Canadian Packaging

Cultured Minds

By Andrew Snook   



Dairy-free cheese producer automating its packaging operations as part of a plan to carve up a bigger slice of the North American market for vegan food products

Margaret Coons, president and chief executive officer of Nuts for Cheese, has been living a vegan lifestyle for a long time. Her path towards veganism began at a young age after becoming passionate about animal rights.

“I was never a huge meat eater when I was a kid, it wasn’t something I was drawn towards, and so my plant-based journey definitely started with an animal rights motivation,” she recalls. “I loved animals and didn’t want to eat them.

“Over my teenage years, I started to learn more about the health benefits [of veganism] and the environmental impact of the animal agriculture industry,” Coons expands. “I got really focused on nutrition and got into cooking in my late teenage years and in my early 20s.

“It was really fun and exciting for me to experiment with creating vegan and vegetarian alternatives to popular foods that are not typically plant-based.”

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After trying a wide variety of products available in the market, Coons found many of them to have challenges with texture and quality of flavor, so she decided to branch out and try making her own products.

“When I was working at a restaurant, I started developing my own recipes for creamy sauces, dips and other similar things like that were made with nuts and seeds,” she says.

“I developed a real passion for fermentation at a young age as well, and started experimenting with fermenting cashew milk, sunflower seed paste, and whatever else I could think of, to experiment and see what the what the results would be.”

Coons was also very intrigued by the conventional cheese-making techniques, as she tried to figure out a way to use them to create something for people following vegan diets.

Happily, she discovered that cashews were a great ingredient to work with.

“Cashews ferment nicely, and they create a really creamy, consistent mouth-feel,” she says. “I hear that all the time from people who say it’s just like ‘real’ cheese.”

As Coons relates, “The product was borne out of wanting a more high-quality option that was actually a viable replacement for dairy cheese, because people that are flexitarian are not going to enjoy eating processed shreds, but they might eat a creamy, high-quality cashew cheese.

“It’s about making our products more accessible to a mainstream consumer as well,” she states.

While Coons’ original dream was to own a vegan restaurant, she shifted gears into product development after opening her company to sell cashew-based cheeses at a Farmers’ Market in London, Ont., in May 2015.

“I thought I would try a Farmers’ Market for the summer with the cheeses that I had been making, and it quickly became a popular market item,” she recalls.

“So I started expanding into local health-food stores, and other retailers and restaurants.”

The company has grown quickly over the next seven years.

“There’s been a lot of exponential sales increases, which has been awesome,” Coons says. “We launched in the United States about two years ago.

“We’re now in about 2,000 grocery stores in the U.S. and 2,000 grocery stores in Canada.”

All the Nuts for Cheese products are 100 per cent dairy-free plant-based ingredients that are produced at the company’s 30,000-square-foot production facility in London, which currently employs about 30 people.

The company’s top-selling product in Canada and the U.S. is its cleverly named UN-BRIE-LIEVABLE brand of dairy-free cheese.

“It’s our take on Brie,” Coons states. “It’s a cashew-coconut blend, and it’s super rich and creamy.

“All of our products are made with organic cashew milk that we ferment with the cultures that we make in our facility,” Coons relates, “but the Brie has coconut milk in it for an extra bit of creaminess.

“It’s a great product when used in both sweet and savory recipes,” she adds.

In total, Nuts for Cheese currently has ten different flavor varieties of its own brands of butter and cheese products, with more new products expected to hit the market in 2023.

“We’re launching some new and innovative products next year,” Coons says, “which will bring us up to 13 SKUs (stock-keeping units).”

While looking for a packaging unit for rolling out a new line of products in September of 2021, Coons reached out to Andy Malacaria, regional sales manager for leading food-processing and packaging-equipment supplier MULTIVAC Canada Inc.

As she recalls, Nuts for Cheese had a previous relationship with the Brampton, Ont.-based packaging specialists, having previously purchased an R105 thermoforming packaging machine about three years ago for two primary reasons: to extend product shelf life and increase its production capabilities.

“We were handwrapping the cheeses with paper prior to purchasing this machine, “ Coons recounts. “It was super labour-intensive, and the product didn’t have a great shelf life as a result,” she recalls.

“But we were able to increase our shelf-life from 49 days to six months with the use of the R105 machine,” Coons extols, “and it didn’t require us to change our formula.”

Starting next year, the company plans to be rolling out new tub-format packaged products—beginning with a line of cream cheeses—for which it needed to find a new packaging solution.

As Malacaria recalls, “She told me that they were looking to launch a new product, which was a nut-based cream cheese they were looking to put in either trays or tubs, like your traditional cream-cheese tubs.

“At the time, we were looking at more of a semiautomatic tray sealer with more manual loading, whereby you push the carriage in, let it seal, it comes out, and away you go.

“But based on further discussions about what their future goals and needs were, we looked at more of an automated solution,” Malacaria says.

After discussing a few different automated solutions, Nuts for Cheese ended up opting for the fully automated T 305 tray sealer, which they purchased this past October.

According to Malacaria, the decision was largely based on the machine’s key advantages of a compact footprint and high throughput speeds.

“It takes up a lot less space on your floor, which is key for a lot of facilities where space is sometimes an issue,” Malacaria says. “From an efficiency standpoint, instead of going with a semiautomatic, you’re going to get more packs per minute through, providing an opportunity for future growth.

“They will grow with the machine, which is a benefit as well.”

The T305 machine has a stainless steel construction and features a servo-driven knee-lever lifting system for dynamic speed and power control.

With outputs of up to 60 packs per minute, depending on the tray size and application, it provides a highly effective solution for customers looking to scale up from a semi-automatic machine.

According to MULTIVAC, all the required tooling changes—including heating up to operating temperature—can be achieved in less than 15 minutes, providing great versatility for manufacturers with multiple SKUs with quick and easy recipe and film changes.

Moreover, The MULTIVAC Hygienic Design execution offers maximum hygiene and the simplest cleaning to protection class IP 65, enabling complete washdown of the compact, yet highly capable machine with dimensions of approximately 1.1 metres wide, 2.4 metres long and 1.7 metres high.

While the new machine for Nuts for Cheese is currently being built, with installation and commissioning planned for the first quarter of 2023, the company is continuing to work closely with MULTIVAC on other future projects.

“They’re looking to automate,” Malacaria states. “Like a lot of the customers that I’ve been dealing with these days, their biggest concern is the lack of labor and finding people to work.

“It’s unfortunate, but it’s a reality that we’re finding many of our customers are facing,” he says. “They’re looking to see how they can best automate, and to keep those lines running.”

Partnering with a supplier that could assist with the financing of the packaging equipment was also a very important factor, according to Coons.

“It’s hard to buy expensive packaging equipment when you’re small, but MULTIVAC Canada has been a really good partner for us,” Coons says. “They also provide good service.

“There’s a bunch of equipment you can buy, but you’re not necessarily going to have ease of access to replacement parts,” she says, “depending on where it’s coming from.

“But with MULTIVAC being a well-established and trustworthy company, we felt confident that if we had a problem, we would have the help we need.”

Coons adds that her company is currently looking into expanding its automation capabilities with a new denester, a case erector, box taper and an inkjet printer.

For his part, Malacaria says the team at Nuts for Cheese has been fantastic to work with.

“They’re wonderful people and they have an amazing product: it’s a great concept,” he proclaims. “I’ve tried some of their products and they are delicious.”

For Coons, further expansion in both Canada and the U.S. are all part of her company’s ambitious long-term strategy.

As she relates, one of the biggest challenges facing the vegan product industry is educating the public on which products are both healthy and delicious.

“There’s a distinction that takes forming in the consumer perception of healthy products,” she says. “Our focus has really been on using premium, high-quality, healthy, clean ingredients to produce the best-tasting vegan cheese on the market.

“I think there’s going to be an opportunity for education around the quality of products and what’s actually making people feel good in terms of what they’re eating,” Coons concludes.

“It’s an opportunity for us to work closely with our partners to raise consumer awareness.”

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