Brooklyn-based vegan brand NUMU just teamed up with Whole Foods, working to develop a plant-based cheese pizza under the radar. Before the partnership, NUMU’s signature dairy-free mozzarella was limited to select pizzerias in the New York City area. Now, Whole Foods will be featuring NUMU's plant-based cheese at its pizza stations nationwide.

NUMU founder Gunars Elmuts set out to replicate dairy-free mozzarella after adopting a plant-based diet in 2011. The entrepreneur found that the food he missed most was pizza, and at the time, he was unable to find a proper substitute to the American classic. Without an alternative sufficient for savory late-night food, Elmuts took matters into his own hands. He developed a recipe for vegan mozzarella using coconut oil, potato starch, tapioca starch, and other ingredients to enhance the taste.

“Pizza was one of the foods I missed the most when I went vegan in 2011,” Elmuts said to VegNews. “The high-end New York pizzerias I used to frequent weren’t impressed with the offerings that existed [back then] so I decided to try and make one that they would be willing to use in their restaurants.”

Before he figured out production and distribution, Elmuts started bringing his own cheese to pizzerias and ordering his pizza without dairy cheese. Elmuts’ innovative mozzarella blocks earned him notoriety among the pizzerias that he frequented, and eventually, pizzerias started approaching him to purchase his cheese. After working with several pizzerias over the years, Elmuts perfected his plant-based mozzarella and set out to expand his unintentional vegan company NUMU.

“I had to figure out how to commercially produce the mozzarella. It was a steep learning curve,” Elmuts said. “Our goal is to have a vegan option become the norm for all places that serve pizza. Much like coffee shops now, we hope having a dairy-free cheese option will be automatic for everyone.”

Elmuts’ recipe is distinguishable from other dairy-free cheeses due to its hyper-focus on texture. The founder aimed to create a plant-based cheese with a mild flavor and no aftertaste, but more importantly, he wanted something that mirrors the melting ability and texture of traditional mozzarella. Soon, his plant-based mozzarella shreds caught Whole Foods’ attention.

Before teaming up with Whole Foods, NUMU gained the attention of high-profile restaurants across New York. The Michelin-reviewed Xilonen located in Brooklyn introduced a selection of Mexican-inspired dishes using NUMU’s cheese. Meanwhile, in Manhattan, Willow is serving vegan comfort food including truffle mac and cheese and eggplant lasagna using the NUMU cheese.

NUMU Plans to Arrive at Pizzeria Nationwide

After making a name for himself in New York City, Elmuts’ company secured a successful funding round late last year. NUMU closed its Series A funding round alongside lead investors Unovis Asset Management and Clear Current Capital. The investment package will be dedicated to expanding marketing campaigns, national distribution, and product development. Elmuts hopes that the money will be used to put NUMU on the national stage.

“This is an exciting time for NUMU as we continue to develop the brand and expand our distribution,” Elmuts said. “Thanks to our continued partnership with investors like Unovis and Clear Current, who have extensive experience in the plant-based food space, we are well-positioned to bring NUMU to a much wider audience.”

NUMU’s plant-based mozzarella intends to provide plant-based consumers with an alternative to one of the most desired food items in the country. Although Elmuts did not intend to start his vegan cheese company, he successfully filled an empty space in a rapidly growing market. The vegan dairy market is expected to exceed $32 billion by 2030, with cheese alternatives noted as the “next frontier” in plant-based innovation. NUMU’s accelerated growth signifies the real demand for a plant-based mozzarella that cooks and tastes like traditional dairy products.

"We are excited to increase our investment in NUMU at this pivotal moment," Managing Partner at Unovis Mark Langley said. "About two-thirds of the world's population is lactose intolerant, yet non-dairy cheese is still a rarity in pizza shops.  The NUMU team has created a truly differentiated product with high performing melt, stretch, and taste qualities for pizzerias."

Whole Foods’ Vegan Hot Bar

Whole Foods’ vegan cheese slice is not the first plant-based addition to arrive at the iconic hot bar. The grocery chain has previously partnered with several companies including Lightlife to enhance its plant-based offerings. Last year, the company partnered with Lightlife’s parent company, Greenleaf Foods, to begin offering a vegan grilled chicken using pea protein. The proprietary plant-based chicken is featured in Whole Foods’ cold bars, grab-and-go sections, and prepared food sections alongside the hot bar.

Extending its collaboration with Greenleaf, Whole Foods also brought in Eat Just to develop a breakfast sandwich using vegan meat from one of Greenleaf’s subsidiary companies, Field Roast. The Plant-Based Breakfast Sandwich featured a JUST Egg Folded with a Field Roast Plant-Based Breakfast Sausage. To complete the signature breakfast sandwich, Whole Foods’ hot bar also included an Original Cheese Slice from Chao Creamery. Although only available for a limited-time offer, Whole Foods continues to experiment with plant-based foods at its hot bar.

“Whole Foods is known for its high-quality, nutritious, and convenient meal options, and we are excited to partner & launch this innovation to satisfy their customers,”  Chief Research, Development, and Food Technology Officer of Greenleaf Foods, SPC Jitendra Sagili said. “This unique, versatile design is the result of collaboration with Whole Foods Market’s culinary team that has a taste, color, and pull-apart texture that delivers on chicken experience.”