Lori Sroujian first started experimenting with faux-cheese recipes after a family health scare led her to reconsider what she was eating. What started as a personal quest to find a nutritious but delicious replacement for cheese eventually evolved into a side hustle — and about a year ago, VegCheese became Lori’s full-time enterprise.
by Julia Lefebvre
Lori Sroujian never intended to leave the corporate world to start her own company — let alone a vegan cheese company. But that’s what she did.
Three years ago, Lori’s father had a stroke. That caused her tight-knit family to reconsider what they ate. Lori stopped eating animal products — including dairy. No easy feat for a self-professed cheese aficionado.
Thus began her search for the perfect non-dairy cheese. Lori wanted to find a faux-cheese that could hold its own on a cheeseboard and melt into dishes. But her hunt came up short. “I couldn’t find a product with the taste, texture and ‘melty-ness’ that I expect from my cheese. I decided to start experimenting in my condo kitchen… to find a recipe that would work.”
At the time, Lori was director of digital and multichannel marketing at Janssen Pharmaceutical in Toronto. On evenings and weekends, she made batch after batch of vegan cheese. After many failed attempts, she finally landed on a recipe that made her no longer miss the real thing.
Soon, Lori was sharing her creation with family and friends. They all loved it. Even the meat-eaters. Then someone asked Lori whether she was willing to sell some of her cheese. “I didn’t know how to respond,” Lori says. “I was like… maybe I need to start a company.”
A brainstorming session with her family led to the name VegCheese (her brother’s idea). To build on her original mozzarella, Lori created new flavours, including Italian Black Truffle.
“If I can’t feed it to my family, I will not feed it to my customers. I want to stand behind the quality of what we’re creating.”
Then she took a chance. She signed up to exhibit at Mississauga VegFest, a vegan consumer show near her home in Toronto. Trouble was, Lori had nowhere to make the hundreds of cheeses she’d need for the show. She hadn’t even finalized the packaging for VegCheese yet. Quickly, she rented a commercial kitchen, got her food handling certificate and got busy making cheese. The response at VegFest was overwhelming. “We sold almost 300 cheeses in a day. It was crazy,” she recalls. Social media started talking, too. People wanted to know where they could buy VegCheese.
Lori has long had an entrepreneurial spirit. Her thirst for the next challenge is what drew her from traditional marketing to digital, and led her to earn her MBA at Smith School of Business. So when Janssen restructured her department last October, she took it as a sign to pursue VegCheese full time.
Her timing couldn’t have been better. A recent Nielsen survey found that, in North America, consumers are trying to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diets (39 per cent of Americans and 43 per cent of Canadians). Nearly half of Canadians (46 per cent) and more than a third of Americans (38 per cent) associate plant-based protein with good health effects.
VegCheese’s line of artisanal vegan cheese is dairy-free, nut-free and gluten-free. It’s handcrafted in Toronto in small batches, with a base of organic soy milk and organic coconut oil.
Last December, Lori pitched VegCheese to a jury of experienced businesspeople at UPstart. The competition, led by Queen’s Venture Network, offers funding to budding entrepreneurs — and Lori walked away with $15,000. She’s using the money for kitchen equipment and packaging. She also hired a consultant to help extend the fridge life of VegCheese and streamline manufacturing.
VegCheese is now available in 10 specialty food stores in Ontario, and Lori has recently begun working with restaurants as well. The newest VegCheese product, vegan cheese curds, are now featured in the plant-based poutine at New York-based vegan restaurant By CHLOE’s first Canadian location (in the Yorkdale mall).
As VegCheese grows, Lori says she will insist on maintaining the high product standards that she started with. “If I can’t feed it to my family, I will not feed it to my customers. I want to stand behind the quality of what we’re creating.”
The Accelerated MBA at Smith School of Business allows professionals with an undergraduate business degree to earn Canada’s most respected MBA degree in 12 months while continuing to advance their career or grow their own venture. Learn more here.