By Gregory Daurer | Feb 22, 2023
Schnibbe developed her plant-based parmesan cheese-like product as a way to add zesty flavor to foods -- the foods, that is, that she was actually able to eat.
Schnibbe says, "I've always had allergies -- like the worst of anybody I know." Those have included food and dairy allergies as well as environmental allergies. "I couldn't even go in a department store," she says of the chemical smells hovering in the air. "I'd immediately turn red."
By the end of the 1990s, she had switched to a raw vegan diet. And she experimented in the kitchen with nutritional yeast -- which she notes has a "cheesy umami flavor." Today, nutritional yeast -- plus sunflower seeds, walnuts, Himalayan crystal salt, and hemp seed hearts -- go into Parma!, Sister River Foods’ plant-based parmesan-like product. Schnibbe says about the additional ingredients, "I added the nuts and seeds because it adds a little bit of richness to it with their oils." While Parma! smells a bit nuttier than it does cheesy, there is a similar parmesan-like flavor to Schnibbe's concoction. The label suggests shaking it out over "popcorn, salads, greens, pasta, pizza, and most savory foods."
Other flavors that build upon the original Parma! recipe include Chipotle Cayenne, Garlicky Green, and Better Than Bacon -- which incorporates smoked paprika, hickory smoke salt, and hickory smoke flavor in order to match some of the aroma and flavor qualities of bacon. Keeping in mind other types of food allergies aside from just dairy, two newer products, Garlic Basil and Jalapeno Bacon, leave out nuts entirely while adding organic pumpkin seeds instead.
Sister River Foods' Parma! can be found in about 500 retail outlets. Whole Foods carries the brand in the Midwest, the South, Southern California, and Hawaii. Additional stores include Jimbo's and Gelson's Markets in California, plus Wegman's in the Mid-Atlantic region. Schnibbe says, "2020 was our biggest year ever. Super big. We were so busy. Since then, it's kind of gone back to 2019 levels. Up till then we've grown a little bit every year." In addition to domestically, the products can be found in Canada, too.
At a rented facility in Medford, Oregon, Schnibbe mixes the Parma! ingredients together in dedicated Cuisinart food processors -- so there are separate ones for the recipes that include nuts as well as the blends without. She says about the recipes, "We don't have to cook it. We don't have to add liquid to it. There's no refrigeration necessary. We basically grind it up and put it in bottles."
It may be simple enough to prepare, but Schnibbe labels the resulting Parma! mixes a superfood. She says, "You're getting quality nutrients out of what you're eating. We're using raw nuts and seeds, which have all the goodness and all the essential Omega-3s. And nutritional yeast is complete protein. It's also rich in B vitamins."
Schnibbe arrived at entrepreneurship after first working as a stock analyst and a software sales executive. But she long admired her grandfather in Oklahoma, an entrepreneur himself who owned camera stores. When Schnibbe was pregnant with her first child, she started Sister River Foods. "I decided I wanted to do something where I'd have more control over my own schedule, work for myself, basically," she says, "and so I decided to start bottling my cheese. People liked it that I gave it to, and it just seemed like a good idea."
Furthermore, her health has improved dramatically since switching her diet. Schnibbe can certainly go into natural food stores now and see Parma! on the shelves there.
Schnibbe says, "The plant-based market is growing. And people are more and more aware of the implications of animal agriculture and the reality of our situation -- which is, changes are happening fast, and we need to adjust ourselves. I feel like Parma! has so much potential in that way."
Challenges: "Right now, it's keeping up with all our costs," says Schnibbe. "Beginning last year, it just seemed like everything we purchase and use has gone up big time. Sourcing has been a big challenge. Getting good employees, that's been a challenge."
Opportunities: "I'm hoping to just expand the stores we're in and eventually grow the product line," says Schnibbe.
Needs: "Capital," says Schnibbe, "and a great salesperson who loves vegan food."