San Francisco, California

Founder Lauren Joyner’s vegan queso sauces are quickly selling out online after the pandemic led her to pivot from the wholesale market.

Founder Lauren Joyner; Photos courtesy LOCA Food

Originally from Arkansas, Joyner launched LOCA Food out of a love for comfort food. “I grew up on a pretty meat- and dairy-heavy diet, and I ate a lot of processed cheese,” she says. “If you’ve gone to really anywhere in the South, cheese dip or queso is on the menu everywhere. It’s really the food that is put on the table at any kind of gathering. It’s sort of a bonding, comforting food.”

As Joyner began paying more attention to her diet, she gave up traditional processed cheese dip and began eating more vegetables. She also saw a gap in the market.

“I’m new to the food industry,” says Joyner, who was working on product and brand design with tech companies. “So I was really learning everything about the industry those first six months.”

Most of the dairy alternatives that were on the market in 2018 were nut-based. “They were made with cashews and almonds,” says Joyner. “I personally think those products are delicious, they’re not an option for people with food allergies.”

The plant-based alternatives were lacking in “taste and texture,” leading Joyner to look at potatoes as a base for an alternative queso sauce. Her rationale: They’re healthier, less prone to cause an allergic reaction, and need less water to grow than nuts.

By 2019, Joyner introduced her first product intended for large food-service companies like sports venues, local universities, and corporate campuses. She was working out of a commercial kitchen to start, then spent some time learning how to scale up the recipe and transitioned into co-packing.

When COVID-19 hit, “most of these industries were just closed overnight,” Joyner says. She transitioned LOCA to a direct-to-consumer product and launched it online in 2021. “This kind of major strategy pivot brought its own set of unique challenges,” she says. “We’ve been really fortunate to really exceed projections for e-commerce. We sold out of our spicy product, which is our second flavor within two months of launching.”

Joyner lists off other reasons how switching strategies had benefited her company: “We’re able to connect directly with customers. We can further develop the product. We can get that feedback. We can make changes as we’re doing more batches and really kind of understand what people like, what they don’t like, how we can grow, how we can make it better.”

LOCA has also benefited from more interest in healthier foods and alternatives to dairy. “Nearly 60 percent of U.S. households are actively purchasing plant-based foods in some form,” she says. “The flexitarian group is really, really growing.”

Joyner forecasts rapid growth for the company in multiple channels as the pandemic subsides. “We’re really going to focus on more e-commerce business for right now and then going back into food services as these channels open back up,” she says.

Her plan is to begin offering bulk products for food service soon, then expand into some brick-and-mortar outlets in 2022. “We are actually in the process right now of expanding our manufacturing and adding on additional co-manufacturers to support that volume,” she says.

Challenges: “COVID-related uncertainty, especially with regard to, or specifically with regards to food service,” Joyner says. “No one really knows, obviously, what’s going to happen. I think that’s probably the biggest challenge.”

LOCA’s other front-and-center challenge is “the general nature of scaling up the business and growing quickly.”

Opportunities: “What I think makes it so unique is the multichannel opportunity” Joyner says. “We want to expand in brick-and-mortar, e-commerce, and food service outlets, really tackling everywhere dairy cheese is sold.”

There’s a bigger trend at play: “We’ve seen a mass acceleration of the adoption of plant-based foods. In 2020 alone, plant-based food sales grew two times faster than overall food sales.”

Needs: “We definitely have plans to raise more funding within the next 12 months,” Joyner notes. “We do want to capture significant market share fairly quickly. The second need is obviously just in building up the team, getting more people to help that believe in what we’re doing and are excited.”