Lori Sroujian is the owner of VEGCHEESE, a successful line of dairy-free, nut-free and gluten-free artisanal cheeses. We were lucky enough to chat with Lori about her journey from corporate employee to small business owner.
From marketer to plant-based cheese entrepreneur
Lori Sroujian started 2018 as a marketing executive in pharmaceuticals and closed out the year as full-time owner of a plant-based cheese business. The inspiration for her professional change was personal. Lori’s father suffered a stroke, leading her family to embark on a lifestyle change to plant-based eating.
Today, Lori’s father has made a full recovery and heads up production and much of operations at VEGCHEESE. As Lori says, “we turned a really heavy situation into the best possible situation.” But there were a few steps in between…
When Lori’s family made the move to plant-based eating, they found plenty of delicious alternatives to satisfy their cravings. With one exception: cheese.
From cheese platters to pizza, cheese was a key player in many of the dishes that Lori’s family wanted to continue enjoying. But the plant-based cheeses on the market at the time, many of which were made from cashews, had one little problem – they didn’t remind them of cheese.
“My family is from Lebanon, we’re Armenian, and we eat a lot of hummus at home. We were saying, ‘these cashew-based cheeses are amazing, but they don’t remind us of cheese, they remind us of hummus. They’re more like a dip.’ So I thought, ‘I need to figure this out.’ I started experimenting in my condo kitchen and became really obsessive about it.”
Lori kept researching ingredients and creating batch after batch of cheese. Her goal was to perfect a recipe that would allow her whole family to indulge. That meant no additives, no colourings, no preservatives, and no nuts, so that her nephew could safely bring the cheese to school.
After plenty of trial and error, Lori landed on her base mozzarella recipe. At first, she just shared it with colleagues, friends and family. But they all had one question: “where can I buy this?” And so VEGCHEESE was born.
From festivals to Whole Foods
Lori had been working in digital marketing for over ten years, so she had one major question at the outset: how do you launch a food business?
She did hours of research, asked plenty of questions, and rented a shared commercial kitchen to keep perfecting her recipes – all while working full-time.
Six months later, Lori had her first big break when she booked a spot at the first Mississauga Veg Fest. This is where her marketing background came in handy: she created preliminary packaging and set up a basic website and social media channels.
Lori’s goal at Mississauga Veg Fest was to show up with a viable product and get a sense of what consumers had to say.
“We brought over 200 cheeses to the festival, and we ended up selling out. I came home that night and said, ‘okay, I have a plant-based cheese business. Now it’s time to figure out how this side hustle is going to work.’ Four years later it’s a fully operating business. We’ve built a full-on facility. The whole family is working full-time. We’re at Whole Foods. We work with Scotiabank Arena. The business is growing, and we hope to expand it further this year and for years and years to come.”
The e-commerce challenge
The growth phase wasn’t all smooth sailing, especially with the outbreak of COVID-19 less than two years after VEGCHEESE launched.
“Pre-COVID, we did pretty much all the vegan food festivals – the Toronto one, the Waterloo one, the Guelph one. But then COVID hit and we’re thinking, ‘what do we do? Most of our revenue and our growth are coming from these events.’ We were in stores too, but not as many as we’re in today. So, we really needed to pivot.”
For VEGCHEESE, pivoting meant selling their products online. But just imagine the logistics of shipping products that need to stay refrigerated! Fortunately, Lori and her team were up for the challenge.
“Because of my digital marketing background, I always wanted to bring the business into e-commerce. But we are dealing with perishable products. So it’s a hefty investment and a huge level of complexity. But the mentality ‘evolve or die’ is always ingrained in our business. We could throw up our hands and say, ‘Okay, I’m not going to deal with this anymore. I’m going to quit.’ Or we could figure out a way to solve the problem. Running a small business is just constantly solving challenges, but that’s sort of why we’re in it. We thrive in that environment.”
Once VEGCHEESE launched its Shopify store, Lori’s resilience and adaptability quickly took the business to the next level.
“People were at home, they weren’t going grocery shopping, and they wanted a product shipped to their door. We started getting orders from all over Canada. So e-commerce became another pivotal stage of our growth.”
Risking it all
Despite the upheaval of the pandemic, Lori says her biggest challenge was growing VEGCHEESE with her own personal funds, especially after leaving the security of the corporate world.
“It’s been a self-funded business from the get-go, so it’s meant investing my life savings, believing in it so much and risking it all to build and grow this company.”
Lori isn’t alone – over 70% of Canadian small and medium-sized business owners are putting their personal finances at risk to fund their business, often because of how difficult it is for Canadian small businesses to access corporate credit.
Something out of nothing
In Lori’s case, the risk was worth it. Four years after experimenting with mozzarella recipes in her condo kitchen, Lori says she’s most proud of creating something out of nothing – especially something that is accessible to Canadians and helping people, animals and the environment.
“I’m proud of having an idea and bringing it to life with a strong vision, passion and execution. And we have a great team, too – it’s a family business. When I go to Whole Foods and see my product in the fridge, I need to pinch myself. It’s sort of surreal. It really is. And I need to do a better job of stepping back and appreciating it versus thinking ‘What’s next?’”
The pie needs to grow
After years of grit and growth, what advice would Lori share with other small business owners?
“Don’t compare your journey to everyone else’s. We all have different starting points. It’s nice to look at what the competition is doing. And competition is healthy in my space, because the more people who go plant-based, the better. The pie needs to grow. And I love seeing other plant-based businesses thrive because it’s a win-win for all of us. So, I spend almost no time looking at what competitors are doing. We try not to get distracted by the noise out there. We’re very focused on ourselves, our journey and how we can best serve our customers at the end of the day.”
Speaking of customers, who’s craving cheese now? VEGCHEESE has four flavours of artisanal vegan cheeses that are dairy free, nut free and gluten free. You can find them in stores across Ontario or order online from anywhere in Canada. Bon appetit!