Punk Rawk Labs' vegan cheese is the real deal
"We just got a ton of cashews delivered," says Julie Morgan Wellman. She's not being hyperbolic. "Literally we have to find space to store 2,000 pounds of nuts. I'm not just saying that for dramatic flair."
By most restaurants' standards, that amount would be unfathomable, a botched order of massive proportions. But at Punk Rawk Labs, the company Morgan Wellman owns and operates with founder Alissa Barthel, cashews are the backbone of the business. That might lead you to assume this duo is making tooth-breaking brittle, fancy butters, or bags of honey-roasted nuts. In fact, what they're making is cheese. Raw vegan cheese. Which is what exactly?
"A raw vegan diet is made up of fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, and sprouts all prepared by various methods, but never heated to over 118 degrees," explains Barthel. "The goal is to preserve enzyme activity, basically. Enzymes act like proteins and they denature at high temperatures. Keeping them intact insures optimal nutrition."
If Barthel's description sounds a little clinical, she comes by it honestly. Before getting turned on to living cuisine and graduating from a gourmet raw food academy, Barthel worked in a lab as a scientist. Her life changed dramatically after she started experiencing serious health problems following a car crash and a toxic exposure incident. "I had a lot of unexplained issues, and I found that I couldn't eat a lot of the same foods as I had before any of this stuff happened. I started making the raw vegan cheese as sort of a hobby while I was in physical therapy."
Realizing there was a demand and a built-in audience for her product, Barthel took to Kickstarter to come up with funding. The response was overwhelming. Everyone from raw food enthusiasts to people with lactose intolerance to those just trying to cut back on dairy showed their support for Barthel's work.
"Things just really blew up after the campaign. It seemed like overnight we went from being fine and comfortable in our old community kitchen to being at or over capacity," says Barthel.
So she teamed up with Morgan Wellman, who not only had experience in a grocery setting, having worked at the Seward Co-Op, but also had a background in retail as the owner of Hymie's Vintage Records.
"Our skill sets are different but very complementary," says Morgan Wellman. "Plus we share some dietary issues that make us that much more personally invested in our product."
The two got to work writing up a business plan and getting some additional investors to finance the build-out of a new dedicated space in the Corcoran neighborhood, right across the street from the Chatterbox Pub. The building has a space intended for the retail component of the business, which is still in the works, and a large state-of-the-art wholesale kitchen in the back.
"The kitchen is really the first of its kind in Minnesota," says Barthel, describing it as a cross between a kosher kitchen and a food lab. Since their product is raw, the Punk Rawk kitchen is not outfitted with stoves, ovens, or microwaves, but rather with dehydrators, blenders, and a special heat-sanitizing dishwasher. "We try to avoid using any kind of chemical treatments since our main audience is concerned about that," says Barthel.
The new digs have helped enormously in accommodating the ever increasing number of orders for Punk Rawk's cheeses. When Barthel started out, she was making only a few wheels a week to bring to local farmers' markets.
"The cheeses really didn't seem to take initially in the local farmers' market context. I think there was just not the familiarity or demand yet in the Midwest," says Barthel.
But it didn't take long for the trend to catch on. Barthel first started distributing to grocery stores in New York, and they sold out of their first orders almost immediately. "After that we got some national magazine exposure, and markets in L.A. and Portland followed," says Barthel. They now make and ship anywhere from 100 to 300 units a week, and the products are available in stores from here (specifically at the Linden Hills, Eastside, and Seward Co-ops) to St. Louis, Seattle, Cincinnati, and everywhere in between.
"We are constantly refining our process, and the cheese has only gotten better," says Morgan Wellman. One of the things that sets Punk Rawk apart in the vegan raw cheese game is that their product is actually fermented, closely mimicking the aging process that's required for traditional dairy cheese. "Once we blend up the nut milk with the probiotic, we allow it to ferment for a period of time. It adds to the taste, but it has health benefits as well."
Punk Rawk currently makes three different cheeses, each available in three different flavors: plain, herb, and smoked. The first and most expensive is the macadamia nut cheese, the hardest of the three, which would still be considered somewhat soft on the spectrum of traditional cheeses. It's fattier and fluffier, almost like a whole-milk ricotta but with a slightly tropical, oily aftertaste. The softer, milder, and more affordable one is the cashew cheese, which is very reminiscent of chevre — tangy, salty, and spreadable. Finally, they make a blended one that has the best of both worlds. "We are also rolling out a new flavor that we're very excited about," says Morgan Wellman. "It's a nacho cheese and it's really, crazy good."
Morgan Wellman recommends for anyone tasting the cheese for the first time to get familiar with it on its own or spread on a cracker. "From there you can really see what the possibilities are. It won't totally melt like a traditional cheese or even a cooked vegan cheese, but you can stir it into pasta, or we make a caprese salad with it," says Morgan Wellman. Palumbo's Pizza in St. Paul even dots it onto one of its pies after it comes out of the oven, a la chevre, allowing the residual heat to work its magic.
These recipes will all be integrated into Punk Rawk's retail space, eventually. "We want it to be sort of a small living cuisine deli," says Barthel. "But right now it's functioning as our office. We are still just trying to get our arms around the growth we're experiencing."
In the meantime they're sharing their tricks and tips in video form on their own online "Uncooking" show.
"We really just want to build up a community and make raw and vegan foods accessible and appealing to everyone," Barthel says.
Barthel's mint nib macaroons and raw chocolate truffles sound like a pretty good place to start.
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