To be completely upfront, neither of us had any experience in the food industry, so we probably underestimated the amount of work that it would take to bring a product to market. In our heads, we would create a recipe in the kitchen, bring it to a retail buyer, and then somehow miraculously be on all of the shelves the next day. Needless to say, it didn’t work that way, and probably for the best, too, because wouldn’t be enjoying the process half as much if it were that easy!
The first step was to develop a product. Though we had spent hours cooking in the kitchen, we realised that we probably needed a bit of help scaling up any production. For help on our New Product Development (NPD) and for general help in understanding the process, we worked with the amazing Jen Pardoe at PlantBased2B. Together, we created the mighty Creamy Mac.
If you do a quick google search online for “vegan mac and cheese”, you’ll see pages and pages of recipes. Some use cashews, some use a roux, and others use lots of vegan cheese. Over the course of a month, we tested every variation of sauce possible, with a few factors in mind: 1) it had to taste amazing, 2) it had to be stable when chilled and stored, 3) it had to hold up nutritionally and not contain any preservatives or additives, and 4) it had to make sense cost-wise for us.
Looking back over our scorecards, I see that we had over 40 different variations that we tested. We would narrow down the factors one by one. For instance, what non-dairy milk should we use as the base? We tested coconut milk, rice milk, oat milk, soya milk, and almond milk. Each had their pros and cons, but we ultimately chose soya milk for its creamy consistency and smooth texture. Next, we had to make sure that we could find a suitable soya milk to source in large quantities. Importantly, we wanted to use a soya milk that only had water and soya beans in its ingredients, so it took a bit of work to confirm that our preferred milk was indeed feasible.
Next, we tested vegan cheese and nutritional yeast. For those of you who don’t know, nutritional yeast is a secret weapon in many plant-based kitchens. It’s just yeast – the same type you would find in your bread, and it gives a cheesy flavour to anything you put it in. But in large quantities, it can have a sharp aftertaste, so even a gram of nutritional yeast more or less makes a big difference in the flavour. As for vegan cheese, we initially wanted to stay away from using it in our products, as the majority of them, though they’re creamy and melty, have a lot of fillers and preservatives. Thankfully, Violife came to the rescue with their amazing cheeses, which are made from coconut oil and little else! So for this period of time, we tested many macs with different combinations of Violife and nutritional yeast, with some containing only Violife and some containing only nutritional yeast. In the end, we decided on a blend that gives the most delicious, mouth-feel.
And the process went on! In addition to non-dairy milks and cheeses, we tested for quantity of mustard, which seasonings to use, with and without a roux, vegetable add-ins, and so on… It was so much fun testing our taste buds and seeing if we agreed on the same preferences! We even went to the U.S. on a scouting mission to see if there was anything we could learn from the macs across the pond. Over there, most of the macs (both vegan and non-vegan), are packaged in boxes with a dried pasta that you have to cook, and then a sauce that you make from a powder form. That style wasn’t for us, but we definitely had some fun ordering macs everywhere we could, like By Chloe in New York City and Temple of Hackney and Veggie Pret in London.
As a final test before taking it to our manufacturer, we served our Creamy Mac to all 100 guests at our wedding– cheekily, we didn’t tell many people it was our own so that we could get honest feedback, and honest it was! We have similar tastebuds, so we prefer the same flavours, but a wedding of half Americans, half Brits, and of all different ages is the perfect way to make sure our product worked for almost everyone. That said, we tried to stay true to our brand and ourselves by ultimately deciding what flavours worked the best for us. For example, both of us love spicy food, so our Creamy Macs all have a little bit of chilli powder for a bit of warmth. We got some feedback from friends that it was a bit too spicy for them, so we decided to keep the chilli powder but just dial down the heat so that it was a more neutral level. Without that feedback, we would never have know it was too spicy for some!
We’re constantly thinking about NPD and working on the next products, so if you have any ideas or suggestions, please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org!