While a love for animals prompted Margaret Coons, BA’12 (Huron University College), to become a vegetarian, it was a family passion for entrepreneurship that led her to found the artisanal cheese company Nuts for Cheese.
“I didn’t grow up in a vegetarian family. So, I started to cook for myself at a pretty young age and got really interested in making vegetarian and vegan dishes,” said Coons, who became a vegetarian at 12 and a vegan at 19.
While studying at Huron, Coons became more interested in food, especially once she started cooking at Veg Out, a vegetarian restaurant formerly on Richmond Street.
“I loved the thrill of being really busy in a restaurant, being on a line, getting to be creative with food,” she said. “That’s where I started to develop recipes for the cheese business. I started renting the restaurant kitchen space in the middle of the night to make the cheese. That midnight kitchen rental was my first-ever production facility.”
Looking to perfect her vegan cheese recipes, she enrolled in Rouxbe, an online culinary school.
“The school had us shoot videos of our process, take photos, write essays, and have people taste our food,” she explained. “I did consider a traditional culinary school but I’ve never worked with meat. Ever. I couldn’t handle the idea of having to do butchery or cook animals. And you have to taste everything you make.”
The idea of making cheese from cashews formed as she was searching for a nut or seed to add a creamy texture to sauces or salad dressings. After experimenting with non-dairy products – sunflower seeds, hemp hearts, and miso – she thought of cashews.
“They have a really nice, high-fat, low-protein content. So, they ferment well. And they are delicious,” she said. “Basically, we make cashew milk and culture it with a fermenting agent that we make in-house. It’s a similar-looking process to dairy cheese production. It’s just a different medium.”
The success of the company has been somewhat of a surprise.
“I thought I would do a farmer’s market for the summer with the cheeses and that would be it. Pretty quickly, we had some orders. I printed out labels on my home printer, stuck them on Saran-wrapped cheeses and it just sort of took off from there. And I really threw myself into it,” she said.
Coons has built name and brand recognition by regularly attending local farmer’s markets and trade shows. She meets and greets everyone – those unfamiliar with the product; those who are nervous about the price point (it’s comparable to a fine dairy cheese); even non-vegans. All are enthusiastic once they’ve tasted the cheese. “Those events are great for introducing the cheese and just being able to answer questions because for a lot of people, it’s still an unfamiliar product,” Coons said.
Currently, 250-300 stores carry her product across Ontario, British Columbia and the Maritimes. This year, she is adding Quebec to the company’s distribution network.
“Honestly, this has all kind of happened by accident. But I’m from a family of business people so I don’t know how I thought I was going to escape it,” she laughed.