Veronica Fil and her husband, leading chef Shaun Quade never intended to become plant-based entrepreneurs. Owning a fine-dining restaurant in Melbourne, it wasn't until they began to notice the future of food was drastically changing around them that they realised the potential of their skills to bring forth a healthier and high impact product, both for people and the planet. With a superpower of culinary creativity the couple have brought together an unusual pair: cauliflower and hemp, to create dairy-free cheese like you've never seen it before. In this episode we chat to Veronica about the startup's unusual and rather accidental beginning as well as how they made the decision to leave the restaurant space. We spoke about why cauliflower is a fitting and unique ingredient both from an allergen and sustainability perspective, as well as the importance of authenticity when it comes to social media management and challenges the team have faced so far during the global pandemic.
It all started with an experiment, Veronica's husband, cofounder and leading Australian chef Shaun Quade taking it to the kitchen to experiment and see what new and novel food he could create.
Veronica: 'Nobody knows how he comes up with these ideas.'
Ideas that seem to really work. Creating a plant-based cheese made from nothing but vegetable scraps from his work kitchen, Shaun was successful in deceiving Veronica into thinking she was indulging in a 'normal' animal-based product.
And it goes to say that the pair really have a complementary set of skills. Shaun with his culinary creativity, and Veronica, a behavioural economist by training.
Veronica: 'He's a genius with making food that's not what it looks like or how it presents. Whereas my background is in behavioural economics, which is about consumer psychology, watching trends, predicting what's going to be popular with people, when and marketing.'
So how did the two come together to create a plant-based cheese business?
Veronica: 'We love cheese but we know we shouldn't. Let's be honest - the future of dairy is completely unsustainable.'
Veronica: 'At the start I thought I would just commercialise his products, it started from there. Slowly that side hustle became larger than the restaurant opportunity over time.'
Apart from using unique ingredients like hemp and fermented cauliflower which form the base for their products, there's also an important element of cultivating a local supply chain, and a desire to upcycle where possible.
Veronica: 'I built the business always to rely on local and independent supply chains, not for environmental reasons, purely because I thought it was a huge risk to be importing different elements from overseas. This was long before COVID, but as soon as COVID hit that really alarmingly brought to life how important that was.'
Veronica: 'Being in California made sense because the CBD industry is huge, there's massive hemp plantations. The cauliflower, so much of it is grown here, locally, it just made sense.'
The team are also committed to working with existing or former dairy farmers who want to be a part of the booming plant-based economy, something we don't often see when it comes to vegan business.
Veronica: 'Rather than letting independent farmers cease to exist and have their entire business model destroyed, I fully believe we can help them transition into the plant-based economy and become more sustainable and profitable in doing so.'
Being so early-stage and not even having launched, the startup has impressively received a number of media mentions. We wanted to understand deeper what Veronica's strategy was when it came to press and how to navigate that as a new business.
Veronica: 'We don't hire PR agencies and we don't hire marketers - we do it ourselves because I find consumers don't like fakeness.'
This really took me back to one of our earlier episodes, with cofounder Anna Brightman from Upcircle (you can check out our episode here: https://podcasts.apple.com/au/podcast/byproduct-beauty-upcircle/id1434996393?i=1000485281052). She too felt that it was incredibly important, while she could in the early-stage, be as close to consumers as possible. Listening to feedback and being able to interact with them directly, to know what she could do to improve her products and strengthen the brand to make it more appealing for existing and new customers.
Veronica: 'That's where big business start to disconnect with their consumers because they're not listening to them anymore and they're not watching everyday and seeing what people's comments are.'
An example of how direct interaction with consumers has played a part in Grounded's journey? Their evaluation of sustainability.
Veronica: 'Even though we get a lot of consumer feedback saying we should do our cheeses in glass jars - how many people actually recycle glass jars? How many people are willing to pay more for the glass jars? How do we factor in additional costs and the potential breakage on a shipping run?'
'All of these things need to be weighed up when talking about sustainability overall.'
And getting in contact with consumers, including setting up DTC channels hasn't been without its own set of challenges. When the coronavirus struck, despite being an opportunity to establish a new route to market, the couple began facing shipping malfunctions when companies could no longer guarantee 2 day shipping periods, despite that being what customers had already paid for.
Veronica: 'We had to make the decision, do we refund everyone at this point or do we pay out of our own pocket for overnight shipping, and we went with the latter because brand leverage is so much more important. We wanted to make people happy at that stage, and it was a small number of order so we just thought stuff it.'
Veronica went on to talk about other challenges that they have faced during the coronavirus, including the difficulties of receiving funding in a period of global and personal financial uncertainty.
Veronica: 'It was a nightmare.'
Veronica: 'All of these interested parties just disappeared suddenly. We had no choice but to keep going.'
And slowly but surely, investors began to get in contact, and the startup went from not knowing what was going to happen to their future livelihoods, to not knowing which investor to choose from - all within a week.
Veronica: 'We're so lucky to have these experienced people backing us and advising us on next steps.'
So what are the next steps for the startup?
Veronica: 'To crank up the manufacturing engines and get straight into production. We launch in November, finally, after what feels like a very long time.'
Veronica: 'We'll be direct to consumer as well as in a few retail outlets that we're yet to announce and we've got some pretty exciting food service partnerships.'
Veronica also shared that next year the startup is launching an even more creative and wild line of products. So if you want to stay updated with their journey, then make sure to head to their website https://www.groundedfoods.com/ or follow them @grounded_foods on socials.
Her last piece of advice for budding plant-based entrepreneurs?
Veronica: 'It can be really hard to transition from having a cool idea or a hobby business to a major company that attracts venture capitalist funding. We're very lucky, but it didn't happen by mistake - it took a lot of work and sweat and sheer pain and argument and tears to learn everything we needed to learn to get here.'
Veronica: 'But nothing is impossible. We had so many people tell us not to do this back at home. We had so many people tell us that we were thinking a bit too big for our boots and we should start at the local farmer's markets and start slowly, not get too crazy with our aspirations. And we just thought to ourselves f*** it, this is what we want to do, and so we did.'
A note to self
Veronica: 'You can't fail in something until you've decided you're not trying anymore. Until then, you haven't failed.'
We hope you enjoyed this week's episode! If there's a vegan founder that you want to see featured on the show, or you know a plant-based startup that's doing great things, then you can email me firstname.lastname@example.org and get in touch!
Otherwise, have a great week and remember to #biteforwhatsright!