As a fourth-generation member of a family known world-wide, Keith Schuman knows a thing or two about cheese and about honoring his family legacy. He joined his father (Schuman Cheese CEO Neal Schuman) on his first sales call at the age of 11 – an experience he recalls at the time being “mostly boring.” However, it planted the seeds for something more.
In college, Keith had plans to forge his own career path. His intent was never to go straight into the family business, but when job offers started percolating during his senior year, none held the allure of working for and learning from his dad.
Now, years into his work with the family business, Keith’s role has taken a bit of an unexpected turn – but it’s one that’s allowed him to develop an even deeper passion for the work they do.
How did you come to be involved in the Vevan brand?
It’s always been part of my job to understand trends and where the cheese industry is headed. When our Innovation team approached us with an idea for a plant-based cheese, I jumped at the chance to get back into the strategy side of business, which is actually where I started when I first came to Schuman Cheese.
Plant-based cheese is a growing trend in the consumer market. Beyond that, producing plant-based – and, in our case, dairy-free – cheese is an important way to promote sustainability. It gives us tangible way to be true to our core values, so I’ve had a lot of pride in Vevan from the start.
What is your role with Vevan now?
As the business unit lead, I set the strategic direction of brand, which includes all of the financial reporting, investment considerations and overall operations. I work closely with our very talented Innovation group to figure out which of their never-ending ideas are most likely to succeed in the market. I’m more data-focused so it’s a nice yin-yang relationship with all of their creative and artistic input.
What’s it like for someone who’s been raised in a traditional cheese family to now be spearheading a brand that is anything but dairy?
I will personally always love dairy cheese, but the goal with Vevan has always been to create the most authentic experience possible for people who don’t eat dairy cheese for whatever reason.
As a company we make it a priority to live true to our core values and more, important, our mission: to enhance everyday eating experiences with the highest quality cheese.
An important part of our core values is innovation, and more specifically, finding gaps in the market. As we began to explore the idea of a plant-based line, we quickly discovered realized there’s nothing really authentic out there for someone who can’t or won’t eat dairy – but still wants that traditional cheese experience. We came to realize that in a sense, we were actually falling short of our values and mission by leaving out a segment of consumers.
We’re experts in the cheese space, and we feel like that gives us the ability to transfer our expertise into plant-based cheese because we understand the product so well.
What excites you most about Vevan?
It’s a truly emotional and rewarding experience to see a consumer who hasn’t had cheese in their diet, but has been missing it, realize they can start enjoying cheese again. Vevan gives consumers the most authentic experience possible, and I take a lot of personal pride in knowing we’re making that happen.
There’s a lot to be excited about in terms of the plant-based category in general. The future of plant-based cheese is really dynamic. It’s an ever-changing pursuit of how to make products more appealing, and there’s a lot of research and development going into the “right” way to do it so consumers have the best possible experience.
I think it’s also pretty universally understood that environmentalism and ecological concerns are a priority, and everyone is figuring out how to take that first step in a way that’s authentic and true. For us, Vevan is that step.
What has surprised you about launching the Vevan brand?
Probably the biggest surprise has been just how passionate a fan base we’ve gained right off the bat. From early consumers and the industry as a whole – dairy and non-dairy – we’ve had overwhelming support.
Consumers seem to really appreciate how our traditional cheese heritage influences the authenticity of Vevan’s flavor and texture.
From the industry perspective, we’ve earned respect as good cheesemakers and I think there’s a level of trust that our products are as authentic as they can be, as compared to brands that aren’t working as hard to replicate traditional cheese.
As someone who regularly eats and enjoys dairy cheese, how does Vevan appeal to you personally?
I consider myself a flexitarian, so it really resonates with me to have a product that I feel comfortable eating when I’m working to incrementally do better for the environment. I also really enjoy cooking, so having a plant-based cheese that functions like dairy cheese is a big deal for me when I’m in the kitchen.
What’s your favorite way to eat Vevan?
Probably my favorite is to use Vevan Ched-Melts in a grilled cheese that reminds me of my childhood and the sandwiches my mom used to make.
More recently, I’ve been finding myself grabbing Vevan Snax over traditional cheese when I’m looking for a quick snack. They have this really fantastic ensemble of flavors, and I can go sweet or add a little heat depending on my mood.
What’s next for Vevan?
Aside from its authenticity, there are two things that I think really set Vevan apart. One is that it just truly tastes good, and that means you can eat it plain. A lot of the alternatives are ok if you want to hide them in a recipe for a quasi-cheesy experience, but you wouldn’t just eat them on their own. That’s part of the reason we’re so excited about Snax.
The second distinction is that we’re genuinely focused on creating great experiences and finding gaps in the market. One example is entertaining. You can find all sorts of dairy products designed for easy entertaining, but virtually none for the plant-based eater. In early 2021, we’ll be answering that problem, so stay tuned.
Also in early 2021, we’re giving consumers even more confidence in making Vevan their dairy-free cheese of choice. We’re updating our packaging so they can easily see that in addition to being dairy-free, lactose-free, vegan, gluten-free and non-GMO (as we’ve always said on our packaging), Vevan will also be preservative-free, kosher and halal certified, and contain probiotics.