The number of Black people who self-identify as vegetarian or vegan has slowly risen over the past 20 years. And if you ask someone about their journey from that time, they’ll often tell you how limited the options were, especially when it came to alternatives for recreating some of their favorite meals into plant-based options.
Now thankfully, there are plenty of options for anyone who chooses to enter their vegan journey, or simply wants to eliminate dairy from their diet altogether. That’s because of brands such as Misha’s Kind Foods. The brand, which began operating in 2018 was founded by Chef Ian Martin and Aaron Bullock and is committed to providing plant-based dairy alternatives. And believe us when we say, it is good.
Misha’s carries eight different kinds of cheese, including Black Truffle, Smoked Cheddar, Sari, French Connection, Joi, Lox, Seven Point Five, and Ricotta. The non-dairy cheeses are made from organic cashew and almond milk, and are blended with fresh herbs, vegetables, and spices to provide a fine taste that non-dairy consumers enjoy.
Misha’s mission is to “serve all people by cultivating and producing the most delicious, health-conscious dairy alternative foods across the globe.” And now they’re able to expand in their mission thanks to the help of JAY-Z’s Marcy Venture Partners, along with NBA star Chris Paul and other investors, who recently participated in a $3 million seed round for Misha’s Kind Foods.
In an interview with ESSENCE co-founder and CEO Aaron Bullock discusses how he began his career in the business side of music promotions, film & TV production before founding Misha’s with Ian, the inspiration for the dairy alternative brand, and how Misha’s is keeping their values rooted in community first.
What inspired you to launch Misha’s Plant Based Cheese?
Ian and I have been friends for over 15 years, a friendship that started from our careers in the music industry. I started out in the business side of music promotions working in A&R for Motown, film & TV production before becoming a licensed Traditional Naturopath where I really started to hone in on my interest and obsession with living a healthy lifestyle. Ian is an accomplished bass player and has performed alongside artists like Barbara Streisand, Naughty by Nature, Barry Manilow, Patti Austin and more before he decided to train as a raw vegan living foods chef alongside Matthew Kenney. Ian spent about six years perfecting his version of a vegan cheese. One day, as a hesitant non-vegan but supportive friend, I tried it out and was amazed at how much it tasted just like dairy cheese. I truly couldn’t tell the difference. At that point, we both knew Ian had created something special. We also both share a desire to make healthy foods accessible to all communities, and I wanted to support my friend because I so firmly believed in what he created, so we decided to partner together to officially launch Misha’s in 2015.
How difficult has it been to develop quality plant-based cheeses?
There is a real art to creating vegan cheese that actually tastes delicious and doesn’t include a bunch of additives, which is why the process took a long time, about six years. Ian wanted to make a plant-based cheese that was diverse in flavors and palates but still tasted like cheese. Many plant based cheeses include ingredients that are not actually healthy for the body like vegetable oil, soy, fillers, starches or nutritional yeast so Ian wanted to make sure none of that was included in his product. Instead, our cheeses are made the same way all cheeses are made, just without an animal source. Misha’s uses a cashew and almond milk base blended with various locally sourced fresh herbs, veggies and spices.
Where have the challenges been?
We have had more grace than challenges to be honest. But we have experienced challenges mostly in supply, staffing and learning on the fly to scale up during COVID. One of the best things to come out of these challenges is the opportunity to see our team really shine and flex in some of the most amazing ways, rising to meet every single challenge that has been thrown our way.
In the United States, approximately three fourths of African-Americans have the potential for symptoms of lactose intolerance because of lactose digestion. What is it that you want the Black community to know about Misha’s and steering away from dairy products?
As a company, we pride ourselves on being an inclusive business. Our cheeses aren’t just for vegans, but for the culinary curious, early adopters, plant-based fanatics and the health-conscious. However we do know that the Black community faces lactose digestion problems more often than other communities. So, if you have to go dairy free, it is important to know what you are putting into your body and making sure you are consuming a healthy alternative. Misha’s products are lactose free, gluten free, paleo + keto friendly, kosher pareve and 100% vegan. We have a clean ingredient label and don’t see ourselves as an alternative to dairy but rather an “and/also.” We serve a large community of dairy-free people around the world who love and miss cheese. They include vegans, people who are lactose intolerant, people who cannot have dairy for religious reasons, and people who simply don’t want to consume dairy but still love it.
How has your collective background in the music industry helped you to tackle the $7 billion plant-based industry?
It has helped us in every possible way. Having had careers in the music industry the different aspects of the industry apply— radio and retail, promotions and A&R. In radio and retail the goal is to get people to put your product in the prime position on the shelf, get them to play your records— in short get them to give your product a shot. Promotions is marketing and that game is about figuring out how to communicate to consumers that what you’re offering is the best thing in the world. And A&R is purely product development. Finding the best ingredients to make the very best product. The music industry was a great foundation and taught us everything we need to know to be in this space.
Why is the company’s value rooted in community? What are you doing to give back to local communities?
We have our own non-profit entitled Misha’s Kindness Inc which is a Non-Profit 501 (c) (3) organization created to plan and execute social impact programs within the community for underserved youth on behalf of Misha’s. Misha’s Kindness is committed to creating a world where every person on the planet has access to Plant Based Foods, a Sustainable Environment, and Educational resources to help advance their community. The non-profit is rooted in giving back to the community with programs like “Feed Our Family” which partners with organizations to identify families in need and then provide them with a supply of farm to table health conscious groceries for 52 weeks in the year. In May of 2020, Misha’s “Feed Our Family”, partnered with Communities in Schools LA and Hannah’s Children Homes to feed roughly 1,000 at-risk youth, Foster Children, and their Families from underserved communities in the Southern California Area. We also partnered with Cedars Sinai and Amped Kitchens to launch an ongoing Blood Drive Partnership through December 2021 as Blood reserves are at record lows down a staggering 30% as a result of COVID 19 pandemic.