Sarah Qian studied chemical engineering, completed her thesis in cancer research, and was working as a management consultant before finding her true calling, making the world’s first oat crème cheese, Compassion Creamery. Kim Berry writes.
Having grown up in New Zealand, drinking dairy milk every day of her life, it was a move to Sydney to study chemical engineering that turned Sarah Qian vegan. Well, not directly and not overnight, but these things did all overlap.
Qian developed severe acid reflux and her research revealed a possible connection between reflux and dairy. She initially scoffed at the research but was desperate enough to abstain and see if her condition improved.
“Over a period of a few months, I cut out more and more until one day, I was vegan. I don’t have an exact day, but it was probably about seven and a half years ago,” Qian says.
Being a vegan 7.5 years ago looked very different to today, with many people now adopting diets that are more plant-based as well as there being much greater choice on the shelf.
But for Qian there was still a large gap… cheese.
“There are so many plant milks but my reaction to vegan cheeses has always been ‘ugh’. Then everyone started raving about oat milk and how much they loved their oat milk lattes.
“It sparked an idea about using oats to make a vegan cheese. I thought, maybe it was an opportunity to use my skills on a project that would be deeply connected to my personal values,” she says.
Qian decided to develop a cream cheese because of its versatility.
“You can use it for sweet or savoury things. It can be cooked with or used fresh. It is a very versatile product in terms of performance, and then there’s flavour, mouth feel and after notes,” she says.
It turns out, however, there was a reason there were no oat cheeses in the market; they are really hard to work with.
Qian explains that oats are a much more difficult medium compared to cashew nuts, or other typical supermarket vegan cheeses.
“Most vegan cheeses are usually just a coconut oil and starch emulsion with flavours and colours – there’s a reason vegan cheese has a really bad reputation,” Qian says.
But she was not going to let go of the idea and started experimenting in the evenings and on weekends.
At the time Qian was working full time in a “super corporate world” as a management consultant, which was giving her little personal satisfaction.
After a couple of years being consultant by day and food scientist by night, Qian took the plunge, left the corporate world, and fully embraced her “weird cheese lady” self. That was just over a year ago.
“It took me around 250 versions over about 18 months until I got one that worked. I’ve been working non-stop ever since to ensure consistency across every batch.
“We use traditional dairy cheesemaking methods and combine it with our innovative oat base which is cultured and fermented. Not only is it made with oats, unlike almost all vegan cheeses, it doesn’t contain coconut oils or starches, nuts or soy,” Qian says.
Throughout the formulation stage, Qian had the support of her post-doctoral supervisor from Sydney University (USyd) and also completed the 14-week INCUBATE accelerator program at USyd.
“He would help me troubleshoot everything and suggest different things to try out,” she said.
Her uni supervisor then introduced her to an ex-operations lead from Nestlé, who has mentored Qian through what she needs in terms of operations and supply chain when it comes to shipping the product.
While Qian studied chemical engineering, she didn’t work in the profession. But it did mean she could hold her own when talking to design engineers and equipment manufacturers.
Qian says It held her in good stead for the “blessing and curse” of her product.
“Its uniqueness is great from a product differentiation perspective, excellent from an IP perspective, but very challenging when trying to find a co-manufacturer.
“I ended up having to design the manufacturing equipment from scratch. Having a fundamental understanding of thermodynamics for instance and the physics involved made a massive difference,” Qian says.
Through all these stages of creating Compassion Creamery, Qian would be heading out to markets and cafés to trial the latest version. She says it was a good playground for figuring out what people liked and what fell flat.
“It reaches a point when the responses are consistently good that your confidence starts to build. Then you’re in a place where you know you have fine-tuned it enough and now need to focus on producing a consistent product.”
Qian still supplies some of the cafés she approached.
“They’ve been with me from the very beginning, they are advocates for the product,” she says.
Earlier this year, Qian won the 2022 Naturally Good Pitch Fest against stiff competition from brands that are already have a market presence.
Her dad, an electrician, was visiting from New Zealand to install equipment in her factory, went along to watch.
“He said, “Oh Sarah, I understand what you’re trying to do now”. I don’t know if this is common for all dads, but for mine, it was such a dad thing for him to say, his ‘now I get it’ moment,” she says.
Qian now shares a processing site with a juice manufacturer but says finding suitable food manufacturing facilities in Sydney is difficult.
“Just being able to find something that has high enough ceilings, enough cool rooms, all these things you would never think of. When you’re looking at a home you’re thinking, oh a spa would be nice, but I’m saying, we need a floor drain.
“The process of getting our equipment has also been a hassle. Luckily, the design, manufacturing, engineering company I worked with, that is based overseas, has been incredibly helpful.
“Ideally, you can see and test the machinery before you buy it and have it shipped over. But Covid meant that wasn’t an option. They’ve been super responsive and helpful in trouble shooting things, thank goodness,” she says.
Qian says the logistics of getting the equipment here were also fraught, with fewer ships and “astronomically” expensive transport fees.
Now set up in her own facility, Qian is wearing the many hats a start-up founder does, with ongoing R&D, formalising supplier relationships, and investigating the best packaging for the product and branding.
She is also reckoning with an unexpected hurdle, a shortage of oats. Around 80 per cent of Compassion Creamery’s ingredients come from Australia and oats is one of them. But the popularity of oat milk has caused a shortage.
“The vegan in me is thrilled, but the business owner is crying, “my oats!” she says.
When asked about the brand name, Qian explains it has multiple meanings.
“The compassion in the brand name reflects the vegan principles of compassion for animals and the environment but there’s also an element of self-compassion. When I was working in the corporate world, it felt so foreign to me.
“Starting Compassion Creamery was when I showed myself compassion to do something I loved, rather than compromising myself.
“My ultimate vision is for someone to open the fridge door, see the cream cheese and think to themselves, “You know what? I should just take a breather. Whatever it is that I’m stressing out about, it’s going to be okay”. Like a little tub of remindedness in your fridge.”
This story first appeared in the August edition of Food & Drink Business magazine.