San Leandro, California

Founder and CEO Phäedra Randolph harnesses technology to manufacture an array of affordable, non-dairy cheese spreads from sunflower seeds.

Nothing pairs with bagels quite like the flavor of cream
cheese. However, if someone is allergic to dairy products — or has qualms
about the environmental impact of dairy farming — that traditional topping
option might be a non-starter.

If you happen to be one of those people, Randolph’s company
has your back — or better yet, your gut. Spero Foods manufactures non-dairy cream
cheese using shelled sunflower seeds along with modest amounts of coconut oil
to create a mouthfeel similar to dairy. There’s a plain cream cheese version as
well as flavored ones including herb, strawberry, and a tasty smoked salmon — the
latter being a NEXTY award
winner this year in the category of Best New Dairy or Meat Alternative. There
are goat and cheddar cheese spreads, too.

The website for Spero Foods
boldly declares its cheese spreads to be “the future of dairy.” For Randolph,
that means creating “plant-based products at the nexus of affordability and
quality.” She adds, “We need to remove access barriers to healthy food. And
that’s exactly Spero’s number one vision: create affordable, quality dairy

In terms of human health, Randolph points to the “whole host
of vitamins and minerals that are just undeniably good for human nutrition” that
are inherent in sunflower seeds, as well as the gut-friendly probiotic
culturing of each product. And, in terms of planetary health, the company cites how sunflower seeds
produce 99 percent less carbon dioxide when compared with cows, require 97
percent less space in terms of land to grow than cashews, and use 96 percent
less water than almonds.

When it comes to availability,
the products are appearing across ever-wider swaths of the country. For example, Spero
Foods products can be found at Central Market in Texas, Gelson’s and Erewhon
shops in California, and Balducci’s stores in Connecticut, Maryland, New York,
and Virginia.

“This year has been a big year for us,” says Randolph. “We
expanded into Fresh Thyme, into The Fresh Market, and into Kroger and Sprouts.
So, these are all stores that are launching this year, as well as into university
campuses.” Indeed, food service — providing two-pound tubs of sunflower cream
cheese as well as one-ounce packaged portions — is a rapidly expanding
revenue stream for the company.

In terms of affordability, Randolph points out how the price
of her sunflower cream cheese is comparable to the same-size version sold by at
least one major cream cheese brand (think the one with the East Coast city
name). In researching all the possibilities, sunflower seeds made the most
sense to her, rather than corn, beans, or soy. “I just couldn’t believe that no
one had done this before,” she says about utilizing sunflower seeds. Randolph
adds that, “They’re cheap. They have lipids and protein,” before she pivots to the technological hurdle she had before her. “How do you use them? That’s where
the science came in.”

Science and technology are areas of expertise for Randolph. While a high
school student in Colorado, she took college level courses at the Colorado
School of Mines. Then she went to Cornell University. “I studied both
engineering and science,” she says. “My major was in the College of
Engineering, but then I was also pre-medicine. So, I studied all of the biological
sciences as well.” It was during those late-high school, early-college years
that she also realized she had health problems related to consuming dairy
products. While Randolph found plenty of dairy alternatives, the flavors didn’t
impress her — and they cost plenty of cash to purchase.

Today, Spero Foods works out of a 35,000-square-foot
manufacturing plant, complete with food lab, in San Leandro, California. She
says of her product line of sunflower cheese spreads, “It’s made in a very
novel way to preserve as much of the nutrition and integrity of the product as
possible.” There are proprietary processes at work, as well. “We have 21 global
patent applications filed covering a variety of method and composition claims
for turning seeds into dairy and egg alternatives.” That’s right. Soon Spero
Foods will be releasing an egg
made using green pepita seeds.

But back to bagels for a moment. How are those types of shops
responding to Randolph’s sunflower cream cheeses? Presently, Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen locations in
the Bay Area and Los Angeles offer her products as a schmear option. “There are
not as many bagel shops out here,” she says of the West Coast. “That’s why
bagel shops [and] cafes in the northeast are so exciting for us, because of the
high density of them.” So much so that Spero Foods is opening a distribution
center in the Northeast. Randolph adds, “We’ve done really well in Black Seed and Zucker’s — they’re incredible partners —
and those are in New York City. And it’s the perfect groundwork to launch into
more locations, and really build that narrative, and build that
trust with consumers.”

All in all, there’s a lot to be hopeful about for Randolph —
who was recognized, just this year, by Forbes within its “30 Under 30” list. In fact, Randolph highlights how the word “Spero” comes from the Latin
word for “hope.”

“I wanted the name ‘Spero’ to denote everything we’re trying
to do — which is create a better world and a better future,” says Randolph.
“And I think that if you don’t have hope, then nothing really drives you to do

Challenges: Reaching new consumers across different
regions and markets. “How do we ensure we’re always appealing to a wide array
of people in a wide array of places — on social media and our website, and
[with] our branding and our marketing?” Randolph muses.

Opportunities: Randolph says the opportunity is, “To
be a leading, trusted brand in dairy alternatives that people look for in their
conventional grocery stores and buy for their families across a variety of
cheese products and egg products and other dairy products.”

Needs: “Right now, we’re scaling,” says Randolph, who
hopes to be operating soon out of a space nearly three times as large as her
present facility. “We’re building out our manufacturing plant and investing
into that. So, investing into building out the automation and continuing to
support marketing in new sectors is the biggest need and focus right now.”

Photos courtesy Spero Foods