Redefining Vegan Cheese and Sustainable Branding ft. Nivi Jasa
In the world of plant-based entrepreneurship, there are pioneers who not only create innovative products but also carry a profound commitment to sustainability and ethics. In the latest episode of the "Plant-Based On Fire" podcast, Bryan had the privilege of hearing the inspiring journey of Nivi Jasa. His story not only touches on the evolution of his vegan cheese company, "I Am Nut OK," but also provides valuable insights for aspiring plant-based entrepreneurs. Here, we delve into Nivi's remarkable journey and the key takeaways for those looking to make their mark in the plant-based business landscape.
A Creative Journey to Vegan Cheese
Nivi Jasa's journey to plant-based entrepreneurship began with a background in graphic design and art direction from Naba University in Milan. His passion for food culture, combined with his design expertise, set the stage for something extraordinary. He founded "I Am Nut OK," a vegan cheese company based in London. The company's name itself is a testament to its unconventional approach, challenging stereotypes and pushing boundaries.
A Shift in Perspective
Nivi's transformation into a plant-based advocate was not immediate. It was a gradual process, starting with experimenting with alternative protein sources like tofu and seitan while in university. He eventually experienced milk intolerance and began exploring plant-based alternatives. However, the pivotal moment occurred when he met his partner, Angela, who was already a vegan. Nivi's culinary journey took an unexpected turn as he embraced a fully plant-based lifestyle, driven by concerns about animal suffering and environmental impact.
The Birth of "I Am Nut OK"
Nivi and Angela's shared passion for food and design led to the inception of "I Am Nut OK." Their goal was clear: to create vegan cheese that not only tasted great but also challenged the status quo of what vegan cheese could be. Their innovative flavors, like black truffle cheese, pushed the boundaries of conventional dairy-free products. This commitment to uniqueness and bold flavors set them apart in the market.
Sustainability and Ethical Considerations
Sustainability and ethics are at the core of "I Am Nut OK." The company transitioned from plastic packaging to eco-friendly options, even implementing a recycling scheme for their jars. They adopted a zero-waste policy, ensuring that no cheese goes to landfill. Moreover, they extended their impact by collaborating with a plant-based deli, "Third Culture," to repurpose excess cheese, minimizing food waste.
Building a Strong Brand
A crucial aspect of "I Am Nut OK's" success lies in its brand-building strategy. Nivi emphasizes the importance of understanding your customers, your product positioning, and your brand's tone of voice. Building a brand that aligns with your values and aspirations is vital. Nivi's vision was to see his product on the shelves of prestigious stores like Selfridges, and this goal served as their North Star.
The Future of "I Am Nut OK"
As "I Am Nut OK" continues to evolve, Nivi and Angela have ambitious plans. They aim to export their products to Europe and the United States, expanding their reach to a global audience. Their flagship product, vegan parmesan, is poised to make its mark in the U.S. market soon.
In conclusion, Nivi Jasa's journey from graphic design to vegan cheese entrepreneur offers valuable lessons for aspiring plant-based business owners. His commitment to sustainability, unique flavors, and innovative branding showcases the potential for growth and impact in the plant-based industry. "I Am Nut OK" exemplifies the power of creativity, dedication, and a commitment to making a positive change in the world of plant-based food. We eagerly anticipate their continued success and expansion into new territories, sharing their delicious vegan cheese with a broader audience.
>Podcast Episode's transcription: Bryan (00:01.154)
Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of Plant-Based On Fire, where we talk about plant-based businesses and their inspiring stories to thrive in our industry. I'm your host Brian and joining us today is Nivi Jassa. He graduated from Naba University in Milan in graphic design and art direction and he's continued his work as a designer and developing further expertise and interests in cutting edge branding, package design and marketing.
Combined with his amazing strong passion for food culture arising from lots of travel and work experience, he started a company called I Am Not OK, which is a vegan cheese company based in London. So welcome, Nivi. Did I say that right? Is it Nivi or Navi? Nivi. Awesome. Pleasure to have you here. Thanks for joining us.
That's right. Yeah, correct. That's correct. It's nearly, yes.
Yeah, and of course, thanks for the lovely intro. It's, you know, always such a lovely experience to like share our background, how we started the company and, you know, share with more people what's, you know, what motivated us from the day one to start this company. So thanks for giving me this opportunity on your platform.
Yeah, it's a pleasure. So I've got a ton of cheese questions, but before we dive into that, let's just fill in a little backstory. So tell us like, what was your sort of vegan plant-based journey and how did you become a plant-based advocate?
Absolutely. So I would say that since I started university, so around, you know, 18, 19 years old, I was already quite open minded to try new products and different alternatives, protein alternatives like tofu. I used to make my own seitan at home. So I didn't have that kind of like adversity, like a lot of people sometimes have initially towards like meat alternatives and also meat alternatives. Cause at the age of 20, I became, I would say
milk intolerant, not really lactose intolerant, I was like, you know, not digesting milk, and I decided all of a sudden to just drop it. And at the time I was living in Italy, the main
an easier alternative to find with like soy milk. So I happily switched to it and you know, never really missed milk that much. Things started to change though, when I moved here in London in 2016, I started dating my current partner, Angela, and she's from Los Angeles. So when we first met, she was already vegan at the time. One of the biggest challenge for me was in order to like conquer her heart, cook for her,
you know, I wanted to impress with, you know, my food. And I would say that understanding, especially in the first days of like dating, what actually vegan meant was a bit complicated because in my mind, I'm like, fine, I'm not going to use, you know, meat, but is it fine if I can use a bit of cheese or maybe a bit of fish? Like you have still those kind of struggles to, to really understand what.
the whole concept is. And then when it was made clear that, you know, it was like no eggs, no fish, nothing, that became a challenge for me in order to see what can I do and can I still cook, you know, in a good and tasty way. And that opened my mind into, you know, finding out a bit more about the whole plant-based movement, whether it was because of the animals, whether it was because of the environment, health, there's like so many reasons. And...
After watching, you know, I think it was Cowspiracy. And then a day after, um, I think it was a vegan activist talking about. Why and how animal like suffering because of the industry was almost a no-brainer for me to immediately give up meat. Uh, and I also decided to stop any direct cheese consumption and like milk and eggs and fish. So I was still using.
for the first like maybe three, four months, eating food I had as a by-product, sometimes maybe eggs and cheese, but slowly, slowly removing them until a few months later I'm like, okay, this is it, you know, there's no cheating in terms of like, oh, I'm gonna have a bit of this and that every now and then, and I decided to fully commit. And it was when I fully committed that I then realized that vegan cheese at the time...
It was 2016, 17. It wasn't really good. And I got to a point where I told Angela, my partner, that I was ready to give up cheese in its entirety. Like no dairy, no plant-based. I'm just not happy with what's in the market. So I'm just not gonna eat cheese at all. And then she took that as a challenge. Cause again, coming from LA where the vegan scene is like so ahead of the time.
she already had amazing vegan cheese and most of them were like made with cashew nuts. So made her own research, started making like some cheese for me and the first time she gave me like this kind of like smoked paprika cream cheese made with like cashews. I was in love. I thought this was like one of the best vegan cheese I've ever had. And the fact that I'm able to make it at home, it was, you know, such a-
Such an inspiring thing because not only we understood that there was a huge gap in the market for like good tasty product, but being also the two of us designer, we decided to combine both passion for food and design into building a brand that could reflect on our values that could be something inspiring and different from what the market was offering. And that's how I'm not okay started.
That's awesome. And so help us, I'm gonna get to the cheese questions, but how, what does the name, like I like the name. It is a unique and strong brand, but how did you come up with that name and why that name?
Well, there's a fun story about it. So, um, and again, she's American and, uh, pans are like her forte. She loves funds. And the first time she told me about the name, I'm like, I don't get it. Cause I thought it was not okay. Like, no, like that's like nuts. Like, ah, and because of that we thought, well, we can use that as a kind of like tone of voice to, you know, maybe build a brand that
is not taking itself too serious, but at the same time can also deliver something amazing. So it all started like that. And every product we're like releasing has a pun in the name or we're trying to make it as fun as possible. Um, because at the time, and especially even right now, they're still trying a lot of brands to replicate, um, specific cheese.
whether we always wanted to replicate the experience of eating cheese so that nice, you know, not feel that flavor, but we didn't want to replicate the exact way maybe a camembert taste and looks. We wanted to create something different and that's why we decided to focus on a brand that was quite unique and also flavor combination that was more stronger and bold than what the market was offering. As a matter of fact,
one of the cheeses that's like one of our signature is black truffle cheese. That's completely black, which is something you wouldn't find in the dairy sector. And because of that, people started to recognize that we were doing something different and more unique.
Yeah. And so I have not gotten to chase, taste these cheeses yet, because they are across the pond from us here in America. But, you know, I do echo exactly what you said. The vegan cheese market was non-existent when I started this a long time ago. And then the, the market has, has thoroughly blossomed, but it's still hit or miss with the cheeses. So what do you think?
How do you describe the taste and the flavor to these people? And what do you think sets your cheese apart from some of the others in the market?
I think one of the things that from day one kind of like, you know, differentiate us from the rest was that when we had customers asking, Oh, do you have something plain? Do you have something mild? The answer was like, no, we didn't do anything plain. We didn't do anything mild. There's already a market for that. Uh, we wanted to really focus on flavor that were again, more bold. So we have like a very smoked.
Um, sort of like cheddar style, because then at the end you still need to convey maybe what you're referring to. Um, we made a mozzarella that for example, it doesn't just melt, but it melts really, really well and it tastes right. It doesn't have that like plastic texture, that kind of like rubbery feeling. We wanted to create and deliver that again, amazing mouthfeel experience that people will get by eating cheese. So the moment, especially because. Yeah.
Going back for a second, so when we started trading, we were doing only farmer's market every weekend. And that was the best way was to try our product because from the moment you make it at home and then you bring it to the market, as soon as you have someone sampling it and their reaction like, hmm, that's good, you know you're doing something right. And you know that maybe if you want to experiment on a new flavor, we want to do something a bit more, you know.
different and quirky, we can still bring it there. We can still, you know, get someone's reaction. And maybe the American market is more open to it because we just came back from LA and I was, you know, so amazed by all this like amazing flavor combination, having all these like cultures living together and like really mixing, you know, all these like flavors compared to maybe the European market, which is a bit more safe.
and more linked to a cultural tradition. So I think London sits a bit in between because it's still, you know, that kind of like gay that opens up to Asia and American market and then also to Europe. So we were lucky at the time when we started to, you know, have the right product at the right time and that we were doing also something different compared to what the market was already presenting.
That is awesome. So I am really looking forward to trying it. And people that are coming into the plant-based life don't really understand how addicting cheese is. I mean, it literally has the drugs in it that gets you hooked. And that's one of, I think it's easier to give up the meat than it is to give up the cheese because the cheese is addicting on that front. So like,
How addictive is your cheese and any thoughts for the people that are on that fence, just like you and I were probably in our journeys to like give up the cheese now and start embracing these plant-based alternatives.
I would say it's highly addictive because again, the real test is like we bring it up, people try it and you know, whether it's like a comment on Instagram or Facebook, whether it's like an email, whether it's like a customer in real life that's raving about it and wants to recommend it to their friends, that's always been the sort of feedback that gave us that motivation.
day by day to keep pushing and keep building our brand. Because also let's not forget, building a business, it's tough. It's already like a crazy idea to do it. But thanks to all the lovely customers that we have, and some of them turns into friends, some of them are like real ambassadors of our brand, we always felt really lucky and positively
kind of like attitude of like, you know, really getting passion. And I think that, yeah, we feel blessed with what we're doing. So it's always a new challenge for us to see what else can we do to, you know, to like shock them and bring something tastier and newer to the market.
Yeah, everybody kind of knows what like the cheddar sounds like or the Gruyere or whatever. So like these new different flavor profiles can really open up someone's eyes to something new and different. So I mean, so I can totally see your like graphic design background leading in towards building a really strong, powerful brand. And then, like, I can't say enough to aspiring plant based businesses that are watching this to.
do that customer discovery, like go to the farmer's markets, do whatever you need to do. Cause if they do echo the same sentiments you're feeling, then you're onto something. So thank you for sharing those couple moments and stuff. How do you sort of tackle the other sustainability and ethical considerations when you're doing the production and packaging and those aspects of your product?
Yeah, that's a really good question. So I believe the first week that we started making cheese, we really needed to start ASAP. So we ordered, I think, a bunch of plastic container, made the cheese, scooped it into the containers. But then after the first day of trading, we realized that where we wanted to take the brand, the kind of positioning in the market, the customers we were aspiring.
didn't really weren't really aligned with the sort of like packaging choice that we went for So quite fast we thought I know it's cheap and all we could have higher Margins, but if we use plastic but at the same time didn't really align with our values So we immediately switched to like less Way more labor intense because you need to like wash sanitize. There's there's so many process involved compared to just
a pot of plastic that comes already ready to be used. But again, by making that choice, by really sticking to what's our vision, we were able to then convey that message through the packaging, through the branding to our customers who then really appreciate it. And also at the very beginning, we had kind of like recycle scheme where people could bring their empty jars.
We'll give them a discount so then we could reuse them. And that was one of the first choices that we made in terms of what can we do in order to be more sustainable. Another one is trying to see how can we reduce any sort of wastage? How can we avoid having bits that we can sell? So we have almost a zero to landfill policy where every cheese that we make.
Even if there's like a bit of leftover, it doesn't get wasted. Um, cause sometimes that's like either share like within like the stuff we also open, um, a year ago, actually it's going to be a year this Saturday, a plant-based deli here in Hackney. It's called Third Culture. And, um, thank you. Uh, any leftover cheese that is maybe too small or is a bit too wonky that we cancel to retail, then get sent to the deli. It's used in.
you know, maybe the sandwiches, maybe in some part of the menu. And yeah, we're really happy that we don't throw away any food.
That is awesome. So clearly, again, I love the brand and stuff. So for those aspiring people that are potentially watching this, how do you engage and connect with your audience and how do you build that strong brand like you have? What were some of your secrets?
Um, like you mentioned before as well, I think it's important to really understand your customers. So one thing that we love to do is also help small brands, small companies that maybe, you know, we're like going to like a farmer's market, we see this new, like kimchi product, we, you know, start to, to interact with, uh, with the owner. We become friends and then we're like, cause everyone is DIYing everything, you know, when you're like such a small.
such a small brand, you don't have the money to pay an agency. We were lucky that being both designer, we could remove all those costs. And yeah, I was saying that because understanding what's your product, where you're trying to position it, who are your customers is kind of like clearly defining how you're gonna build your brand, what's going to be your tone of voice.
What kind of style are you going to also use in terms of communicating that? Whether it's on Instagram, are you going to use photos? Are you going to use illustrations? What kind of tone of voice are you using in your captions? Is it always founder focused because you're really proud of maybe your roots and you want to connect? Or is it more product focused? Or are you focusing more maybe on the industry and then every now and then...
bring up your product. There's different ways that will then work. So I think there's a lot of errors and trials in that, but I think having a very strong benchmark of brands you aspire to, it's a good starting point to then use that as your north star to build your brand.
Yeah, I agree completely. So those are some good.
Yes, sorry. Yeah, sorry, there was a bit of delay. And just to add something up on that, when we started the company, we always picture our brand being stock at Self-Reduce, which is a very high-end shop here in London. They have an amazing food court, like beautiful products. And we always thought, this is where we wanna see our product. So we wanna build a brand that can easily sit in the shelf.
And yeah, that's a good exercise, you know, see how to, you know, what to do in order to like get to where you want to go.
Absolutely, no, I think having, it's called big, hairy, audacious goals. So like you set that goal when you're starting out. Like I want my product on the shelf at Selfridges. I lived in London for a little while way back when, so I know exactly, I can picture it in my mind exactly what you're saying. So that is awesome. So what is next for I Am Not Okay? What innovative ideas, what new projects and products are you coming out with this year into next year?
Well, one of the things we would love to do, hopefully next year, is start, you know, go across the bone and like maybe reach Europe, the American market. Cause also, again, as I said, just coming back from LA, we noticed that there's a lot of like good products, but we still think that's...
you know, space in the market. So I think being able at some point to be in a position where we can start to export our products, uh, was like, you know, France, Germany, and Italy in Europe, and then the United States, that will be, uh, a great achievement, a great goal. And then what else I can share? Basically, um, we were like pushing more and more for our mozzarella to become the
vegan mozzarella in the market. And I think we're doing something right because we were able over the past few years to induce a lot of pizza chain to drop what they were using and start using our cheese because again, it smells really well, it looks great. Once melted, it tastes amazing. And I think there's a lot of work that we're like doing behind the scene in terms of like educating chefs, educating the customers,
you know, when you can provide something good, especially into the food service, that will really help a lot of people to convert and having, you know, a more open-minded food, because it's hard to make a choice when you're like shopping around, because maybe you don't want to buy some cheese, but it's easy to try it if someone is cooking it for you. So that was also one of my, one of my experience when I wasn't vegan at the time.
My negative experience was like having a margarita with vegan mozzarella and the cheese just didn't work. So my whole experience, my whole thoughts about what vegan cheese tastes and look was like completely ruined. So I think we want to kind of reverse engineer that and offer something that even if you're not vegan, whether you're like flexitarian, whether you want to eat some good food, you're still able to have that experience.
That's exactly right. I mean, everybody loves a good strawberry banana smoothie and nobody realized, everybody doesn't realize that's vegan. So like if we can make the cheese taste just as good as the animal cheese, then just nobody will know. It's a great strategy. I love it and I can't wait to taste it. I really appreciate you coming on the show. So hit us, tell us a little bit more about how can people support you.
What is the best way to get in touch? What's the website? What's your contact details?
Of course. So I guess the easiest way would probably be via Instagram, which is the social media where we are like most active and our account is just I'm not okay.
You can also send us an email if you want, we'd love to hear what people think, if you have any questions. And that's usually hello at I'm not okay. Or if you go on our website, if you want to browse around, prefer our products to some friends, maybe even buy them a gift and order a bestseller bundle to get to their door.
Christmas is not around the corner but it's happening quite soon. That's usually a great way to share some love with some friends. And a great way to also support an independent business like ours. So any kind of word of mouth or tag anywhere is always greatly appreciated.
That's awesome. Yeah, I can't say that enough. I've done that for several of my friends and got them a couple cheese packages. So do you ship here to the United States?
Not yet, we're looking to hopefully have our vegan parmesan, because it's the only protein that we have right now that's ambient, getting to the US soon. First of all we have like a long shelf life so that's helping with distribution and then it tastes good so it's one of the ones that we really want to push so I'll keep you updated.
Yeah, we got to get it on the website so you can at least pay the larger fee and ship it if you really want to for now. But yeah, and then I would say you're going to Europe, that crossed the pond that way and go across the pond to America here and bring the cheeses here. But I think there's a huge vegan community up in Sweden, Netherlands area. If you check out Kale United and stuff like that up there. So check them out. There's some great connections there.
So, well, thank you again, Neva, for being here. That's all the time we have for this episode of Plant Based on Fire. And we really, really appreciate you joining us and sharing your insights and experiences.
Thank you, Brian.
My pleasure, thank you so much.
So until next time everybody, keep those fires burning. We'll talk soon.