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. 

At the core of Cheese The Queen, we desire to bring healthy products of the highest quality and refined flavors. The better people eat, the better they look. Our products have functional qualities because they contain probiotics —eaten raw, they contribute to a healthy microbiome. Grilled, they deliver a whole gourmet experience with nutty flavors while bringing in more protein. Our products are perfect for people with a busy lifestyle but looking for the excitement and experience of trying new healthy, and sustainable food.

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.  

I was inspired during my stay in Berlin where I was helping friends of mine to open the first raw food restaurant there and started to experiment at that time. How can we create a product with all the fine qualities of gourmet food while innovating? I was looking into combining functional ingredients with good nutritional values that contribute to a healthy and sustainable life.

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. 

We all know that consuming a platter of cheese per day, every day, for a month or more, won’t be great for your beauty and skin. Also, from an environmental perspective, it wouldn’t be good for the planet. But, at the same time, cheese is something we enjoy. That’s why I got inspired to start with cheese.

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. 

Cashews were my first choice for a product. The next thing I was looking for was unique and exciting flavors to offer a product that truly stands out. Today, I have a line-up of six different flavors that can be combined in so many different ways with other ingredients to spice up your menu.

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. 

If we were to produce Cheese The Queen in another country, we would probably have a different taste. However, because we are based in Bulgaria, we can achieve this unique flavor and qualities thanks to the inside probiotics. That is why I chose to come back to pursue my work. Furthermore, I have built my factory on a former dairy farm to show how this is part of the evolution and the future of food. Our needs are in sync with the needs of the planet —and the climate. 

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. 

Four years back, when I had just started and gone to my first trade show, all the visitors that came by asked what we were presenting. So we explained that it’s cheese without being cheese. Our products are vegan, made from cashews and not from dairy ingredients, but use dairy production technology. But a while after, in the light of the European regulations on plant-based product categories, I switched to superfood delicacy. So today, Cheese The Queen provides superfood delicacy and not vegan cheese. 

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. 

I’m using cheese as a verb here. My brand is not queen of cheese or queen of the cheese. It’s Cheese the Queen —in chess, “to cheese” means to win. In other words, I made a game of words with another chess expression, and also the popular phrase “save the queen.” I built an exciting story with this name. My business is about changing, about evolution. The verb in that case represents that dynamic.

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. 

I could see all the ways Cheese The Queen could grow, and in many ways, the program helped build a very successful business plan while remaining flexible. In addition, I could meet with other founders and people with solid experience and see their kitchen and their work behind the scenes. We still keep in touch and are also in contact with the following cohorts of start-ups. 

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. 

I believe that what happens now with Cheese The Queen, two years after these programs, is from the seeds they helped me plant back then. So I’m happy to grow, and I’m glad to share with other partners. 

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. 

In raw or even baked nuts, you have inhibitors that prevent your digestive system from breaking down the nutrients. That explains why some people after they have eaten nuts, will feel heavy. That’s where our fermentation process comes into play. The activations of the nuts break down the inhibitors. In the process of fermentation, the bacteria reduce the carbohydrates and increases the protein count. Our cheeses are perfect for people who are training and, generally speaking, very active. Also, protein is too often missing from our modern diet. 

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! 

Today, we understand how our microbiome is connected to our psychological and physical health and how important keeping a healthy flora is. Finally, not only are our products natural, but they’re also organic. 

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. 

The experience with food starts with the packaging, seeing the colors, and your brain anticipating how you will prepare the food you will eat. Therefore, I strongly focus on our products’ design. How our brand speaks to a consumer holding our product in their hands.

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. 

You can also play with our products. You can eat it raw, or you can figure out recipe combinations - grilled, baked, as sauce, dip, fondue, and more. So consumers can have a very long journey with our cheeses without ever getting bored! 

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. 

While I have done various experiments on the business side, I consider my cheeses to be chilled products. In general, you keep cheese in the fridge, even if you have parmesan cheese, which can stay out for very long periods because it’s aged.

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. 

You enjoy fermented food more when they’re chilled for that very reason. The lemony taste tells you the bacterias are alive. Otherwise, you’d have the sweetness of cashew taking over. 

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. 

These food trends are new to the people here, but at the same time, they’re very curious. After such a decade of junk food, people see the consequences for their health and look for high-quality food that makes them feel good. 

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. 

This year, we opened four new markets-the Middle East—Dubai and the Emirates, Finland, Romania, and Greece. We are currently negotiating with Canada and Chile. By the end of the year, we should hopefully be present in these markets.

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. 

You have a lot of vegan cheese brands that are very processed. They contain starch, oils with no functionality, and nutritional values. But consumers are more health-aware, and they read food labels. They do not want an ingredient list as long as The Thousand and One Nights. Consumers want products that they understand and can recognize. For instance, the truffle Cheese The Queen recipe has four ingredients —minced Truffles, cashews, Himalayan salt, and the bacteria culture. That’s it: nothing else but the wonders of our production technology. 

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. 

I feel Asia would be a perfect market for us. Vegan cheese and especially premium products can be well appreciated there. Tokyo is very much in my heart, and I’m interested in Japan and Singapore, and China, notably large cities such as Hong Kong. So I think we could have a good reach with consumers. 

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 mindset of consumers, and therefore, retailers’ perspective, is challenging. Everybody is looking to buy more, and that means buying cheaper products of lower quality. So we have to spend time explaining our products. Our pricing is higher due to our ingredients and processes. In the premium category, you must show the product’s benefits for consumers’ health and lifestyle, and of course, its value. 

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. 

The doors start to open when consumers’ health awareness increases and they start looking for novelty. You have to prepare and anticipate not to lose this momentum —that’s a rule for every business, I guess. You’re preparing to scale your equipment, your processes, like a thousand times until the timing is right. And you shouldn’t miss it. 

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. 

It has been some years since the plant-based trends started, and they grew slowly. More people came on board, but it wasn’t moving that fast. Now, I think the market for plant-based products will probably explode in the next three years. There are too many reasons for people to be curious and fully adopt these alternatives into their regular diet. Ten years ago, perhaps having a satisfying plant-based diet was hard, but it’s exciting today because you have plenty of cool products available. Making our customers feel cool and making a good choice for themselves and the planet is part of our mission.

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. 

Our products can be shipped everywhere globally and be accessible to the most significant number of people because I believe good quality foods should be made available to everyone. I have at heart that Cheese The Queen expands all over, and of course, I have plans to develop my portfolio. Unity is at the core of our company and mission, to become the number one choice for people ready to lead a healthy life without compromising food quality and taste. 

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. 

Cheese The Queen could also become an airline catering product. I’m working on a travel pack for airline companies, and I can see this product fitting everywhere. We can transform our superfood delicacy to better match the needs of a market or fit within a category. We have a lot coming soon! 

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.


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