Bree Gaudette tells the story of how one conversation turned into a groundbreaking food business.
It was December 2015, and I couldn’t find any cheese at the supermarket that I enjoyed. After being vegan for about a year, I found that the vegan cheese options on the market were few and far between. So I thought, why not make them myself? I didn’t have any formal training, just heaps of curiosity and the determination to make something that I would be happy to eat and share with my friends. So I gave it a shot and before long, I had created something that I was proud of.
I had been working in hospitality for the last two decades, so I decided to move from front of house to back of house to be a prep cook, which gave me the opportunity to learn my way around a commercial kitchen.
Like most people, I grew up eating dairy products. Knowing how much of our economy and traditions were linked to the dairy industry and considering the ethical issues and how quickly our environment is changing, I decided to think outside the square for a more creative and sustainable approach to cheesemaking. But I didn't have any business knowledge, so how could I bring this to market?
That’s when I met Matthew Ronalds. Matthew picked me up as a passenger while he was driving for Uber. Little did I know that I had just met the future co-founder of a business that would turn both of our lives upside down. We became fast friends, and when I asked him if he wanted to start a vegan cheese business with me, he enthusiastically agreed.
Together, we realised that we made a great team. I would manage our social media and customer relations, and Matthew would use his skills in spreadsheets and systems to figure out how to create the back end and maintain the business.
It was now 2018 and Matthew and I were taking a walk, brainstorming about possible business names. There was a dog on lead up ahead, and as we approached I said “Hello, friend!” which was my standard greeting for any creature I came across. Matthew looked at me and said “That’s it! That’s the name!” It was exactly what we’d been looking for. We believe that everyone should be treated as a friend, regardless of race, gender, or species, and this name said it all.
From there we developed more recipes and learned heaps about starches, emulsions, proteins, and everything else that comes with starting your first business. It wasn’t always easy, but it was always worth it. We really enjoyed the challenge of learning as we went and creating new and exciting recipes that seemed to make people happy.
When we trialled the Fresh Mozzarella (our flagship product) in the Melbourne community, the response was excellent. With some sound business and product advice from a friend and head chef, we created and released Australia’s first vegan Haloumi. Within two weeks we both had to quit our jobs to work full time on the business.
For the first year we were producing our cheese in the kitchen of a local cafe in the evenings. We hired out the space from 4pm until 6am, 7 days a week. Bootstrapping our small startup meant that we didn't have access to large machines or factory equipment, so we made each batch by hand, one kilo at a time. Pulling all-nighters became a regular occurrence. The two of us would make cheese from 4pm until 2am or 3am, get in a few hours of sleep, and then make deliveries and take care of the administrative duties for the business during the day.
As difficult as it was, we knew we were building something special. And when an opportunity came to move into our own commercial kitchen in January of 2019, we were thrilled. We were able to hire a piece of equipment which allowed us to increase our production ten-fold. All of a sudden we were making cheese quickly and efficiently, and during the daylight hours!
Since 2018, we've been supplying retailers, cafes and caterers with premium vegan cheese. We also sell directly to customers from our online shop, which has allowed us to continue to supply our community all over Australia during the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. We started shipping interstate, and hired our first employee. We’ve also taken on a distributor for Sydney and surrounds, which means we’re getting onto more plates than ever before.
Everything we make is handmade, free from lactose and palm oil. We also don’t use any gluten or nuts in our products, which sets us apart from other vegan nut based cheeses.
Furthermore, with our plans to switch to fully compostable packaging, we're on track to reduce plastic build up in our oceans and landfills. We’re looking forward to expanding our range into more stores and cafes around the country and internationally. Dairy free cheese is gaining immense traction around the world, and we're excited to be a part of this growing and innovative field.
Plastic free and animal free is the future of food, and we’re here to make sure that it still tastes great. We want our customers to experience the benefits of eating well, without compromise.
That’s a win for us all.
Bree Gaudette and Matthew Ronalds
Hello Friend Foods