MISSOULA — No, it’s not a misspelling. It’s cheeze, not cheese.
Specifically, the label reads: “Plant Perks. Plant-Based Cheeze Spread. Smoother Than Smooth. Creamier Than Moo!”
“The FDA does not allow us to call a cheese product ‘cheese’ unless it’s made from dairy products,” said Plant Perks co-owner Tiffany Perkins. “The dairy industry doesn’t like it. So I call it cheeze.”
Made in the same manner as traditional cheeses, Plant Perks’ cheezes are cashew-based rather than dairy-based, and are growing so popular that the company just opened a new processing facility on Burns Street in Missoula, formerly the site of Missoula Community Food Co-op, next door to Burns Street Bistro.
“I’ve been a vegetarian since 2007,” Perkins said. “I haven’t eaten meat for 12 years. Eight years ago, I decided to go vegan – to also not eat cheese, butter, milk, eggs or anything that comes from animals.”
The most difficult part for her, Perkins said, was giving up cheese. It’s difficult to find non-dairy ‘cheeses’ that taste as good and creamy as dairy cheeses, so she set out to change that.
First, she traveled to Thailand to attend the renowned Matthew Kenney Culinary School, where she graduated as a certified raw-vegan chef, and then completed another certification in holistic culinary nutrition.
“During the 40-day course, we only spent three days on non-dairy cheese,” she said. “But it really piqued my interest.”
She had a knack for it.
“Everyone liked what I was making. Some of the instructors said, ‘If you sold this, I would buy it.’ ”
After her training in Thailand, Perkins studied fermentation and HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) to ensure she was making a safe product. She also hired a scientist to examine her product and provide feedback and recommendations.
“Originally, I wanted to make cheese wheels,” Perkins said. “But cheese wheels require aging, and you need a sterile environment to age them.”
She learned the hard way how challenging that can be.
Perkins rented an old restaurant in Turah and spent a month on her “hands and knees” scrubbing and cleaning the place before getting approval from the health department. She made a hundred or so wheels of cheese and hung them up to age. When she returned, they were covered in black mold.
“I considered quitting that day,” she said. “I had to shut down or find something else to make, so I started making cheeze spreads, because they don’t require aging.”
After more than a year experimenting with various times, temperatures, processes and products, she developed her cheeze spread and started off selling them at the Missoula Farmers Market.
“The response was overwhelming,” she said. “People loved it, and urged me to expand and sell more.”
Simply put, the process entails boiling, soaking and blending cashews to make a smooth, creamy mixture that is then fermented with probiotic cultures for about six hours. After that, various natural, mostly organic ingredients are added.
Plant Perks makes a variety of flavors, including smoked gouda, garlic and herb, chive, dill Havarti, pepper jack, siracha cheddar and smoked provolone. The product is certified non-GMO and Kosher, and is in the process of being certified organic.
Plant Perks is now available at 90 retail markets in eight states (including every grocery store in Missoula). Perkins said she continues to get calls from retailers requesting to carry her product.
“It’s growing like crazy,” she said.
Her brother, Jared Perkins, serves as chief financial officer of Plant Perks. Her fiancé, Matthew Cole, is her finance and business partner.
The business is “inspired by animals, driven by health,” Perkins said. One of their mottos: “Animals are friends, not food.”
“I was born in North Dakota, and moved to Missoula when I was 18,” Perkins said. “My whole family hunts and eats meat. I grew up eating meat and cheese. It’s not that I don’t like meats and cheeses, but when I learned about how animals are treated in slaughter houses, and other environmental and ethical impacts of raising animals for food, I decided, ‘no animal should have to die so I can eat.’”
In the near future, Perkins hopes to further expand by offering cheeze wheels and cheeze dips, with flavors that include French onion and buffalo blue cheeze.
Most feedback is tremendously positive and supportive, Perkins said, but she occasional gets some defensive, if not humorous responses, particularly on social media sites.
“In response to a photo of my cheeze spread, people will sometimes write things like, ‘Put some meat on that!,” Perkins said. “Which is strange. I never look at a photo of meat and say, ‘Put some kale on that!’ ”
-Dave Stalling reporting for the Missoula Current