Whether you’re vegan or not, you’ve likely noticed the plethora of non-dairy nut cheeses on grocery store shelves in recent years. Plant-based versions of nearly every food group seem to be represented these days and vegan cheese is no exception.
Here to share all things vegan cheese related is Alissa Barthel Founder and Co-owner of Punk Rawk Labs. Alissa and I met in 2014 at the Seattle Vegetarian Food Festival at the Punk Rawk Labs booth when I stopped by to sample some of her cashew vegan cheese. Not only was I blown away by the taste of the products, but also the quality (Punk Rawk Labs cheeses are unique as they are actually cultured and fermented unlike many other vegan “cheese” on the market today). I loved them so much that I featured them on my blog a couple years ago; check out my review here. Since then, Alissa and I crossed paths yet again last year in Austin, Texas at Vida Vegan Con and became quick friends.
Today, in true interview form, Alissa answers my many questions about how PRL got started and also all those plant-based nut cheese questions you’ve likely been wondering about yourself. Be sure to read through the entire interview (the story of how the company got started is particularly interesting) so that you can enter the GIVEAWAY for a chance to win one of TWO Punk Rawk Labs vegan cheese sampler sets sent right to your door!
As always, thanks so much for tuning in.
Cowgirls & Collard Greens: Because I know you personally, I know your story about how Punk Rawk Labs came to be, but can you share that story with my readers?
AB: Absolutely. I think I told someone in an interview once that it was an orchestra of synchronicities. I feel like that sums it up nicely. In a lot of ways, I feel like this was my path before I ever knew it was my path. I actually used to be a scientist, a microbiologist/cancer researcher. I love science. It was clear though in following that path that it didn’t necessarily suit my personality. The intention that drew me to it initially was that I wanted to help people be healthier. I was told when I was there that I had an ‘artistic temperament’ and I should do something with that. Little did I know at the time what that would be. It’s funny. But shortly after dramatically exiting a PhD program, I wrote a song. It was maybe the first song I ever wrote. It was called ‘American Cheese’. It didn’t have anything to do with cheese at the time. It was all about fake, overly processed food as sort of a metaphor for my struggles in figuring out where I belonged in the world. This was at least 15 years before I ever thought of making cheese. The song is actually one of the prizes in our GoFundMe campaign right now. Looking back, it’s pretty prophetic.
Fast forward 15 years. After leaving grad school, I went back to working in restaurants. It wasn’t really my plan at the time. It just felt right. My strict Asian mother was very unhappy with this choice. I spent a long time doing this. Just kind of observing. It wasn’t really my ambition to work in food. To the people in my life, I seemed to have no ambition whatsoever. Nobody could figure it out. I played in bands. I worked in restaurants. I was an observer of systems. Then, a couple life changing events happened. They seemed like tragedies at the time, but their impact was magical.
The first thing that happened was I had a toxic exposure. I was living in a building with faulty plumbing, and I got exposed to a bunch of toxic gas. The doctor explained to me that it was kind of like carbon monoxide poisoning. He said I was lucky to be alive because the gas that I was exposed to can kill people. I was fortunate. I did however develop a number of complications. An autoimmune condition that climaxed when I was hospitalized for my liver essentially shutting down. There were other complications, but this is a long story already.
I learned from this experience that I did really well with raw vegan food. I didn’t understand why because I didn’t really know what was wrong with me. I just knew it was helping. So I went to study under renowned raw food chef, Matthew Kenney who opened a school in Oklahoma (where my family lives). Initially, I had planned on starting a part time catering business, but the universe had other plans for me. A few months after I returned, I was on my way to a bar-b-q at the home of Julie (who would later become my business partner). I never made it to the party because on the way there, I got into a serious car accident. It was a T-bone accident with a driver side impact. I was the driver. My life changed in an instant. I saw myself in the third person. I felt like I was having an out of body experience. The paramedics pulled me out of the car and took me to the hospital. I was in physical therapy for about eighteen months. I was moving pretty slowly. It wasn’t really my intention at the time to start a business. I was just trying to make something that I could eat – a project where I could work up to going back to work. I had a lot of time to tinker. This was when I perfected the cheese recipe.
Back then, there wasn’t really a lot out there for people with my dietary issues. The idea of nut based cheeses was in it’s infancy – something people made at home. I started making the cheese to sell at the farmer’s market. I posted a picture of them on my blog. A store in Manhattan saw the picture and requested a sample. They decided to carry them. The cheese sold out right away. Once word got out, I started getting contacted by more stores from all over the country. Clearly, I had tapped into an unmet demand. I was still in physical therapy at the time. I was in over my head. My friend Julie offered to help out. Little did she know at the time what she was getting into.
Really, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I had a food background. I had a microbiology background. I can’t eat dairy. I was interested in making something I could eat. I made the cheese. My friend Julie appreciated it right away as she can’t eat dairy either. She had a business background and had just sold her business – a record store. She was looking for her next move. I was on crutches. It was meant to be. It was our destiny.
Things went well. Well enough that since that time, a lot of big companies with lots more money have come onto the market. We’re now competing against that. It’s tough; we don’t have those kinds of resources. It’s frustrating that our voices can get drowned out in that context. But we’re still here. We’re scrappy. We have heart.
C&CG: Punk Rawk Labs is a small artisan non-dairy cheese company. Can you share how many people are involved with PRL and what each of your roles are?
AB: Yes. There are three partners. I mentioned Julie Wellman. She owned a vinyl record store here in Minneapolis for 10 years. She had a business background. She has autoimmune disease, so she has an appreciation for the need to avoid dairy. She also has a background in grocery. She used to be a buyer at our local co-op. She handles much of the business side of things.– payroll, administration, taxes, bookkeeping, etc., but she’s also in charge of shipping. And of course, as an owner you have to help out with everything.
Shortly after we started, Julie gave birth to the fabulous Sonny. So this is when we brought our second partner, Heidi Ochsner, on board. She is a registered dietitian and has a Master’s degree in Nutrition. She was the one that helped me figure out my anti-inflammation diet when I first got sick. So she was pretty invested in the story. It was a natural progression that she started helping out with the paperwork while Julie was on maternity leave. That evolved into a distribution deal on the West Coast which she now manages. She also does our demoing out there. You may have noticed her at some of the bigger expos in that area of the country (she is based in Seattle).
Then there is me, of course. I’m basically in charge of production. I run the kitchen and everything involved with that. It seems like I’m always involved in other things too. But to be honest, the life of an entrepreneur can be such a whirlwind that it’s hard to even put into words what you spend your hours doing. By the time you’ve put it out there, you’re on to the next thing!
Beyond that, we have eight part-time employees that help us mostly in the kitchen, a little with shipping, and some administrative stuff. It’s a nice little community that we have. A passionate tribe of misfits that would be impossible to narrow down to an overarching theme. Definitely folks who identify as vegan, food sensitive, artists, yogis, foodies, etc. They put a lot of love into what they do. I’m so grateful for them. I love our team!
C&CG: What does a typical day look like in the land of Punk Rawk Labs there in Minneapolis?
AB: Well, no day is ever the same around here. I can tell you that. But there is a certain rhythm that we’ve fallen into. We make one batch of cheeses per week. So each day is a different part of the process. We’ve been doing this long enough now that it feels like a collective consciousness has developed around the cheese. There’s a regularity to it, but it’s always evolving. We’re always building off of what came before. I feel like the cheese has only gotten better over time because of this cyclical nature. The process just gets more refined. I’m proud of that.
C&CG: Why is fermented cheese your preferred way of cheese making as opposed to other methods?
AB: It’s an exciting time in the world of vegan cheese– lots of innovation and new developments. People are approaching the problem from different perspectives and that is fascinating to me. There’s a culinary perspective – where you’re sort of mimicking the flavor of cheese with like nutritional yeast or miso or lemon juice. There’s a traditional cheesemaking perspective – where you’re mimicking the physical process of making cheese. It’s so interesting to me the different outcomes that result from these different perspectives. My background is in microbiology so I feel like we approach making cheese from that perspective. Letting the culture do the work. When you look at what’s in our cheese, the base is just four simple ingredients: organic cashews, water, culture, and salt. So really a lot of our job is just facilitating an environment that empowers the culture to do it’s job. Which is really what microbiology is all about.
C&CG: Do you consider yourself to be a foodie? And, were you a lover of cheese before going vegan and starting PRL?
AB: Absolutely. I have about 25 years of experience in the restaurant/food service industry. I love food. I love cheese. When I was a little girl, I loved dairy. It’s just that as an adult I’ve found that it doesn’t love me back. That was the intention that brought me here. As I’ve gotten more involved, I’ve discovered that the industry has other impacts on society that are just as profound. It’s been an interesting journey.
C&CG: Can you tell us how you came up with the name Punk Rawk Labs and what it stands for/means to you?
AB: Well, PRL grew organically out of a human experience. Initially, I was a really sick person who was just trying to heal myself. I had a lot of complicated health issues that nobody around me seemed to relate to. I found that when I went on the internet and exposed myself to a larger pool of people, I was able to find others whose experience resonated with mine. I started a blog – really as a means of support. To connect with other people who could relate to my experience. My health issues were very intense, and it was difficult to find solutions. Since I was blogging about personal stuff (like my health problems), I wanted to be more anonymous. I was in a band, and I used to be a scientist. So that was sort of my blogger tag. Little did I know at the time what it would evolve into.
C&CG: What are you most proud of when it comes to PRL and your non-dairy cheese making?
AB: I am most proud of our roots. I’m proud of the way we started. It really grew out of a response to a personal tragedy – out of a personal incentive to heal coupled with other people’s desire to help. I feel like human journeys like this always lead to something cool. It’s like at this point, we are competing with companies that have significantly mor
e funding. Millions of dollars more. But we remain relevant, and I think this is why. I think what we are doing resonates with people in an authentic way. And I’m proud of that.
C&CG: Because you are the scientist for PRL, does this mean that you don’t eat your own products? In other words, do you ever get tired of sampling or tasting your own cheese?
AB: Haha, that’s a good question. Actually, no. I haven’t gotten tired of the cheese yet. And now that you mention it, that’s interesting because having worked in restaurants forever, it’s like a running joke. That you always get sick of the food where you work. I hadn’t really noticed until you brought it up, but I haven’t gotten tired of the cheese yet. Maybe that’s a sign.
C&CG: Generally speaking, where is PRL cheese available? Can you order online?
AB: Yes. You can order online through Vegan Essentials. As far as availability in stores goes, we have the best presence in Seattle (and the Pacific Northwest) and Minneapolis/St.Paul (and the upper Midwest) as this is where our two distributors are located. An exciting development that is in the works right now is that we are working with a distributor in Austin, Texas to bring our cheeses there. This is super meaningful to me personally as I grew up down there. But beyond that, we are available in stores around the country; places like San Francisco, NYC, Denver, Fayetteville, Santa Fe, Savannah, Cincinnati, Boston, and Portland, Oregon.
C&CG: I understand that there are some new items in the works at PRL. Can you give us any ideas or sneak peeks into what’s up and coming?
AB: We are excited about some new products we have coming out soon. We have a new cheese flavor called ‘Cashew of the Woods’. It’s a sort of mushroom inspired flavor with hints of truffle, celeriac, and white pepper. It pairs beautifully with a shishito mustard what we will also be releasing. This is another of the prize packages on our GoFundMe page. We’ve also been raffling off preview packs on our YouTube channel.
C&CG: Thanks so much for sharing your story with us here today Alissa and for teaming up with me to share the vegan cheese love for the giveaways!
For those who want to join the Punk Rawk Labs giveaway (one sampler pack and one new product preview pack) please follow the simple steps below to be entered.
Alissa Barthel is the founder and co-owner of Punk Rawk Labs, an artisan dairy-free cheese company based in Minneapolis. A former microbiologist with 25 years experience in the restaurant/food service industry, she started making non-dairy vegan cheeses while in recovery from a car accident in 2010. The cheeses quickly developed a life of their own, and she has been scrambling to keep up with them ever since.
Please show Punk Rawk Labs some support by staying in touch with them on any of their social media channels or by supporting their GoFundMe campaign so they can continue to bring high quality plant-based and fermented nut milk cheeses to the masses!
Punk Rawk Labs Nutmilk Cheese Giveaway
TWO winners will be chosen on Thursday, March 17, 2016 at NOON PST and notified by email.
- Please ensure that you are signed up for email updates for Cowgirls & Collard Greens by visiting here. You must leave your email as that’s how winners will be reached.
- Please leave a comment below explaining what you find most interesting about how Punk Rawk Labs came to be. Also include who you’d share your PRL cheese sampler pack with if you win.
- That’s all– super easy. Thanks for entering and good luck!