Creating plant-based cheese for dairy cheese lovers - Meet Willicroft
What began as a pet project at home has turned into growing business. That's the story of Willicroft - Dutch plant-based cheese brand that's reimagining how we consume cheese. Dedication, partnerships, and real love and passion for what they're doing has resulted in indulging products appreciated by thousands of loyal customers across Europe. How they did it and what's next - read Vegshelf Supplier Stories interview with Brad Vanstone, Founder of Willicroft.
1. Please introduce yourself and what you were doing before starting Willicroft?
I am originally from the United Kingdom, born and raised in beautiful Brighton from where I have very sweet childhood memories spending most of my time outdoors. Then, I studied politics & management in university in the West Country - an area which is also known as the dairy heartland of the UK and it's where my grandfather's dairy farm is based too.
When I was 24 years old I took a job in a London-based ed-tech and media startup as a Head of Growth, which soon led me to New York, where I spent 2 years working and growing the business for the U.S. market.
2. How did you come up with the idea to start Willicroft?
Living in a big apple was truly one of the most incredible and eye-opening experiences of my life, and in a way it also shaped the direction to what I am doing today: being in such a big, dynamic city and seeing so much waste and excess of everything led me to thinking more about environment, sustainability and health of our planet. I wanted to do something about it, so I started with some small, simple things like using and gifting reusable coffee cups to my friends and colleagues. Then in 2016 I moved to Amsterdam with my partner and after learning more about the sustainability topic through a bunch of books and documentaries, we both decided to switch to a plant-based diet. From there I realized that the offering of plant-based cheese in retail was really limited and of poor quality, so I started to make my own in the kitchen at home back in 2017.
Initially, it was all about experimenting and creating a great, tasty cheese alternative for me and my partner. In the first year of Willicroft, I spent 24/7 in the kitchen developing recipes and the only time I would leave it would be to go to market to sell my cheeses. I was really not thinking about the brand, online presence or other areas of (potential) business, the only thing I cared about was to create a truly delicious plant-based cheese that even dairy cheese lovers would acknowledge and call tasty. Once that was achieved, then it spread mainly through word of mouth by people who tried our cheeses and slowly but steady Willicroft was growing its loyal fan base.
3. What is your main drive and motivation to work on Willicroft?
My roots and bringing them into today's world is what truly drives me. Spending a lot of my childhood in my grandfather's farm and seeing the dairy industry from within, I know it's not something that is evil or we need to fight against, however it has many problems to be solved and there must be a collaboration with dairy farmers to create a long-lasting, positive change. Looking at what we are doing at Willicroft, I see that we are onto something that is literally comparable to its dairy equivalents but without all the dairy-related problems. In tribute to the idea of cooperation between both dairy and plant-based industries, we named our plant-based cheese company after my grandfather's dairy farm - Willicroft. Setting the great example of the way we do things at Willicroft and inspiring other food startups and brands is something that motivates me to continue.
4. What does Willicroft brand stand for?
First of all, Willicroft stands for great taste. We make plant-based cheese for dairy cheese lovers, so our cheeses have to taste as delicious as to what they are replacing - that's the starting point.
Secondly, it's sustainability and we take a data-driven approach towards it. I think it's not good enough to just produce plant-based products to be sustainable, there must be numbers that back that claim. Therefore, we are doing life cycle assessments for all our products looking at the full life cycle of each individual ingredient that goes into production, packaging, and delivery, and at the end we have a figure showing how much CO2 is emitted from each product. This approach enables us to really compare sustainability of our products to the dairy ones we are replacing, and be transparent with our customers in our messaging.
For instance, one of the things we learned from this process was that when using cashews as the main ingredient in our fondue, it reduces the emitted CO2 of dairy cheese by roughly 2.5 times. Furthermore, our initial data shows that if we would swap out cashews into something that could be grown locally here in Europe, e.g. white beans, then we would reach even higher reduction of emitted CO2, which is extraordinary. Improving our supply chain is something we're continuously working on to make all our products as sustainable as possible.
Forever learning is also something that shapes greatly our culture as a startup. Resting on laurels is not our way, Willicroft team is always curious and continuously working on improving the products, brand and ways we do things.
5. Where are you today? Tell us more about your product assortment and channels through which you sell them.
Today, Willicroft has 7 products in assortment: parmesan, cheese fondue, 2 different flavour cheese sauces and cream cheeses of 3 different flavours.
Focus markets for our products are the Netherlands, Germany and the United Kingdom. Currently, we sell predominantly through retail - our own store, other independent stores and we are launching in a major Dutch retail chain in October.
We are looking into foodservice as well, and there we are looking to establish few, bespoke partnerships rather than being in plenty of small restaurants and cafes. In the long-term we are aiming for a 50:50 split between retail and foodservice sales channels.
6. What is the achievement you are really proud of at Willicroft?
This morning I visited one of our stockists here in Amsterdam, and seeing the central display of Willicroft products among dairy cheeses makes me very proud as that is our number one comparison point.
7. What makes your product unique among other plant-based cheese brands?
Current plant-based cheese market currently consists of 2 types of plant-based manufacturers: firstly, these are coconut-oil-based cheeses that have very competitive price, great distribution but are not comparable to dairy cheese in terms of taste and texture. Secondly, these are artisanal plant-based cheeses that have really great taste, yet very short shelf-life and high price per unit.
With Willicroft we are focusing on being in-between these two groups: we are creating artisanal plant-based cheeses using traditional cheese-making techniques and have products that are made of high-quality ingredients, can actually replace dairy cheese also for non-vegans and are of competitive price.
8. What’s the customer audience for your product?
Audience for our products is quite diverse, however our main target group is flexitarians - people who try to reduce the animal-product intake and have very high expectations of plant-based foods in terms of taste and texture. In addition to that, foodies, who are always after the next big thing in the food scene and want to try and show the latest products to their audiences, love Willicroft products and shape a significant part of our loyal fan base too. Among these two groups, there are also people who eat only vegan, as well as athletes who seek nutritious, health-focused products. Yet quite diverse in terms of age, lifestyle and other characteristics, each of these customer groups appreciate different aspects of Willicroft products.
9. What can we expect from Willicroft in the near future?
It's a lot of exciting things coming up. We are currently working to launch Willicroft products with major UK retailer by the end of this year, and hopefully with the help of Vegshelf - with German one as well. Also, we will be releasing a couple of new products, such as mozzarella, cheddar and feta later this year. More information will be announced soon.
Impact-wise there's a lot going on too. We will be releasing the life-cycle assessments of our products in autumn, as well as our first impact report. Also later this year we will begin the first transitional farming project, where we are planting our ingredients on dairy land to ensure the sustainable transition of animal-agriculture farmers.
10. What has been your biggest challenge when starting Willicroft?
In the first years, the challenge was to not look too far ahead and just do small baby steps daily. Otherwise, it got frightening. Now, looking back at the whole journey, even though it's still just the beginning, it feels surreal seeing the long way we have come.
Further on, scaling the manufacturing process was hands down one of the main challenges. When we got to the point when we were ready to outsource our production to the factory, it took quite an effort to get all the recipes right without losing taste and other crucial qualities of products. We managed that successfully, and it was absolutely the way to go in order to scale and develop Willicroft from something small to proper business that's ready for the mass market.
11. What’s your advice for other food brands and startups that are just embarking on their journey?
Set high standards in terms of your company's impact from the day one. Many founders are thinking that impact assessment is something that should be done later on, however I think the later you start the more difficult it is to implement that approach and thinking into all your business processes. We all, founders in the food space, must build our businesses responsibly and in a data-driven way to create significant change in the right direction.
Full product assortment of Willicroft for retail and foodservice can be discovered on Vegshelf B2B platform. To see the product info (e.g. price, MSRP, certification, MOQ, label, delivery terms and other) and inquire directly, register here.