Taking Vegan Cheese from Tolerable to Terrific, Kite Hill Takes $18 Million Investment

Carol Ortenberg

Kite Hill, which produces plant-based alternatives to dairy products, closed an $18 million investment today led by General Mills’ venture arm, 301 Inc, and CAVU Ventures, a partnership between Clayton Christopher, Rohan Oza and Brett Thomas.

Kholsa Ventures, which led Kite Hill’s first round, also contributed to the round.

The brand, which is only three years old, produces yogurt, cream cheese, aged cheeses and cheese-filled ravioli, all made with almond milk.The brand went into test in 2013, expanded nationally in 2014 and then added yogurt, cream cheese and ravioli to its portfolio in 2015. While vegan cheese may seem like a leap for a venerable CPG conglomerate like General Mills, Kite Hill a triple threat, capitalizing on rising consumer desire for plant-based foods, protein rich options and products made with healthy fats.

Part of the goal in partnering with a strategic such as General Mills, says Matthew Sade, CEO at Kite Hill, is to help the brand expand into more channels.

“We’ve gotten enough feedback,” said Sade to NOSH. “There’s been obvious opportunity now to expand distribution and bring these products to a broader audience. To do that we need to both scale the organization, scale manufacturing and invest in building our brand.”Currently the entire line of products is sold at natural products retailer Whole Foods, with much of the line sold in of the specialty department rather than traditional dairy department. While other retailers were added starting in March, Sade recognizes that retail presence has to increase in order for the company to grow.

“The company was founded to have a profound impact on the landscape of the food industry, and it’s not going to do that by selling $10 pieces of cheese exclusively in speciality retailers,” Sade said. “If we are going to be successful in our mission, we need to be able to put our product where people buy it.”

After years of science and research into the process,Kite Hill has developed several patents around its process for turning almonds into products that closely mimic the taste and texture of dairy products.According to Sade it’s the first time an enzyme has been added to “milk” from a plant to turn it into a curd.

“As simple as that sounds, that was something that had never before been done successfully, and as far as we know, has not been done since,” said Sade. After the enzyme exposure, the company uses traditional cheese making equipment and processes.

“You’ve got the best of both worlds,” said Christopher to NOSH. “The science and the technology. And you can’t have one without the other.”

The co-founding team includes Dr. Patrick Brown (a Stanford biochemistry professor), Monte Casino (a former chef and culinary instructor) and Tal Ronnen (executive chef of LA’s Crossroads restaurant and author of the New York Times bestseller The Conscious Cook). Brown is also a founder at fellow Silicon Valley food tech darling Impossible Foods, which is creating plant-based meats.

The team believes that this is just the start of what Kite Hill can do. Virtually anything that involves cheese (or potentially dairy) is on the table for the group. Sade says the brand has exciting plans for the future, and has experimented with dishes such as lasagna. “There’s plenty of people who can make plant-based entrees, but only one who can make them with cheese made by Kite Hill,” noted Sade.

301 Inc, sees nothing but growth for the young brand. “It’s very clear on a number of dimensions that the non-dairy, or plant based dairy, category is continuing to grow,” said Haugen.

Both 301 and CAVU both also recently invested in Good Culture, a better-for-you cottage cheese brand for the millennial set.

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