“Thanks for stopping by! We sold out! We are working to increase our production capacity! Thank you for your patience and support.”
It’s a sign plastered to Blue Heron Creamery’s new storefront on Main Street. “Aw, man,” a young couple groans as they stand in front of Vancouver’s first-ever standalone vegan cheese shop. Perhaps they are unaware of what exactly happened the cold February 2018 night Blue Heron opened its doors to the world: a lineup stretched from the shop on Main and 8th up to the corner of East Broadway, and the delicious dairy-free cheeses sold out completely. Another 200 products were stocked the following Saturday, and once again, everything was gone in mere hours.
It’s an incredible response, and chef/co-owner Karen McAthy is overwhelmed in the best possible way.
With the doors locked, McAthy has tucked herself away in the shop’s production facility since six o’clock this morning, off to the races on the next batch of Blue Heron goods. “I do feel really lucky,” she says with a smile as she finally rests for a moment behind the wooden counter. “A lot of guests we spoke to are really willing to understand.” The thing is, making good plant-based cheese takes time.
McAthy’s passion for vegan cheese began in 2013 at the now-closed Graze Vegetarian on Fraser Street, where she served as executive chef. She wanted to offer customers something decadent, like a charcuterie or antipasto board, but the dairy-free cheese commercially available wasn’t of the quality McAthy was willing to give to those craving the reminiscent textures and aromas of the “real” stuff. It was then that McAthy, who has been a vegetarian since she was 12 and a vegan for the last seven years, took matters into her own hands, beginning to research and experiment with basic fermentation and culturing to create the perfect vegan cheese, and eventually launching Blue Heron Creamery in 2016.
“I wanted something that would offer more depth or more diversity,” she explains. “I started looking at dairy cheesemaking methodology itself, and looking at ways I could pull that apart and apply it to plant-based cheesemaking.”
To educate consumers on how the process works, McAthy penned the book The Art of Plant-Based Cheesemaking. “I don’t use any animal-derived products and I don’t use any animal enzymes,” she explains of her creations, which use ingredients like coconut milk, almonds, walnuts, pecans, and hazelnuts. “But there’s lots of digestive enzymes that do some levels of coagulation. There’s plenty of microbes that do similar work in plant-based cheesemaking as they do in dairy cheesemaking.” The result? Everything from coconut milk-based herb and garlic cumulus, to almond ricotta, to cultured coconut yogurt, to creamy cheesecake bites.
Along with business partner Colin Medhurst of Feed Life, McAthy never considered opening up a shopfront—but when an opportunity to join the likes of Friendly Snackbar and The Wallflower on a section of Main Street that is becoming a hub for vegan eats presented itself, they couldn’t say no. “So far, I feel like we fit naturally into the neighbourhood,” says McAthy, who has lived in Mount Pleasant for 12 years. “This whole street feels like it’s my home.”
Fuelled by its successful start, Blue Heron is preparing for the next stage of growth, focusing on creating more top-quality cheeses with the space and resources now available. “We are mostly still two people and a couple of apprentices,” McAthy says, noting that the shop will only be open on Saturdays until they have enough aged supply to grow into more extensive hours. “Cheese and microbes age as they do, so I can do as much as I can to assist them, but there’s a point of which there’s that factor of time.” Although the crowds will undoubtedly keep lining up for a taste, it’s true what they say: good things come to those who wait.
More awaits you in vegan food.