In 2010, Lynda Turner decided to transition from a vegetarian to a vegan diet. Only problem was, she particularly missed cheese.
As a result, Turner began experimenting with plant-based meals in her kitchen and it wasn't long before she turned her focus to cheese substitutes. As an ecotoxicologist at Health Canada for almost 20 years, Turner knew how plant-based eating could drastically reduce climate change.
Her strong beliefs prompted her to leave her government job to prove that eating plant-based food could be both simple and satisfying. By 2013, her part-time experiments making cashew cheese had blossomed into her own company, Fauxmagerie Zengarry, a name that recognizes not only her zen outlook on life but also her home in Alexandria in the township of North Glengarry.
Cashews are rich in nutrients and high in heart-healthy fats. Turner’s recipe was to soak them in water and whip them into a rich and creamy texture to which she added all-natural ingredients, fresh herbs and custom probiotics before aging them to perfection.
In 2016, the company moved into its first commercial kitchen, opened a vegan cheese shop in Alexandria, and started growing herbs in-house on “living walls.” A year later, a new brand identity was introduced, emphasizing eco-friendly packaging and responsibly sourced ingredients. That same year, the company’s product was voted one of the top 10 most innovative at the Grocery Innovation Canada show. In 2018, Turner was selected as one of the “8 Women Changing the World for Animals Through Food” by the Unbound Project. By 2019, the company had moved into a new commercial building that tripled the size of the previous facility.
Then, in 2020, the pandemic pulled the rug out from under Turner’s feet.
“One of the biggest challenges was that we weren’t able to offer samples anymore and do the trade shows,” she recalls. This was a problem since sampling was key to Zengarry’s marketing in the crowded world of vegan cheeses where not all products are created equal, she explains.
Needing a fast solution, Turner decided to launch an online store, something she hadn’t focused on before. Here she ran into the next big challenge: how to ship a perishable product in a way that meshed with her eco-philosophy.
“It’s a bit of a hassle with a product that needs refrigeration to be shipping and overnight shipping can be expensive and not everyone is willing to absorb that cost,” says Turner. She also didn’t want to use styrofoam shipping containers, eventually finding recyclable cardboard insulated packaging. Today, her shipping is limited to Ontario and Quebec because of the prohibitive cost of overnight shipping across the country.
Over the past two years, Turner has become more comfortable in the online marketplace, even reaching out to online influencers.
“We send them product, educate them on it and are developing this team of Zen-bassadors and working with them to create content that we can also use on our other platforms,” says Turner. “Also, paid influencer advertisers is something that’s really taking the forefront in the social media marketing space right now.”
Almost 10 years after its founding, Zengarry now occupies a 5,000-square-foot manufacturing plant in Alexandria where Turner and her team process cashews into cheese. Looking to the next evolution of her business, Turner is seeking other companies in need of a manufacturing facility.
“We are looking to bring some other brands and do manufacturing in our facility … We would just do the manufacturing, then they would package as they have been packaging and then ship it out as their own product – it’s called co-packaging,” says Turner.
While there have been some twists and turns for Turner, it seems certain that she has found a lucrative and growing niche market. Figures for the global vegan food market put the overall value somewhere between US$17 billion and US$24.3 billion in 2020. Almost all the available research suggests that the market is growing fast.
A 2018 study out of Dalhousie University shows that 63 per cent of vegans in Canada are educated and under the age of 38. They make up more than 10 per cent of the Canadian population — an estimated 6.4 million Canadians.
Certainly, vegan options are now available in most mainstream grocery chains and no longer relegated to health food stores.
“That was one thing that motivated me a lot,” says Turner. “I felt like if plant-based food was more readily available, then more people would make that choice, not just because it’s better for the animals, it’s better for your health, it’s better for the planet and you know there’s so many reasons why.”
But it seems Turner has not left her bureaucratic days completely in the past. The whole vegan food marketplace is shaking up the food industry and raising questions about what to call plant-based food substitutes.
“It's an ongoing topic,” Turner admits. “The dairy industry has claimed the words cheese, milk and butter and they don’t want plant-based companies using those product names. So (the dairy industry is) poking the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to challenge these companies on using those words.”
The issue first came onto Turner’s radar in 2015.
“At that time, the CFIA allowed us to use the words ‘100 per cent dairy free cashew cheese’, in that order. So we could use that or move away from using the word cheese, because who knows what they’re going to decide next month or next year and changing our packaging is not a small investment,” says Turner, who has rebranded twice, at a cost of about $10,000 each time.
“The Government of Canada is aware of changes in the marketplace and recognizes the importance of clear guidance on how to label, sell, advertise and package these foods in a manner that is truthful,” the CFIA explains.
The CFIA says it has completed a public consultation to get feedback on proposed guidelines for simulated meat and poultry products and has received requests for clarification for plant-based dairy and egg alternatives.
“These comments have informed our plan for a next round of consultation that is scheduled for fall/winter 2022,” the agency says.