BUTE ISLAND FOODS
Before becoming vegan I thought that I would never be able to take the plunge because I loved cheese so much… cheese pizza, cheese on toast, cheese sandwiches... my diet consisted of cheese, cheese and more cheese. However, on October 5th 2002, I finally knew I had to take the step and do it - and I was delighted to discover that amazingly enough there is such a thing as vegan/dairy-free cheese. In fact, there are lots of varieties of vegan/soya cheese available. It is a lack of knowledge that causes many non-vegans to not realise how many great vegan items are available. With that in mind, we thought we’d introduce you to Bute Island – the makers of the popular vegan cheese known as Sheese, a product that I now can’t live without – and that you should try if you haven’t.
Shari Black Velvet: The company is run by four of you, Mark and Guy Crichton and Pete and Mike Manvell. I’m guessing you’re two sets of brothers? How did you meet the other brothers and why/how did the four of you decide to come together at Bute Island Foods?
Mark Crichton: Yes, we are two sets of brothers, and also cousins. Our mothers are sisters and they moved up to the Orkneys (at the top of Scotland) when we were toddlers, so the four of us grew up together. We were educated at home, learning a whole range of practical skills, as opposed to academic qualifications, encouraged to think for ourselves rather than being ‘schooled’, fed with a mass of knowledge that we can now get from the internet any time we might need it. We have known each other ever since and enjoy working together. Mike has now moved on to take up a different career in England, but still in contact socially, of course. The two other directors are Debbie Dawson and Francois Lintermans.
SBV: The company was founded in the late 80s. Who originally came up with the idea for the dairy free cheese and who founded it?
MC: A small group of friends of ours used to experiment making different vegan products and came up with the initial idea. They then started manufacturing them in a small way and gradually the products and the company progressed. In 1991, they modernised an old building on the Isle of Bute and set up the factory that we still use now. In 2003, they decided that they wanted to start a new business growing organic vegetables in the Orkneys. We were delighted to buy the business which was ideal for us, as we didn’t eat any dairy products and were keen to encourage a healthy diet and a more caring attitude towards animals.
SBV: How do you find the internet as a tool for your company? Do you sell a lot via online stores? You no doubt are discovered by a lot of people online, also.
MC: Most of the enquiries we receive from new customers are made through the internet as it is so easy for people to look at a range of products in this way. We supply online stores in the UK and many other countries. Online stores are ideal for countries where our distribution is not as good as in the UK as there are often not as many independent health food shops there, and so online is a much easier way for people to buy our products. Sheese is currently sold in independent health food shops throughout the UK and in 15 other countries around the world.
SBV: How have you come up with the different flavourings and what ingredients have you found to be the most beneficial?
MC: The way we come up with different flavourings is a long, painstaking and expensive process of experimentation, and is a crucial part of the recipe for each different type of Sheese. We consider that any of the ingredients that go to make our product a tempting and tasty alternative to unhealthy cow products must be beneficial. Of course, we can guarantee that everything is 100% vegan.
SBV: What would you say to people who eat dairy cheese – in order to get them to try Bute Island’s cheese? What are the pros of eating your cheese?
MC: The main pro is that there is no suffering for any animals through the production of our Sheese, and it is not made from rotting milk, a baby food intended only for cows, which we believe causes disease in humans. Also it tastes great and is a much healthier option. We have 9 flavours of hard Sheese and 5 Creamy Sheese so there is nearly always a flavour to suit everyone’s taste.
SBV: There are other brands of soya cheese around. Do you think Bute Island has anything that they don’t?
MC: We have recently (September this year) been awarded Best Vegan Cheese, and Best Vegan Product by Viva, and we won Best Vegan Manufacturer at Yaoh 2009 Environmental Awards (as voted for by the public). That speaks for itself. However, we think it is great that there are more alternatives available now, and they are quite different from Sheese. They all make it easier for people to convert to dairy-free eating. The consistency of our hard Sheese is firm and there is no wetness. We also produce bold flavours which are very popular like Blue, and the tangy Strong Cheddar, also the award winning Smoked Cheddar. If you are looking for milder, milkier flavours then Mozzarella and Cheshire are perfect. When we developed the Creamy Sheese range, we really wanted to create something that was smooth, spreadable and tasted like dairy cream cheese. The Original Creamy Sheese (which was intended to be similar to Philadelphia) is very versatile, and can be used in cooking to make savoury or sweet dishes, or just enjoyed on crackers etc. The Mexican style is great if you are looking for something a bit spicy and the Garlic and Herb (which won a Gold Great Taste Award) is great for people looking for a dairy free product similar to Boursin.
SBV: Would you ever expand the company to doing other food products?
MC: Yes we would. In Jan 2007 a new automatic production line was set up with a 100% increase in production levels, and so this does mean that we have a little more time for product development. We do intend to bring out some new products in the future (when the present economic crises is over), but we prefer what they are to be a surprise.
SBV: I’d actually really, really like a company in the UK to come up with some good cheese flavoured crisps. What do you think about that?
MC: Sheese flavoured crisps? Mmm, yes, seems a good idea. I’d fancy some of those myself. It would be worth considering if it didn’t entail adding a whole new element and additional equipment to our production line, though.
SBV: Do you think any other area of the vegan food spectrum is currently not catered for very well?
MC: There isn’t one area that springs to mind, off hand, as I’m visualising the present range of vegan products that keeps improving and expanding all the time.
SBV: What would you say are the main obstacles of being an independent food company?
MC: The cow cheese market and other animal foods production being subsidised by taxation on small non-animal food companies such as ours. Time-wasting bureaucracy and form filling, that one has to take expensive courses in, just to understand it, and which has now replaced common sense.
SBV: Is it hard to get the products into all the big supermarkets?
MC: Yes, it is hard to get into the supermarkets, although we were in Sainsbury’s for a year or so due to the number of consumer requests they received, and the products were selling well. Unfortunately our products were de-listed as the recession hit and they were replaced with a dairy cheese that is lactose-free as it was cheaper. The countrywide Wholefoods Market in the USA started stocking Sheese in Florida. They have done well and so have recently extended it to the Mid-Atlantic Region. Now it’s wait and see. Our products are available in supermarkets in other countries in Europe – for example Sweden and Spain.
SBV: On your website you have a few quotes. How about ending with one of your favourite inspirational quotes?
MC: My favourite at the moment is: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the ways its animals are treated” ~ Mahatma Gandhi
Visit www.buteisland.com for more info.