Clean food is the goal for Mosheim based Vegan Valley, and the small, local food manufacturer has just been awarded a state grant to continue pursuing that goal in a larger facility.
Vegan Valley owners Gregg and Samma Highland have been producing dairy alternative “cheeze” sauces since 2013. Currently, Vegan Valley offers 4 flavors – Mild Original, Nacho Queso, Jalapeno Queso, and Alfredo – all made from organic cashews. All sauces are kosher certified and vegan, come in 16-ounce lead-free glass jars, and have a refrigerated shelf life of one year.
Married since 1983, Gregg and Samma moved to Mosheim from Atlanta, Georgia, in 2012. Gregg is from the midwest, but Samma’s roots in Greene County go back generations, and the pair were eager to return to Samma’s family’s farm in Mosheim.
After raising a daughter who has severe food allergies, the Highlands became deeply invested in helping people who deal with allergies and health problems to mitigate their symptoms through a healthy, natural diet.
“So many things we have in nature can do wonders,” Samma said.
Gregg and Samma bring different but complementary strengths to their business. Samma is a University of Tennessee graduate with a degree in food science and nutrition. She worked as a dietician in Atlanta and now uses her knowledge and experience as Vegan Valley’s food scientist to develop its products. Gregg has a strong background in the restaurant business, and he now focuses his attention on marketing and promoting Vegan Valley. Samma and Gregg have six employees.
In July, Vegan Valley was granted $50,000 from the Tennessee Department of Agriculture as part of the Agriculture Enterprise Fund created to support growth in Tennessee agribusiness. Gregg Highland said they will use the funds to expand their manufacturing facility from 1,400 to 5,000 square feet.
They also plan to purchase automated equipment and more walk-in coolers. One machine they plan to buy will cut their production time to less than a quarter of what it is currently.
All that improvement won’t change Vegan Valley’s profile in the community, however.
The company, located on Old Kentucky Road West in Mosheim, does not look like a food manufacturing facility, and the Highlands want to keep it that way.
“We want to keep it low key,” Gregg said. Even when their building more than triples in size, it will look like it’s just a barn on the outside – nothing out of the ordinary. Gregg said they like that they like to “keep it rural and hide in plain sight.”
After relocating from Atlanta and up until 2017, the Highlands also operated a food preparation and delivery service.
The service was highly personalized and tailored to each client’s individual needs. Samma made individual menus for each client based on what they like and are able to eat. Many of their clients were forced to eliminate dairy from their diets for a variety of reasons. Cheese, in particular, can be one of the most difficult foods to give up.
“When people go vegan, they miss chocolate and they miss cheese,” Gregg said. So, the Highlands began working on vegan “cheeze” sauces so that people who could no longer eat cheese didn’t have to miss it too much. Gregg noted that they use the spelling “cheeze” to avoid unintentional confusion with dairy cheese.
Delivering food to their clients multiple times a week meant that they got to know each of them very well and considered them friends. After one client they were particularly close with passed away from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), “I just couldn’t do it anymore,” Gregg said.
So, the Highlands decided to focus exclusively on producing a clean, plant-based alternative to so many people’s favorite food – cheese.
Although the Highlands have experimented with other materials, such as beans, for their “cheeze” sauces, they focused on cashews for a few reasons.
The blended cashews’ consistency is one reason. It’s smooth like Velveeta, both the Highlands agree. This is due to the cashew’s “good natural fat content, which makes it creamy,” Samma said. For this reason, it’s also unnecessary to add oils.
Samma said that getting the texture and “mouthfeel” right is imperative when it comes to creating a dairy-free product that will work as a substitute for dairy.
“The challenge for a food scientist and nutritionist is to make good-tasting things without the bad stuff. It can be a challenge to imitate,” Samma said.
The cashew is also very nutritious. “It has everything,” Samma said. From Samma’s professional perspective, the ratios between protein, carbs, and fat in the cashew make it one of the best substitutes for a variety of foods.
“If you don’t do dairy, soy, or gluten, or you want to do the paleo diet, it’s a good substitute,” Gregg said.
To achieve a taste similar to cheese made from dairy, they do add other ingredients such as pimentos or tomatoes.
As for preservatives, Vegan Valley does not use any chemicals.
“Not all preservatives are bad. There are natural preservatives,” Samma said. Natural preservatives, such as rosemary extract, kill mold, fungi, and viruses just as well as chemicals without compromising a product’s status as organic and natural.
“Our biggest thing is we want food to be as clean as possible,” Samma said.
In addition to physically expanding the Vegan Valley facility with their recently awarded grant money and purchasing new equipment, Samma has also been working on some new products. She said she has been developing a vegan sour cream and cream cheese. Samma is also interested in experimenting more with beans as a base for more products.
These products are still in the testing stages, however, and the Highlands are unsure of when exactly they will be ready to start selling them.
“We’re never happy until we’ve tested it 1,001 times,” Gregg said.
Vegan Valley products are non-GMO and organic, and the Highlands are working towards those official certifications.
United Natural Foods Inc. delivers Vegan Valley sauces to Whole Foods and a variety of health food stores throughout the southeast. They have recently also been added to Ingles’ shelves and sell their products online. With the expansion on the horizon the Highlands look forward to growing their market.
For more information on Vegan Valley, or to place an order, visit www.veganvalley.net.