an ideal target for the premium products of the start-up.
Fighting back the retail industry’s conservatism and convincing consumers
In the food and beverage industry, convincing retailers to carry your products is a daily battle. Retailers are conservative when it comes to good-quality products. They’re tempted to keep prices low to fit their consumers’ price sensitivity better. But Vera Tinkova will never compromise her products’ qualities to lower the pricing.
The market is changing, however. After many years of access to cheaper junk foods and the impact on the population’s health, people are looking for something else. So entering the market at the right timing is another challenge.
Convincing the consumers is a process that takes time. They face a product like never before, with expectations for this new gourmet food experience. In a way, it’s a journey for them, and brands have to let them embrace the product. With the acceleration of the plant-based trends, more people are bound to give Cheese The Queen cheeses a try.
Vera Tinkova has been preparing for this turning point for the past four years, knowing the time for growth would come. Her company’s equipment, her team are ready for the wave ahead. Down the road, she aims to have her products accessible everywhere in the world within the next five years.
The adaptability of Cheese The Queen products is a considerable strength for the brand expansion. Beyond the retail cheese category, their cheeses could work as snacks or even energy bars under a smaller format. In addition, the start-up has developed bundles with other products, for instance, cheese with crackers for a travel pack.
See you next Tuesday!
Next week, we end our chapter on plant-based trends with an interview with Kana Okajima, the plant-based chef behind IRODORI TABLE, a cooking class based in Tokyo.
Made with ❤️ by GourmetPro - Food & Beverage experts in Japan.
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