Imber Lingard is an entrepreneur whose artisan plant-based cheeses have captured the love of both vegan and non-vegan customers alike.

Imber possesses over a decade of experience navigating the very niche plant-based cheese markets in both North America and her home country of Australia. Her products have recently begun retailing at Woolworths nationwide under the newly created Imber’s Pantry brand. 

Future Alternative sat down with Imber to discuss her experiences of setting up shop in two different countries and why her customer segment goes well beyond plant-based.   

Fine Cultures founder Imber Lingard.
Imber Lingard.

What was your background before starting your vegan cheese businesses? 

Prior to starting my first brand – Vtopian Artisan Cheeses – in the US, I’d spent around 20 years in the hospitality industry working as everything from a receptionist, deli assistant, waitress, chef, to customer service and others in the UK, Australia, and the US. That was until I spent around one year eating my way through the US, trying the most incredible vegan food but noticing that I was still missing a cheese platter, cheese being the last thing I had given up since becoming a long-term vegetarian. 

Artisanal vegan cheeses from Fine Cultures.
Artisan vegan cheeses from Fine Cultures. Image via Fine Cultures.

While I was working at a vegan diner in Eugene, Oregon in the US, I had a potluck with my friends including my boss, during which I brought out a selection of vegan cheeses that I had created. My boss loved them and asked me to make them for the diner. The diner’s customers had the same reaction and wanted to buy them from me. Then a local natural food store repeatedly reached out to me to make the cheeses for them to sell. 

We did a kickstarter campaign to launch our business Vtopian Artisan Cheeses, and sent VegNews some cheeses to try. They loved the cheeses and posted our kickstarter on Facebook, which encouraged people to support us and pushed us through our initial goal. It really helped us expand our business to supply throughout the US and into Canada.

I also ended up opening a very busy, vegan cheese-inspired restaurant in Portland called Vtopia Restaurant and Cheese Shop, where we served around 40 different vegan cheeses – around 30 from Vtopian along with other brands we liked – a huge variety of soups, toasties, loaded Caesar salads, and more where we also incorporated vegan meats from our neighbouring shops.

It’s been over 10 years and I have been obsessed with vegan cheese and creating vegan products since. 

What are consumer attitudes like for vegan cheeses in the US compared to Australia, and what brought you back to your home country? 

I mostly experienced excitement in the US. That said, I lived in pretty progressive areas like Eugene and Portland, Oregon, where being vegan and eating vegan cheese was highly accepted even 10 years ago. 

I had a baby in the midst of having a busy vegan cheese business and a busy vegan restaurant and needed some sun (Portland is pretty rainy) as well as a break. That’s what brought us back to Australia. 

Artisanal vegan cheeses by Fine Cultures.
Artisan vegan cheeses by Fine Cultures. Image via Fine Cultures.

When I started in Australia, the vegan cheese market was definitely more established than it was when I started in the US,  though we are very innovative and have been producing many products that have not been available on the Australian market, or many other places in the world for that matter. 

When we launched Fine Cultures in Australia, it was early 2020 right around when the pandemic hit. It was an unusual time to start a food business because we couldn’t do tastings at stores due to restrictions and we were completely unknown.

Our main customers were flexitarians and people who wanted something artisan, something different. Vegans came on board much later. Somehow, the word spread and we were picked up by Harris Farm Markets, vegan specialty stores, organic stores, Market Organics, and Flannerys, among others.

Usually, we make over 50 different types of products and the processes are different depending on the product. Some methods are traditional and some I have invented. We always like to be working on something new, though right now we have a vibrant and amazing team who are solely focused on creating as many beautiful mozzarella balls for Woolworths as possible. 

Talking about your recent Woolworths launch, how did this cooperation come about, and does it represent a major milestone for your brand?

We received a call from Woolworths asking us if we wanted to be ranged in one of their stores only: Double Bay. I sent them some samples to try and it went from there. We ended up ranging nine Fine Cultures SKUs in the Double Bay Woolworths.

After being in that premium store for over a year, we were given the incredible opportunity to range in over 800 Woolworths stores in QLD, NSW, VIC, SA, NT, ACT and WA as a new brand – Imber’s Pantry.

We are currently ranging our Fresh Mozzarella in Brine exclusively to Woolworths and we will be releasing our White Camembert exclusively later in 2024.

This is a huge milestone for us and an opportunity that we are incredibly grateful for. Woolworths has been fantastic to work with from day one. 

You said in a past interview that the majority of your customers are not plant-based. As far as you’re aware, is that still the case for customers at your more large scale retail outlets such as Woolworths? 

Yes it is. Our customers are flexitarians, vegans, vegetarians, and people who have that one vegan friend. I think there are a lot of flexitarians out there who are trying to cut back on their dairy consumption and they want that gap filled and people who want that cheese platter without the dairy.

People want to have the same comfort and experience and not feel like they are missing out because they don’t want dairy. The latest cheeses we have been working on – Fresh Mozzarella in Brine, and not-yet-released White Camembert, Blue Vein Cheese, Greek-Style Feta, Cream Cheese, Ricotta, Halloumi, etc – are specifically dairy-like in taste and function but are completely dairy-free and plant-based.

What are some of your more popular products? 

For Imber’s Pantry it’s the Fresh Mozzarella in Brine. For Fine Cultures, our Caramelised Onion Camembert is our most popular cheese and incidentally was the most popular in the US, too. Our Macadamia and Cashew Camembert, Smokey Cheddar, and Peppercorn Brie are also favorites. 

What’s next for you and Fine Cultures?

We recently launched Fine Cultures in Singapore, which has been a great experience for us. With Fine Cultures, we are wanting to grow and be more independent and expand our food service here in Australia and overseas. 

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