A Brooklyn, NY-based vegan creamery has stealthily infiltrated Whole Foods pizza counters. While the health-minded grocer initially topped their vegan pies with Daiya, NUMU’s dairy-free mozzarella has taken over on a nationwide scale. The wholesale vegan cheese company started small—NUMU sold small batches of block mozzarella to a few pizzerias in the greater New York City area. After switching to shreds and finding the fine balance of quality and scale, the creamery won over Whole Foods enough to convince the market to make the switch. Here’s how they did it.
Craving late-night vegan pizza
NUMU began as a result of founder Gunars Elmuts’ search for late-night vegan pizza in NYC. Prior to launching this business, Elmuts worked as a skateboard photographer and a DJ. When he got off work late at night, hungry and craving pizza, he was often disappointed by the lack of vegan options. He also craved a quality slice every other time of day. “Pizza was one of the foods I missed the most when I went vegan in 2011,” Elmuts explained. “The high-end New York pizzerias I used to frequent weren’t impressed with the offerings that existed [back then] so I decided to try and make one that they would be willing to use in their restaurants.”
At first, Elmuts went the BYOC (bring your own cheese) route. He developed a vegan mozzarella recipe and would bring small blocks to restaurants that would use it to make pizza just for him. Word got out around town, and soon Elmuts was fielding requests from other chefs asking to purchase his cheese. He never set out to start a vegan cheese company, but he decided to go for it and focus on mozzarella for pizza. “I had to figure out how to commercially produce the mozzarella. It was a steep learning curve,” Elmuts recounts.
The NUMU you’ll enjoy today on your Whole Foods slice isn’t quite like the original product. Elmuts spent over a year receiving feedback from NYC pizzaiolos who started offering it as an option in their restaurants. The goal was to perfect the product, which is why Elmuts shied away from retail and focused on wholesale. He trusted the professionals to offer constructive criticism, and after hiring a team of experts, he was able to take this feedback and produce NUMU on a larger scale—gearing up sales to more independent pizzerias and eventually, Whole Foods.
“Our goal is to have a vegan option become the norm for all places that serve pizza,” Elmuts explained. “Much like coffee shops now, we hope having a dairy-free cheese option will be automatic for everyone.”
What’s in NUMU?
Like many other plant-based kinds of cheese, NUMU is made with a combination of non-GMO coconut oil, potato starch, tapioca starch, and a few other ingredients. For a wide appeal, the cheese is nut-free and all ingredients are certified kosher. Elmuts expressed that he sought out a mild flavor with no aftertaste. He was also adamant about texture. “The texture is clean—it’s not gummy and doesn’t stick to your teeth.”
Ways to use NUMU
Anyone who visits a Whole Foods pizza station can now order a plant-based pie with NUMU at no extra cost. However, we couldn’t help but drool over the creative ways some chefs are using this vegan mozzarella beyond pizza. Before the Omicron surge, Michelin-reviewed Xilonen in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood strayed from classic Italian dishes and used NUMU in a variety of its vegan-friendly Mexican dishes. Think plant-based egg tostadas topped with a dollop of melty mozz, vegan birria tacos made with griddled NUMU and mushrooms, and cheesy vegan fajita quesadillas. Willow, a vegan comfort food eatery in Chelsea, makes its truffle mac and cheese, eggplant lasagna, and French onion soup extra cheesy with plenty of NUMU. Vegan on the Fly, a Midtown Manhattan joint, is making vegan pizza empanadas with NUMU. That’s a culinary mash-up we can’t wait to try.
The best vegan pizza
It’s abundantly clear that Elmuts lives for a quality slice of vegan pizza. We had to ask how he takes it. “A plain cheese slice is always my favorite, but my go-to toppings are usually red onion and mushrooms. Outside of Whole Foods, I think adding Be-Hive’s pepperoni and/or Abbot’s Butcher chorizo are incredible vegan meat options,” Elmuts said.
Whole Foods’ vegan collabs
NUMU isn’t the only vegan company to land a major deal at the Whole Foods hot bar. In 2017, plant-based sashimi brand Ocean Hugger launched its tomato-based tuna in over 40 Whole Foods sushi counters. In 2019, Whole Foods debuted vegan breakfast sandwiches made with JUST egg in 63 locations. Further, Whole Foods hot bars in select locations were graced with chafing trays heaping with Chef Ayinde Howell’s vegan Mac and Yease. For the past two years (and hopefully many more to come), we’ve relied on Whole Foods for our holiday catering. The brand partnered with Chef Chloe Coscarelli to develop vegan holiday meals that include mains, plenty of sides, and desserts. Outside of the ready-made options, Whole Foods has become a mecca for plant-based products along the shelves and freezer aisles. From Maxine’s Heavenly cookies to the Pizza Plant frozen pizzas to Sweet Loren’s cookie dough, there’s always a new vegan product to try out.
Want your local pizzeria to carry NUMU? Ask them to contact firstname.lastname@example.org. As Elmuts said, non-dairy milk is standard at coffee shops; vegan cheese should be a given at pizza joints.