By Gregory Daurer | Nov 01, 2022
San Leandro, California
Dairy-free cheese and egg alternatives
Nothing pairs with bagels quite like the flavor of cream cheese. However, if someone is allergic to dairy products -- or has qualms about the environmental impact of dairy farming -- that traditional topping option might be a non-starter.
If you happen to be one of those people, Randolph's company has your back -- or better yet, your gut. Spero Foods manufactures non-dairy cream cheese using shelled sunflower seeds along with modest amounts of coconut oil to create a mouthfeel similar to dairy. There's a plain cream cheese version as well as flavored ones including herb, strawberry, and a tasty smoked salmon -- the latter being a NEXTY award winner this year in the category of Best New Dairy or Meat Alternative. There are goat and cheddar cheese spreads, too.
The website for Spero Foods boldly declares its cheese spreads to be “the future of dairy." For Randolph, that means creating “plant-based products at the nexus of affordability and quality." She adds, "We need to remove access barriers to healthy food. And that's exactly Spero's number one vision: create affordable, quality dairy alternatives."
In terms of human health, Randolph points to the "whole host of vitamins and minerals that are just undeniably good for human nutrition" that are inherent in sunflower seeds, as well as the gut-friendly probiotic culturing of each product. And, in terms of planetary health, the company cites how sunflower seeds produce 99 percent less carbon dioxide when compared with cows, require 97 percent less space in terms of land to grow than cashews, and use 96 percent less water than almonds.
When it comes to availability, the products are appearing across ever-wider swaths of the country. For example, Spero Foods products can be found at Central Market in Texas, Gelson's and Erewhon shops in California, and Balducci's stores in Connecticut, Maryland, New York, and Virginia.
“This year has been a big year for us," says Randolph. "We expanded into Fresh Thyme, into The Fresh Market, and into Kroger and Sprouts. So, these are all stores that are launching this year, as well as into university campuses." Indeed, food service -- providing two-pound tubs of sunflower cream cheese as well as one-ounce packaged portions -- is a rapidly expanding revenue stream for the company.
In terms of affordability, Randolph points out how the price of her sunflower cream cheese is comparable to the same-size version sold by at least one major cream cheese brand (think the one with the East Coast city name). In researching all the possibilities, sunflower seeds made the most sense to her, rather than corn, beans, or soy. "I just couldn't believe that no one had done this before," she says about utilizing sunflower seeds. Randolph adds that, "They're cheap. They have lipids and protein," before she pivots to the technological hurdle she had before her. "How do you use them? That's where the science came in."
Science and technology are areas of expertise for Randolph. While a high school student in Colorado, she took college level courses at the Colorado School of Mines. Then she went to Cornell University. "I studied both engineering and science," she says. "My major was in the College of Engineering, but then I was also pre-medicine. So, I studied all of the biological sciences as well." It was during those late-high school, early-college years that she also realized she had health problems related to consuming dairy products. While Randolph found plenty of dairy alternatives, the flavors didn't impress her -- and they cost plenty of cash to purchase.
Today, Spero Foods works out of a 35,000-square-foot manufacturing plant, complete with food lab, in San Leandro, California. She says of her product line of sunflower cheese spreads, "It's made in a very novel way to preserve as much of the nutrition and integrity of the product as possible." There are proprietary processes at work, as well. "We have 21 global patent applications filed covering a variety of method and composition claims for turning seeds into dairy and egg alternatives." That's right. Soon Spero Foods will be releasing an egg substitute made using green pepita seeds.
But back to bagels for a moment. How are those types of shops responding to Randolph's sunflower cream cheeses? Presently, Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen locations in the Bay Area and Los Angeles offer her products as a schmear option. "There are not as many bagel shops out here," she says of the West Coast. "That's why bagel shops [and] cafes in the northeast are so exciting for us, because of the high density of them." So much so that Spero Foods is opening a distribution center in the Northeast. Randolph adds, "We've done really well in Black Seed and Zucker's -- they're incredible partners -- and those are in New York City. And it's the perfect groundwork to launch into more locations, and really build that narrative, and build that trust with consumers."
All in all, there's a lot to be hopeful about for Randolph -- who was recognized, just this year, by Forbes within its "30 Under 30" list. In fact, Randolph highlights how the word "Spero" comes from the Latin word for "hope."
“I wanted the name 'Spero' to denote everything we're trying to do -- which is create a better world and a better future," says Randolph. “And I think that if you don't have hope, then nothing really drives you to do that."
Challenges: Reaching new consumers across different regions and markets. “How do we ensure we're always appealing to a wide array of people in a wide array of places -- on social media and our website, and [with] our branding and our marketing?" Randolph muses.
Opportunities: Randolph says the opportunity is, "To be a leading, trusted brand in dairy alternatives that people look for in their conventional grocery stores and buy for their families across a variety of cheese products and egg products and other dairy products."
Needs: "Right now, we're scaling,” says Randolph, who hopes to be operating soon out of a space nearly three times as large as her present facility. “We're building out our manufacturing plant and investing into that. So, investing into building out the automation and continuing to support marketing in new sectors is the biggest need and focus right now."