MNFG partner AVS Organic Foods is taking advantage of a shift in public perception to bring their range of plant-based foods to the general public.
Melissa Murphy-Webster is the proud director, chief cheese maker, accountant, marketer and founder of plant-based food manufacturer AVS Organic Foods. Located in Watsonia North, within Melbourne’s thriving food manufacturing region, Melissa has innovated and experimented with plant-based food for over five years. Her delicious product range has a strong focus on cheese but also includes roasts, sausage rolls and creams.
Plant-based diets are increasing in popularity as people become more mindful of the environment, personal health and animal welfare. Around 11 per cent of Australians are eating meat free, which has contributed to a prediction that the packaged vegan food market could be worth $215 million by 2020. The vegan stigma is shifting due to improved communication strategies and consumers are warming to the products, now realising that plant-based goods can be delicious.
Six years ago Melissa went vegan but struggled with the lack of product variety, especially cheese. This was particularly hard for someone who loves a good cheese platter accompanied by wine. To fill the void, Melissa and her husband played with flavours and textures that could be developed into cheeses and shared with friends. Overwhelming approval from friends led to AVS Organic’s inception.
“When I went vegan there were only a few plant-based cheese options on the market and they were pretty average. My husband and I love cheese and wine platters, so it was a difficult time for us,” Melissa says with amusement. “We started experimenting and sharing our creations with friends. They really enjoyed them and agreed they were very similar to the real thing.”
It was challenging entering an industry with a struggling public perception. Consumers’ negative opinion of the word ‘vegan’ was Melissa’s first obstacle. People were alienated by the vegan ideology and she found a bias against even sampling plant-based products.
“My business actually used to be called A Vegan Smiles, but we found that people refused to buy products that had ‘vegan’ in the brand name when they weren’t vegan. They assumed the product wasn’t for them. It was a hurdle helping people realise that our products are for everyone, not just vegans.”
An exciting aspect of operating a business that creates food in an underdeveloped industry is product development. Experimenting with plant-based products with the ambition to create a dairy-based flavour and texture is challenging but rewarding when done right. Using nuts, soy and an array of herbs and spices, Melissa has developed a range of cheeses that melt, sprinkle, spread and crumb.
“The Munster was designed to go on platters, but then we found it melts really well. It’s been great for commercial food services and I love it in toasties.”
While cheeses like the Munster shaped itself into a viable product reasonably easily, there were others that took more time and tweaking to get right.
“The halloumi has been the biggest challenge; it took a year and a half to get right. We continuously tried and tested many different ingredients such as soy and nuts, but just couldn’t get the mix right. Our rescue chickens wouldn’t even eat it,” Melissa says with a smirk. “Luckily, some food tech friends helped us cross the line to get it finished.”
While there’s much talk on how to change the negative opinions, Melissa is taking a practical approach by allowing her products to do the talking. Reminiscing on her own plant-based journey, the lifestyle change has exposed her to a whole new world of foods and flavours.
“When people taste plant-based products now, it will change their perception. People assume that we only eat lettuce and bread, but that’s not true. When I went plant-based, the range of food I started eating expanded so much, and that’s because I was pushed to look further. The challenge is getting people to try the products and when they do, their perceptions shift”.
Melissa is now seeing eating habits change due to increased media exposure. People have become more aware of the effects livestock has on the environment, and new science is highlighting Australia’s need to reduce our meat intake for health reasons. Melissa is excited about the prospect of sweeping change.
“The food industry has changed so much, it’s great to see people now embracing plant based diets. Five years ago, people at markets and festivals where I was displaying had never heard of plant-based cheese, but it’s unusual to come across someone today that has never heard of it. It’s more front of mind now. People are conscious about their diets, about animals and the environment,” Melissa explained.
Melissa is finding that communication strategies from the industry are changing for the good of the sector. Forceful vegans have tainted the terminology and left the industry searching for a more approachable angle with alternate phrases.
“There’s an observation of vegans that we’re forceful and opinionated. You want to give people the information but you don’t want to make people feel like they’re being forced to eat your product. You need to learn a more open communication approach and not be ‘that vegan’.”
For plant-based businesses, marketing has become easier as consumers demand more of their food.
“Businesses are promoting themselves now as plant-based rather than vegan. It depends on where you’re targeting your products. Most of our customers have a mix of allergies, including soy, dairy and gluten intolerances. Now at AVS, we sell more to customers with these dietary restrictions,” Melissa explains.
Support and advice through Melissa’s local councils have helped AVS along their journey. Economic development departments have been significant in building her network and exposing her to opportunities. One such opportunity was Melissa’s introduction to Melbourne’s North Food Group.
“It’s important that you find out if your local council has an economic development department. They’re amazing and they’ll help grow your business through networks and by teaching you skills. That’s how I was introduced to the Melbourne’s North Food Group,” Melissa emphasised.
Melissa highlights how partnering with MNFG has connected her to a large group of like-minded food manufacturers she can collaborate with.
“We’ve become a partner with MNFG along with many other foodies and service providers. This allows us to collaborate and ask advice. I’m in the process of moving premises, so I’ve even got a list of industrial plumbers and electricians from within the group that can help me.”
With help from MNFG, Melissa hopes to expand her opportunities and become competitive against dairy-based products in flavour and price.
“Where I see my business in five years is finding a partnership and broadening my horizons,” Melissa says with excitement. “I’m planning to do more work in the food service area and I’m eager to progress our products to meet or even beat dairy products in price.”