Lumi Foods: Diversifying Canada’s vegan cheese selection

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When Karen McAthy began working with vegan cheese as a chef in 2013, she found the available options weren’t satisfactory to her or her customers. This led her to experiment with the development of her own recipes, and eventually the establishment of Blue Heron Creamery, which is now known as Lumi Foods.

“I started looking at dairy methodologies, and that’s when this whole world opened up that I hadn’t really thought about,” McAthy said. “I looked at the Codex Alimentarius on how they define what cheese is, and that’s really where it occurred to me that it’s about some form of coagulating a protein, transitioning something, like an ingredient, from one thing into another. The outcome is the name we give it, but how we get there is the part that matters.”

Utilizing a similar method as dairy processing to develop her plant-based cheese has served McAthy and her growing team well. Demand for Lumi Foods’ cheese outpaced supply within the company’s first year of operation, leading McAthy to pursue additional capital and an expansion of the business. The raise in capital was quickly accomplished after McAthy reconnected with a former business contact: books for their first private placement closed after only 36 hours, and McAthy has established multiple new connections that will help her strengthen her business in the future.

Expansion of Lumi Foods, meanwhile, has occurred over time. The company’s selection of cheeses is now available via an online shop, in Save-On Foods locations across Canada and in two additional Vancouver storefronts—one owned by Lumi Foods and one dedicated to local foods. Demand still outpaces supply, however, and McAthy sees room for the company to grow in a way that benefits everyone on her team.

“We focus on trying to create an environment that’s inclusive, and then trying to create an atmosphere in which we can provide mentorship and leadership opportunities,” she said. “We’re really wanting to create an environment in which it’s about the team, it’s about how the team comes together, it’s about ‘How do we create opportunities within the team for leadership?’ ”

To help achieve this growth, Lumi Foods is striving toward its B-Corp certification. Receiving this certification would signify that the company prioritizes social and environmental performance, transparency, and legal accountability in its work, and requires Lumi Foods to meet specific requirements related to each area.

This isn’t their only ambitious goal, however. McAthy said she and her team are looking forward to tackling upcoming R&D projects and launching products that feature new ingredients, including incorporating Canadian-grown crops such as oats, pulses, lupin and legumes into their cheeses. This is a project undertaken through a Protein Industries Canada co-investment with Save-On Foods and Winecrush Technology, and will help the company to not only meet growing consumer demand for healthy, sustainable plant-based foods, but also to expand into national and North American product distribution.

“We are wanting to build an R&D lab; we’re definitely looking for partnerships in the R&D space,” McAthy said. “We are also really excited about this realm that precision fermentation is offering around the creation of casein and whey proteins via microbial fermentation. We’ve been really seeking to take some of our prototypes that we’ve been working on and find partners to really be able to do that within the Canadian landscape.”

Building these partnerships extends beyond R&D. McAthy and her team envision establishing mentor-mentee relationships within the vegan cheese community, with the larger goal of establishing a Canadian vegan cheese association that will help strengthen the sector.

Throughout her work to achieve those big-picture goals, however, McAthy is determined not to lose sight of what set her on the path to Lumi Foods: the desire to develop a delicious, satisfying vegan cheese that meets the needs of vegan chefs and consumers alike.