CEO and Founder at Miyoko’s, USA
How far would you travel for a good (plant-based) cheese? Turns out, some of us will go a great length. “Before I went vegan, I was obsessed with cheese, especially fine cheese. I travelled through Europe at the age of 20, tasting every cheese possible,” the award-winning vegan celebrity chef Miyoko Schinner shares of her origin story. “For me, the meaning of the good life was having enough money that I could enjoy a nice bottle of wine, a good baguette, and a fine selection of cheeses…I didn’t ask for much!” Her passion for fine food ignited during the 1980’s, when rich and flavorful French cuisine and gourmet cheeses were a huge trend in her home city of Tokyo.
Giving up cheese when she went vegan in her mid-twenties (and in the 1980s, still!) was one of the hardest things she’d ever done. “In contrast, however, becoming a vegetarian at the age of twelve and giving up meat was one of the easiest things – one day, after making the connection between pork chops and a pig, meat ceased to be food to me. I simply never looked back, no matter if juvenile boys tried to taunt me by shoving hamburgers in my face.”
She then boldly set out to create plant-based cuisine as artistic and decadent as the finest French foods she fell in love with, founded several vegan businesses, and wrote books. “For decades, however, creating great vegan cheese eluded me. Finally, nearing my fifties, I decided that I needed to do something about it and began to study dairy cheese making while thinking about how I could apply that to plant milks. This culminated in the writing of my book, Artisan Vegan Cheese, and eventually, the business.” The book kicked off the start of the vegan cheese revolution, but for Miyoko, the process was anything but straightforward – or easy:
“I was already in my mid-fifties when I wrote Artisan Vegan Cheese, and despite everyone asking me to “just make the cheese and sell it,” I truly believed that I didn’t have what it took.”
Inspirations, go-to’s and lifehacks:
- Pandemic lifehack that helped you survive 2021: Honestly, starting Miyoko’s Home Comforts. It helped me connect with people around the world and literally helped save me, as well as others (or so they say).
- A person that inspires you: Gene Baur. Smart, level-headed, calm, compassionate to the core, and is effective as an activist because he meets everyone where they are.
- Last series/movie that kept you awake: I’m watching the Spanish series, Money Heist, with my daughters, and I honestly have to do something else after an episode (read a book, study Italian) so I can get my heartbeat down enough to go to sleep. Not sure I even like it, but it’s riveting!
- Favorite book / A book everyone should read: The Idiot by Dostoevsky.
- App you find most valuable: Can’t say; I use apps because I have to. That’s the way of the world now. I’m just not a fan of screen time. I’m terrible on social media because for me, it’s a job. What I find most relaxing is a day away from the screen out in nature.
- Favorite food / favorite vegan treat: Roasted Japanese sweet potatoes. I have early childhood memories of these, and they never disappoint to this day.
“After many decades of starting food businesses that hadn’t really succeeded, I had decided that I lacked the golden touch and had no business being in business. I wasn’t getting younger, and I was frustrated with myself that I had never achieved my own personal dreams of having an impactful food company – and now, in the second half of my life, I was headed downhill. It was now or never, my last hurrah. I finally decided to go for it, but to start small – to crawl before I walked or ran – so I wouldn’t lose anyone’s money. The funny thing is that my friends as well as external investors believed in me more than I did.”
My first year in business, I leased a 4,000-square-foot former grocery store and built it into a small cheese factory. Our 600 square feet ageing room was perhaps the largest vegan cheese cave in the world at the time. Our “warehouse” consisted of 4 refrigerated shipping containers in the parking lot. At the time, it all seemed so large.
The day the city blessed our permit – no, the minute we got the permit – we marched into the facility and started milling cashews. Within a month, we realized that four employees weren’t enough. We quickly hired more people, but it didn’t seem to alleviate the workload as the orders continued to pile in. We worked long hours. My left eye twitched both from stress and lack of sleep. I knew we needed to automate, but how?
“There was no play book, as we were writing it.”
By the second year, we knew we had to move. Our goal was to get to $10MM in our facility in year three, but we couldn’t make any more than $6MM without some automation, for which we had no room. We raised more money, found a larger location, and built a new facility. Today, what we call home is a 50,000 square foot facility consisting of production, warehouse, office, and R&D. We have over 200 employees and are sold in 30,000 stores, primarily in the US and Canada.
This outspoken animal rights advocate, chef, one of 2021’s Forbes 50 over 50, and all-around plant-based powerhouse also runs Rancho Compasión, a farmed animal sanctuary that rescues neglected farm animals. What is she striving to change in the food industry? “First, to change people’s perceptions toward animals so they no longer look at them as food. Secondly, to create a more decentralized food system founded on justice, equality, and opportunity for all – small businesses, small stakeholder farmers, urban gardeners, and mom and pop operations.”
Miyoko is one of the Food Heroes for 2022. See more inspiring and world-changing stories from Food Heroes here.