If cooking is an art, cheese is vegan cheesemaker Megan Schmitt’s canvas. For her, cheese must not only taste delicious but also look beautiful. She launched her business, Cheeze & Thank You, in June 2019 after having made plant-based cheeses for more than six years. You can now find her products, including black garlic truffle fontina and herbed feta, at Whole Foods stores in the Chicago area.
Schmitt’s interest in making vegan cheese grew out of her own shift to plant-based eating. “I dabbled with vegetarianism when I was a young child,” she says. “As soon as I found out where cheeseburgers came from, I was, like, I’m not eating that. But then I forgot about it for quite a while.” Eight years ago, however, “It finally clicked: If I wouldn’t kill an animal myself, why would I eat it? That’s when I went vegetarian.”
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The transition to veganism was more gradual. Following her conversion to vegetarianism, Schmitt began to experiment with making plant-based cheeses, which she would sell to friends in St. Louis. In the beginning, she would still eat dairy cheese so she could compare its flavors and textures to her own concoctions. She gradually stopped consuming it, however, because it upset her stomach. By then, she remembers, “I was barely eating any animal products, so I thought, why not commit to this fully?”
“Factory farming is a horrific industry,” Schmitt says. “I am just trying to do the least amount of harm possible to other living beings.”
When Schmitt moved to Chicago from St. Louis three years ago, she started selling her cheese at the Chicago Vegan Test Kitchen, a pop-up market for vegan chefs and vendors of other cruelty-free goods. She was working as a marketing professional for food and beverage companies at the time and designed the packaging for her cheeses herself. The name “Cheeze & Thank You” came from a brainstorming session with a friend.
A Whole Foods buyer who tried her cheeses asked if she’d be interested in selling her products at the chain’s Chicago stores. That was all the incentive she needed to quit her job, in January 2020; six months later, Cheeze & Thank You launched at Whole Foods.
Creating vegan cheese is a process of trial and error. All of Schmitt’s products for Whole Foods are soy based, but for other markets she often uses a combination of soy, oat, and rice. Schmitt intentionally avoids nut-based cheeses so as not to exclude those with nut allergies and to sidestep the production challenges associated with cross-contamination.
Schmitt fills notepads with cheese flavor ideas inspired by food trends and resources like The Flavor Bible, a book by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg. Sometimes, she says, “an idea will just pop into my brain, or I’ll be craving something and start thinking about how can I make it into a cheese.” A pizza lover, she once made a cheese version of pepperoni pizza, but grappled with how to make it look good once out of its container.
Sometimes the new flavor will be successful on the first try; sometimes it must go through many iterations before Schmitt is satisfied. Adjustments can range from a small tweak, like adding more onion powder, to more fundamental changes, like altering a base from soy to oat or changing a firming agent. After two years, Schmitt is still refining her sharp cheddar. Though she’s happy with the flavor, sharp cheddar has a complex texture that is difficult to achieve with vegan ingredients. She recently spiced it up by adding chili crisp and chili oil, which helps prevent the cheese from cracking.
Besides flavor and texture, there’s also the look of the product. “It’s not just how it’s going to look on a cheese board, but also how it’s going to look when it’s packaged, or on the shelf, or when I photograph it,” she says.
A tinkerer at heart, Schmitt likes to change up her packaging and flavors. However, it can be an extremely time-consuming and expensive process to change any of her Whole Foods flavors. She has to submit her idea to the chain’s buyers and then clear other administrative hurdles before getting an approval. Then she has to order new packaging and new QR codes; altogether, it takes about three months to launch after getting the OK.
Schmitt hopes to be selling her cheese at Whole Foods nationally in the next few years. In the short term, she would love to have a Chicago storefront that resembles an Italian deli, with plant-based charcuterie as well as cheese—including her mozzarella, which is “phenomenal,” she says, on pizza.