Blooming market for plant-based cheeses: Nafsika’s Garden looks to cash in on UAE home-cooking and vegan trends
Nafsika’s Garden is registered in Canada, but all its products are in fact made in Greece on the island of Crete. Established about two years back, the firm started its international expansion efforts in earnest last year and has since expanded to the United States, Spain, France, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, and most recently the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
“Dubai is a great place to launch plant-based cheeses as there are many consumers who are already vegan, or looking to go vegan, so we wanted to hit the market early on to be ahead of the curve,” Nafsika’s Garden President Nafsika Antypas told FoodNavigator-Asia.
“It’s a huge market with a lot of potential as there is a big shift in consumer awareness of sustainability - and vegan cheeses are still considered pretty rare as of now. The market is growing though, and getting the word out is important to us.”
Antypas added that the current home cooking trend in the region has also benefitted the brand, particularly its grated cheese products, due to the added ‘Instagrammability’ of plant-based cheeses.
“Instagram is everything these days, people all want to share what they’re making or cooking and in the past few weeks since we launched in Dubai, the grated cheese have been really popular with those cooking at home and DIY-ing their own food,” said Antypas.
“Plant-based foods are definitely very instagrammable and taggable, and are also a way for people to try new things, as many of them want to be experimental and creative with their cooking.
“The pandemic has certainly accelerated the whole home-cooking and DIY trends, and yes restaurants are slowly making a comeback but this trend has become [ingratiated] in the lives of many people as it is.”
Nafsika’s Garden has over 20 different cheese flavours (e.g. mozzarella, feta, cheddar etc.) made into even more formats (e.g. blocks, slices, shredded, grated etc.), and apart from grated cheeses, one of the most popular SKUs in existing markets is poutine cheese (a Canadian dish where cheese is melted on french fries and topped with brown gravy).
“Our plant-based cheeses are very versatile in this sense – they can melt and stretch and pull, and the poutine cheese is something that no one else currently has,” said Antypas.
“The top seller [in existing markets] is mozzarella shreds and we also have pizza shreds made specially for pizza and baking, which really showcase this quality.”
Other top sellers include feta, cheddar slices, smoked gouda, parmesan shreds, cream cheeses and artisanal flavours for various cheese types such as peppercorn, chives, herbs and so on. Slices, for example, are available in 200g packs for around US$5.29 in supermarkets and online.
The pros of a vegan cheese
Nafsika’s Garden cheeses are based on coconut oil, and Antypas told us that all products are allergen-free as there is no dairy, nuts, peas, gluten, or soy used, and no palm oil either.
“We also do not use garlic, onion or lentils except for flavours that specify the inclusion of these – this is to ensure all consumers, vegan and vegetarian, can enjoy these,” she said.
“The focus is also on not using any GMO and not using many ingredients, so we have a cleaner label as compared with others.”
The secret to the brand’s quick growth is also to look to the mainstream, she said – for example, Nafsika’s Garden cheeses are not located in the plant-based sections of stores, but alongside regular cheeses.
“We need to reach mainstream markets in mainstream stores for plant-based cheese to go mainstream, so I have always insisted to locate our products next to regular cheeses and not in any specific vegetarian section,” said Antypas.
“Our aim here is to go mainstream and so we are not targeting vegans this way, but we want to reach the masses.”
Antypas also hosts what is deemed ‘the world’s first vegan lifestyle series on mainstream television’ dubbed Plant-based by Nafsika, which discusses the plant-based lifestyle, foods and other products. The show ran for three seasons from 2016 to 2019 on the United States’ FYI/A&E television network before COVID-19 forced a break.
Moving forward, the brand will also be launching in Sweden, Switzerland, Chile and the UK, and Antypas said a closer look is being taken at APAC markets.
“We’ve already received a lot of requests from Hong Kong, Taiwan and so on and I’d love to expand the line in Asia, including both of these as well as China and India,” she said.
“India especially could be our next target when we go to Asia – it’s a huge market and there are a lot of vegetarians so this plant-based cheese likely won’t be a hard sell.”