“The birth of Soft Spot Foods was a culmination of product design and food design with sustainability at the crux of it” – Anushi Patel
Anushi has always been passionate about creating something that can challenge current, unsustainable lifestyle habits. She pursued Industrial Design at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania when sustainability had gained momentum globally. The program was based on industrial materials such as plastic, metal and wood. She worked on a collapsible pizza box, did a thesis on food waste in America and worked on bioplastics made from cornstarch. In hindsight, she has always been drawn towards food, be it packaging, food waste or honing her practical culinary skills. Recently, we contacted Anushi Patel, the Founder of Soft Spot Foods to walk us through her journey, from a hard-core meat eater (rabbit, bear, pigeon to name a few) and now a Vegan Cheese Entrepreneur.
As a child Anushi was genuinely concerned about environmental issues. When she used to visit her grandmother and family in Baroda, she would spend most of her time in nature. The EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency was spreading awareness about the environment that time and Anushi was intrigued by a popular cartoon show called Captain Planet that focused on oil spills, water wastage and other environmental issues. With time, it faded as Anushi went into her teenage years, but it all came back as she learnt more about veganism and became aware of Climate Change.
Before Anushi’s journey started with Soft Spot she pursued a career in graphic design for about six-seven years in Mumbai. However, she always felt something was missing because her true interest lay in food. That is when she met Chef Alex Sanchez. She was eager to learn, and he kindly agreed to take her under his wing at Magazine Street Kitchen. Anushi immediately wrapped up her graphic design projects and dived into the kitchen. She met amazing mentors like Chef Divesh Aswani who professionalised her approach to food, quality control and maintaining certain standards. The biggest learning experience from her mentors was that one cannot “dumb” down the food to customers and that philosophy is what principally runs in Soft Spot Foods. Soft Spot strives to develop and introduce excellent vegan cheeses. People who get the importance of plant-based alternatives- get it and the ones who do not will learn eventually as awareness around climate change and plant-based foods increases.
Anushi started Soft Spot in 2019. She did not have a formal food technologist on board, she spent around 18 months formulating the delicious range of Soft Spot cheeses herself. She used her knowledge of industrial design and culinary skills to create a fast-growing brand.
Anushi’s interest in technically understanding cheese began with the book “On Food and Cooking” by Harold McGee, considered a food bible in the culinary world. She was reading the first chapter which is dedicated to dairy while she was travelling to Philadelphia. Her friends who had been vegan before her, took her to a vegan pizzeria. The cheese on the pizza was so delicious that Anushi instantly started thinking “if we have a substitute like this in India, people would be able to cut out dairy effortlessly” It was perfect timing as Anushi was looking to start a food business in the sustainability space and had recently gone vegan herself.
The Soft Spot journey is as follows:
During the end of December 2017 Anushi started experimenting from her home kitchen and it took 18 months to develop the product range. Anushi had no formal training for cheese making. When Anushi first came for the One Earth Festival in December 2018, she was making cheeses out of a home kitchen and the formulas were still being perfected. She had a cheesemonger display showcasing six to seven varieties of dairy-free cheese.
The response was overwhelming. The vegans were ecstatic to have so many options at One Earth Festival and Anushi found it motivating to see people enjoying the product. People who had given up dairy for the climate and their health, could now enjoy guilt-free cheese.
Soon Soft Spot Foods was professionalized. Anushi found a larger unit to begin manufacturing and after two years has a mentor on-board with plans to start a larger facility outside of Mumbai. Soft Spot is constantly working on new formulas. “This is something that will never stop happening” says Anushi. The vegan cheese industry is aware of the shortcomings in plant-based cheese, but they are working on making the sensory experience better and for the next big leap in technology where plant-based protein can behave in the same way as casein protein in dairy. With all the research and funding going into this space, the next few years will be really exciting according to Anushi. She is constantly tasting vegan cheeses from around the world. Over the last year several new brands have popped up and by scanning the ingredient list online, she knows what the cheese is going to taste like and how it will behave. For Soft Spot, she did not want to have solely starch and oil blend cheeses nor did she want to be the expensive artisanal cashew cheese, she wanted Soft Spot to be a blend of both. This is what has worked in the Indian market and Soft Spot is probably the first in the world to have such a wide range of vegan cheeses made in this hybrid style. From Soft Mozzarella, Cheddar and Parmezan to Truffle Cheese Spread made from cashew and watermelon seeds.
The softspotfoods.com website has all the info on this unique range and their choice to always improve customer awareness can be seen through their website features as well. The homepage has a “Find your cheese” feature where one can type a dish they want to cook and the website will show products that are suited to the recipe. Their Store Locator shows all the restaurants and stores around India that use their cheese. This year they have started in Kanpur, Surat, Jaipur, Indore, Nepal, Singapore and Maldives! Little Italy and ITC Hotels have started using Soft Spot cheese in their outlets across the country. Spot Foods have had a presence in Bangalore, Delhi, Goa, Chennai, Kolkata, Hyderabad and of course their home turf- Mumbai. However, Soft Spot is not immune to the classic cold-chain issues faced by small, growing companies in India. “We have certain ways of calculating how a shipment will need to get delivered to X location and we deal with that cost. There’s no way around it at the moment. During the pandemic we saw an uptick in sales as people were cooking more at home, this has helped us push and make ourselves available in cities across the country despite increasing fuel costs”
Given that people are becoming more aware of veganism and the health and climate benefits, especially post-pandemic, it is no surprise that Soft Spot Foods has seen a significant rise in sales. A lot of their customers are not vegans but just want to cut off dairy from their diet, be it women who have PCOD or young mothers who discover that their children are lactose intolerant. Over the last year, their sales have quadrupled, and they sell out everything they make (hence the requirement for a new facility with larger capacity).
The reason is clearly Soft Spot’s range of products that highlight their technical knowledge of vegan cheese. Soft Spot makes Parmesan, Cheddar, two types of Mozzarellas a Truffle Cheese Spread amongst others. Apart from that, the packaging design is unique in its own right. Graphically clean, toeing the line between mass and premium or rather “making premium accessible”. If Soft Spot is not compromising on its packaging, it is certainly not compromising on the actual product.
Among all the cheeses that were recreated and veganised, by Soft Spot, it was the cheddar cheese and the block cheeses that were the hardest to make. They need to ensure the texture is right when it’s eaten cold and it melts correctly. It’s 90% there, but they have not cracked it just yet. “The cheese-pull or stringiness that you see in pizza commercials, is not currently possible with plant-based cheese” They have a long way to go and the technology for it is not available yet. “I think it is a small compromise to make if you are getting a product with a lower carbon footprint that is cruelty-free and better for human health. Our cheeses still give the luscious, moreish mouthfeel and flavour found in dairy cheese. Stringiness can wait”
Anushi would love to make gourmet cheeses like brie and gorgonzola as well! Even though it is a whole different technique and the market for it is not large enough yet, she would love to work on it as a creative outlet. Anushi has experimented on Brie cheese but at this point, her goal is to make vegan cheese accessible to more people, so they can switch to a more sustainable lifestyle- that means manufacturing more of the cheddar, spread and mozzarella variants that are already widely adopted by Indians.
“We will be increasing our range of products and improving on the existing ones”
Anushi looks at food as a material with properties like moisture content, acidity, molecular structure. Her industrial design and culinary training have culminated perfectly to help her develop vegan products that are technically sound and loved by Soft Spot customers. When asked about what helps her get through bad days and what inspires her to shine brighter on the good ones, Anushi’s instantaneous reply was, “it is my team.”
Soft Spot is a team of twelve out of which ten are women. This is coincidental because Anushi does not believe in “only women,” rather choosing whoever is best suited for the job. In this case it just so happened that most of the people that qualified and reached out for the job, were women. “Perhaps women are more drawn towards the cruelty-free and compassionate aspects of a vegan business.” Anushi is immensely proud of her team, they are independent and treat the work and the company like their own baby. It is a proud moment for her to watch them grow along with the company.
Anushi’s team represents women empowerment and she gives the following advice to young girls who are trying to build a vegan business: –
“Pardon my language, but don’t take shit from anyone! If you are trying to validate veganism to someone and they are making fun of you, that is their problem, not yours. They are going to come around eventually. Do what your heart tells you, it is usually the right thing. It is okay to make an emotional decision. If you relate to your mission emotionally, you are going to stick to that mission for years to come. One does not need to be pragmatic all the time. You will do enough of that running your day to day business.” She ends her advice by saying “Women are good at following their intuition, they can sense what is needed by others. So believe in yourself and follow your heart.”
Anushi has valuable advice for entrepreneurs in general. A business is not just developing an amazing product and selling it, it is a host of different things like compliance, future funding and scaling. The better your business does the more work you will have on your plate. So enjoy the process of growing and do not be too fixated on goals.
You will also need several mentors/advisors/friends for different areas of competency. When it came to creating an initial business plan Anushi’s father had advised her that one can reduce the price of their product, but nobody wants to be in a position where they must increase it. “That made sense to me and I am fortunate to have mentors in my life that share their own unique logic. I did not want to do the cheap introductory pricing and we haven’t increased our price in three years. Despite increasing raw material and logistics costs. We don’t plan on increasing it for the next several years, if anything we will decrease it further as we scale and I am glad we chose a comfortable number to start our journey on” Anushi ends on that note by stating that having a good business advisor early on is the best asset.
Soft Spot is available on leading e-commerce platforms or Visit softspotfoods.com to find locations near you for their products.