“For people who cannot or choose to not consume dairy, finding something to replace that rich, savoury satisfying experience of cheese is a challenging journey”, says Margaret Coons, founder and CEO of Nuts for Cheese, whose cashew cheeses are a plant-based, cruelty-free, and health-conscious alternative to traditional dairy cheeses. Not only are their products made from rich, organic cashews, but they are also cultured using traditional fermentation processes.
We chatted with Margaret to see what inspired her to start Nuts for Cheese, and to understand how to make cashew cheese and whether it still acts like traditional cheese (think slice, shred, spread and melt!).
WEHL: Tell us a little about yourself and what wellness means to you.
MC: Hi! I’m Margaret Coons, and I’m passionate about making vegan food that tastes incredible. Three years ago, I founded Nuts for Cheese, where we craft a wide variety of dairy-free and vegan cheeses from cultured organic cashews. One of my biggest delights is that our family of products brings so much wellness to others. Our customers contact us on a daily basis to tell us how much their product has changed their life. This is the essence of wellness to me: doing what you love in a way that makes the world a better place for humans … and animals.
Wellness to me is also about putting care and attention into whatever I’m doing — whether that’s creating a new recipe, coming up with cheesy puns with my team, or having dinner with loved ones. I feel grateful to be able to invest my energy into something I am passionate about, and that there has been such a supportive community that have shared my passion alongside me.
In this way, wellness is not just a personal quest: it’s a collective journey. Everything is so much more fun and vibrant when it’s done with great people, and at Nuts for Cheese we are always looking for ways to support personal wellness within community. Work-life balance, for example, is a creative process, and no one should have to feel like they are navigating such an important journey alone. We’re all here to support each other.
WEHL: What is your personal philosophy on wellness?
MC: My personal philosophy is that wellness requires mindfulness and intentionality, but that it’s also important to not take yourself too seriously. Yoga is a really important part of my life — I used to teach yoga for many years as part of my journey into more holistic living — but in any wellness practice there’s the ability for it to become stagnant or even forced. The process is so, so important: it’s cliché to say, but the journey really is the destination. If you’re not enjoying yourself along the way, something is out of balance. I learned from yoga how to shift my practice in ways that renewed it into an inviting and enjoyable experience, and this continual openness to change is the heart of keeping any practice or philosophy of wellness from becoming a chore. We need to be willing to try new approaches and seek out new avenues into our experience of wellness for it to be continually life-giving.
In my business, I do this by making sure I keep coming back to the kitchen. I am so inspired, intoxicated even, by rich flavours, combinations, new culinary inspirations, and vegetables — I adore vegetables — and being transported into wellness through the process of mindfully creating and delighting in food helps me stay rooted in the whole reason behind my business: a love of good, shared food.
WEHL: What inspired you to start Nuts for Cheese?
MC: I became a vegetarian when I was twelve, so I started experimenting with food and cooking for myself at quite a young age. From that point forward, I found a lot of joy in making and sharing vegetarian and vegan dishes.
In undergrad, I worked as a chef at a vegan restaurant, Veg Out, and that’s where I started experimenting with nut cheeses. I love the energy on the line in a restaurant, and I definitely credit that experience of creating and serving artisan, delicious food with the inspiration behind Nuts for Cheese. The restaurant kitchen space was actually my first production facility– I used to rent it after the restaurant closed and stayed up through the night to create my cheeses.
Customers from the restaurant started asking me about placing orders and that’s also when I looked into doing the farmer’s market. It kind of all just grew from there: a total dream.
WEHL: What is cashew cheese?
MC: Cashew cheese is a fermented, delicious dairy cheese alternative. Our family of products currently come in five different flavours–and we are working as quickly as we possibly can to get our hard cheddar to market. We tested it out at our home veg fest here in London, Ontario to rave reviews!
For people who cannot or choose to not consume dairy, finding something to replace that rich, savoury satisfying experience of cheese is a challenging journey. We are so proud to be able to help people live their lives and their values by offering them with an incredible delicious, versatile cheese … made from cashews!
WEHL: How do you make cashew cheese? How do you ferment the cashews?
MC: Before deciding on cashews, I experimented with other non-dairy products – sunflower seeds, hemp hearts, and miso. The reason I ended up sticking with cashews is they’re really versatile and mild in flavour. They also have a really nice, higher-fat, lower-protein distribution, which is essential in getting the creamy texture.
To make the cheese, we start by making cashew milk and then culture it with a fermenting agent. We actually use two varieties made in-house: a culture made out of sprouted quinoa and another out of coconut milk. In many ways, it’s a similar-looking process to dairy cheese production: just a different medium.
WEHL: Does it really taste like cheese?
MC: Many of our customers say they can’t tell the difference between our cheese and a dairy cheese, but everyone’s palate is unique and our cheese tastes quite different from one variety to the next. My focus has always been on creating something delicious that vegans and non-vegans alike enjoy.
When you try Nuts for Cheese for the first time, you’ll recognize some of those “cheese” qualities — the zest and tanginess, and the creamy texture — but you’ll also be tasting something completely unique.
WEHL: Does your cashew cheese act like dairy cheese? Can we still slice, shred, spread and melt it?
MC: The short answer is yes! Nuts for Cheese isn’t identical to dairy cheese in the way it acts, but some of the qualities definitely translate: they’re all firm enough to slice and spread, and you can grate them (pro tip: pop them in the freezer for 10 minutes for a really clean grating experience). Once they get to room temperature they behave more like a goat’s cheese, so our cheese is incredibly versatile in the ways that it can be used.
They also all melt really nicely and are great to cook with if you want to make a creamy sauce. Essentially, our cheese can replace any dairy cheese in most any recipe. Our products are incredibly easy to use … although many of our customers confess that the wedge gets devoured before it ever makes its way into a recipe!
WEHL: You have various kinds of cashew cheese. What’s your favourite and which one is most popular with your customers?
MC: Un-Brie-Lievable, Super Blue, Red Rind, Chipotle Cheddar and Smoky Artichoke and Herb are the flavours available right now, although I’m excited because we have more flavours coming. (Stay tuned!)
My favourite is probably either the Red Rind (which is like a Smoked Gouda) or Super Blue (which uses the superfood Spirulina for its marbling). All the flavours are sure people pleasers and work excellently to elevate a simple charcuterie board. Smoky Artichoke and Herb and Un-Brie-Lievable are our best sellers.
WEHL: How long did it take you to perfect your recipes?
MC: I had been working with vegan cheese for a number of years before starting Nuts for Cheese. My process is proprietary, and it took a lot of trial and error. Getting the texture and mouthfeel just right is both a science and an art, and I really enjoy the delicate challenge of crafting a delicious, healthy product that is also good for the planet.
WEHL: What makes your cheese different from the other vegan cheeses on the market?
MC: I’d say a lot of what separates Nuts for Cheese from other vegan products on the market has to do with texture. A lot of vegan cheeses try to mimic the stretchy quality of cheese using binding agents and gums, so a lot of people expect vegan cheese to be plasticy and sticky and are surprised by how our cheese is very different than what they expect.
At the same time, something that really sets us apart is that we’ve actually never tried to mimic texture quality: I worked with the texture until I found exactly the best consistency for cashews, rather than forcing them to respond in a certain way. My approach has always been flavour first– if people can be transported by the taste, that’s what matters most to me.
WEHL: Were there any challenges to being able to make this cheese on a mass scale?
MC: The rate at which we’ve grown has definitely been a huge manufacturing challenge. We quickly outgrew two production spaces and it seems like lately we’re constantly ordering new equipment. I love that there is such a massive demand for our product, and it’s definitely our biggest challenge, but one which I enjoy meeting.
WEHL: Were you surprised by the demand for your plant-based cheese?
MC: I was definitely surprised at first, but also excited. Before I even started selling my cheese on Saturdays at the farmer’s market, I was getting retail requests from stores that were finding me on social media or through the restaurant where I was working. It was a bit of an accident that it grew so fast, especially in the early days. We’re a lot better prepared to anticipate growth now, but even still, the growing demand is absolutely incredible.
WEHL: How has the local community in London, Ontario been an inspiration in the growth of Nuts for Cheese?
MC: I’d go further than saying the London community has been my inspiration for growth. London is an awesome city for entrepreneurs. I recently was so honoured to receive the Top 20 Under 40 Award here in London, and it’s yet another example of the ways that this city really supports its own.
Almost all of our growth so far has been organic, the result of word of mouth circulation and actually just being out in the community sharing what we do. From my perspective, it’s one of the coolest things about how Nuts for Cheese came to be — it was a totally grassroots process, and London really is where it all started and where it continues to grow.
Even Ontario at large has been a fantastic place to grow our business. We love being available now throughout Quebec and the response just keeps getting better across the country. Truly, every raving fan is a part of this incredible community, and the level of support I feel from the collective passion for living wellness is truly more than I could have ever expected.
WEHL: Is this something that we can make at home? Would you like to share your favourite recipe?
MC: We have a number of recipes that we’ve developed specifically for our products that we will start uploading to our website on a regular basis: www.nutsforcheese.com
WEHL: What’s your favourite festive recipe that includes your cheese? Do you have a recipe you can share?
Pub Style Beer Cheese Fondue
- 1 wedge Chipotle Cheddar
- 2 cloves garlic (minced)
- 1 shallot (minced)
- 1 tbsp cilantro stems washed (chopped)
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 cup beer (preferably lager type beer)
Add olive oil to pan over medium heat. Sauté garlic, shallots and cilantro stems until fragrant, add entire wedge of chipotle cheddar. Add beer and incorporate ingredients together until smooth. Serve warm.
WEHL: Which major retailers currently carry your cheese?
MC: We’re in more than 600 stores in Canada right now, although a lot of those are small independent retailers, which is something we love about being a grassroots company in a smaller city. As far as major retailers go, you can find us in Farm Boy and select Whole Foods in Ontario, and in Sobeys throughout Ontario, Quebec and Eastern Canada. I’m so excited for a couple really big launches starting in the new year!
As far as the future, we’ve recently been inundated by requests from the US so we hope to get more products available over the border soon. But Canada first!
WEHL: Do you have any advice for an entrepreneur who’s interested in building a socially and environmentally conscious business?
MC: Entrepreneurship — especially when you’re building a socially and environmentally conscious business — is about developing community. It’s amazing how a community who believes in what you’re doing can come together around you and boost you up. That’s absolutely what happened in London with Nuts for Cheese. So, my advice for you is to talk to the people around you, share your ideas, ask for input, and don’t be afraid to convey your passion!
Connect with Margaret and Nuts for Cheese: