Spread ‘Em looks to spread in Ontario

Distribution with Fortinos and Longo's comes amid greater acceptance of dairy-free cheese.

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Dairy-free beverages made from things like soy and almonds have found their place in supermarkets alongside lactose-containing competitors. However, dairy-free cheeses have yet to become as large a part of the common shopping vernacular at conventional grocers.

British Columbia-based Spread ‘Em is hoping to change that, as the brand just announced its cashew- and plant-based “cheeze” is coming to Longo’s and Fortinos grocery chains in Ontario. The 53 combined locations will help it reach some of the 7 million Canadians who identify as lactose intolerant, and maybe to curious “flexitarians” as well.

According to company founder Mellisa Mills, up until now, the strategy has been to focus on natural health chains and mom and pop-type shops. She says, however, that they could reach more people through Fortinos and Longo’s, “semi-conventional” stores that position themselves more as specialty stores, a good fit for the brand in what she calls a test market.

“We’d never really marketed ourselves,” Mills admits. She tells strategy the product has grown via farmer’s markets, and that it has spread by word of mouth (when it comes to the brand’s name, Mills concedes she didn’t put much thought into it and came up with it the fly to get into a Vancouver farmer’s market when the product was first being developed five years ago). The company is now working with Ramp Agency to launch the product line. And the brand has dubbed its devotees “spreadheads,” and engages with them on social using that term as a hashtag.

Mainstream grocers are gradually warming to dairy-free cheese, with Loblaw’s President’s Choice adding a lactose-free old cheddar and lima bean-based vegan cheesecake to its lineup, while the Daiya brand offers a “Cheeze-lovers” pizza.

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Mills says to stand out on shelves, the brand uses bright colours, as well as side cut-outs on the packaging so that customers can get a glimpse and see what the texture looks like, a consideration for the curious shopper new to the space. She also says it was important to highlight the ingredients and to demonstrate its values of transparency. The company sources its herbs and vegetables from B.C., and partners with a cashew farm in Vietnam as part of the brand’s sustainability ethos. Nut production, she says, is occasionally fraught with ethical concerns that the brand wanted to address by emphasizing how the product is sourced.

Spread ‘Em products will be housed in the deli section at the two retailers, while in other locations the product has traditionally been in the dairy section with dairy alternatives and cheese of all stripes. “I prefer it in the everyday use/dairy section,” Mills says. “I don’t see the product as a specialty item. It’s not for cheeseboards necessarily. It gives people an opportunity to make something to use in everyday life in sauces or dip for crackers.”

When it comes to marketing a relatively new product category like dairy-free cheese, Mills says it’s about educating the customer beyond basic sampling. And this involves getting more tasters to understand that the production process is not too different from conventional cheese, with bacterial cultures and fermentation and the like.

“It’s such a new product and for so long cheese substitutes were not very good. Many people tried them and thought that cheese is one thing that can never be replicated,” she says. Early offerings in the space, Mills adds, were soy stuffed with oil to make some sort of gelatinous paste. Mills says that nobody actually tried to apply the process of cheese making to plant based products and fermenting them accordingly. Now, plant-based cheese manufacturers are trying different protein, plant and bacteria combinations to create a better product.

Mills says Spread ‘Em’s target is primarily women between the ages of 25 and 45 who are interested in high-quality food and don’t mind paying a premium to make sure what they are getting is good for their body. And when it comes to new entrants into the category market, Mills says the more selection, the better.

At Longo’s, Spread ‘Em is offering Spinach & Artichoke, Jalapeño Cashew Cream Cheeze, Chive & Garlic Cashew Cream Cheeze, and Nacho Cheeze. At Fortinos’, it’s the above, plus Porcini and Dill offerings.