A Nut-free, Dairy-Free Queso Nacho Sauce, Just In Time for the Super Bowl
LOCA Foods founder Lauren Joyner is out to change the classic American diet, one junk food habit at a time. Her new potato-based queso, which tastes and acts just like the artery-clogging nacho cheese version, is now ready for order, just in time for the big game. Once upon a time, we used to go to ballparks and movie theaters and order nacho cheese topped chips to sit on our laps and get soggy, then sit in our bodies and cause heart-unhealthy high cholesterol. That was then. LOCA offers a plant-based alternative, made from potatoes. Just in time for your appropriately-small Superbowl LV party, LOCA is offering you a better alternative to traditional cheese sauces.
Joyner, who grew up on a diet of meat and cheese and admits she still loves it, launched LOCA to recreate that nostalgic nacho taste made with vegetables so you can enjoy your favorite junk food, guilt-free. Imagine a day, just a few years ago, with her peeling potatoes in a test kitchen, hair knit and gloves on, all by herself, experimenting with formulations and cooking times, consistency, and spices. Now fast forward to today, when she was out to raise $1 million to bring her potato-based queso to market and ended up raising more, as eager investors chased her out of their offices with checks. It's been a long, potato-starch-filled road, but like all overnight successes, she started with a dream, turned it into a plan, and worked like a dog to get here. Before you click off and order your LOCA in time for the big game, read this and get inspired to launch your next big life-changing idea.
The Beet: Why did you launch this healthier non-dairy alternative, made of potatoes?
Lauren Joyner: I was raised on a meat-and-dairy heavy diet.
I'm from the south and lived in Tennesse, and New Orleans before moving to San Francisco a few years ago. We ate a lot of cheese dip or queso. We considered macaroni and cheese to be a vegetable. My friends and family back home became more interested in adding more plants into their diets but made it very clear that cheese dip was something they could never give up (and I couldn’t blame them). But traditional cheese sauces are high in trans fat, preservatives, and artificial ingredients.
For me, growing up queso was just a staple and at every family gathering or party, you are always going to find it on the table. And when I graduated from college I slowly improved my diet. And started to move toward a plant-based diet. And the cheese was the last thing I could bring myself to give up. Not any cheese but the processed cheese, Cheese Whiz and Velvita, and that kind of processed cheese. When I kicked that habit obviously I felt so much better. But when I told my friends back home I heard a lot of consistent things. A lot of people swore they could never give up cheese. And I could relate.
So your goal was to make a plant-based cheese that tasted like processed cheese?
Lauren: I started my company with one goal: to make a cheese sauce similar in palate and texture and flavor to what I was used to eating. Really making sure it had that meltability and taste I just loved. For a lot of people I knew, it would not be easy to make a transition to plant-based eating and this would make it easier for thm.
I wanted to give an alternative to the nut cheeses since many people have allergies. The majority of the cheese alternatives at the time were made of cashew and almonds. And a lot of people are nut allergies so they could never eat that. The third thing was accessibility. A lot of people live in food deserts. Maybe there is one place to shop for their groceries but it could be a Walmart and you have to drive far to get there.
The Beet: So how did it go? Where did you test it out?
Lauren: I started in an industrial kitchen, and just played with it. We soft-launched the product at the beginning of 2019, testing the nacho sauce in places like Oracle Park baseball stadium, The University of San Francisco, and corporate offices. The test market was a success. The product was such a hit with students at UofSF that the culinary team served LOCA daily in their main cafeteria, at one point completely replacing the dairy nacho cheese that was previously available.
I spent months preparing for a national foodservice debut this past Spring. After it became clear that COVID-19 wasn’t going anywhere, I had to revise the business plan to focus on launching in e-commerce and we managed to get it done ahead of schedule.
The Beet: So now that movies and ballgames are a no-fly zone how did you pivot?
Lauren: Once I saw that this thing has got some traction and legs I went out and was able to raise a bit of money to scale up and grow. Before COVID hit, I was planning to launch in food service, ballparks, and movie theaters. But COVID had other plans. And so I decided to launch in e-commerce and online.
So as of January 1st, it launched online. Amazon reached out but we are direct to consumers on Shopify. In talks with online retailers. I love Amazon but I wanted to allow the operation side of things to get smooth, and get all that in working order and just go with amazon.
I have scaled up with a co-manufacturer in Los Angeles and in addition to them being able to produce a significant amount of product, the shelf life is long. its shelf-stable, 12 months. So that means it does not require refrigeration for storage. It can be on a dry shelf. LOCA is the first shelf-stable queso sauce made with only veggies and whole ingredients!
The long-term mission is to target flexitarians. If I can get people to eat my cheese instead of dairy that's a win. I care about animal welfare and climate change and sustainability. And I want to help people eat more plant-based foods–that would be a win for me.
The Beet: So it's definitely better for humans. Is it also better for the planet?
Lauren: Yes! Through sustainable sourcing and swapping nuts (out) for potatoes, LOCA eliminates the high usage of water and excess greenhouse gas emissions that the livestock industry is notorious for. By sourcing sustainably farmed vegetables to make our nacho sauce, LOCA is a tasty way to lessen humankind’s impact on the one planet we have. By making it allergen, conflict, and cruelty-free, LOCA is making it easier to enjoy nacho sauce as often as you want.
The Beet: I'm so impressed you raised your round so quickly! Tell me more!
Lauren: We were able to close the round a little oversubscribed. We set out to raise a seed round $1.3 million seed round and it just closed and we are oversubscribed. Brendan Brazier is one investor on the list. People joined in who are in a mission-aligned space. Siddhi Capital was the lead investor. Curt Albright at Clear Current Capital. He's invested in Alpha Foods, Abbot's Butcher, and others. And a relatively new fund. Allison Rose of Rose Culinary, who is a female investor who invested in a lot of the Michelin star restaurants in the SF area.
KitchenTown is also an investor. KitchenTown, a test kitchen for product development, in San Mateo, where I got my start. The CEO of KitchenTown is an investor, Rusty Schwartz. During my early days. I spent many a long night hand-peeling potatoes and wearing a hairnet and trying different formulations at KitchenTown. That was back in 2018. It was only me, and for employees: Just me!
The Beet: What exactly goes into the queso?
Lauren: Fresh potatoes, tomatoes and jalapenos, and tons of veggies in there. We are using sunflower oil. We made the decision to add the oil in there to make that similar fatty mouthfeel you get when you eat dairy cheese sauce. It has a bold Cheddar flavor. It does have sodium. We're not parading it as anything other than an indulgence. Trying to match that intense flavor of processed cheese, so we wanted to add the oil and spices. We have mild and spicy flavors. Mild is a bold cheddary flavor with hints of spice. And the spicy is loaded with jalapeno and nice and tangy.
You can now purchase LOCA Potato Queso on their website eatlocafood.com.