Creativity vs. Capital


Before 2012, the situation for anyone wanting off dairy was dire. Pizza, one of the stapes of life, was changed forever. Sure, there are always people who maintain cheeseless pizzas are edible, but those people are fewer than those who grew up nomming on Dominoes and Pizza Hut on birthdays and special occasions (Lucky people, like me).

This is a story about creating a small food production business – one of my proudest achievements. But it’s also my first real-world design success that isn’t limited to the web.

Notzarella is a vegan cheese that is going well in specialty stores around the country. I created the product, designed the production and developed a strong brand. Let me tell you the whole story.

In 2011 I had been freelancing on the web seriously for a year. In my spare time, however, I was driven to create a non-dairy cheese. I love pizza and there was nothing on the market I considered worth the money. Or edible. Long story short, despite having no food science background, after hundreds of iterations I had a product that worked. You could grate it, shred it and melt it. Others would love it too and I knew it had to get to the market.

There was a lot of learning involved in creating the business. Learning, luck and generosity.

There was a lot about Notzarella that seemed common sense. Luckily, it was really the first in it’s genre – a non-dairy cheese designed for Pizza. The word ‘Notzarella’ had been used to refer to non-dairy mozzarella previously, but hadn’t been used as a product name. It seemed bold to use, but why not. It had no competition.

Packaging also came together nicely. Other vegan cheeses were sold in tubs or tubes, so this was an easy scenario to disrupt.  Real cheese comes as a block.  

I didn’t only want to make a product that did the job – I wanted to provide vegans an experience that appealed on an emotional level, something they could get excited about. I looked at cheese labels from the 50s and thought about modernising them. Many of them were round and simply coloured, with a retro style that translates well in the era where throwbacks are the new modern.

Left: An early mockup based heavily on a cheese label. I worked with this before deciding to depart from skeuomorphism.

Middle: A prototyped modern take on the 50s labels version.

Right: I needed to get right into production, and settled on the label pretty quickly. Unlike many of my projects and designs, I haven’t had a desire to change it over time, besides tweaking the colours.

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Starting the production took an enormous amount of courage and resilience. Life had thrown me several curveballs around this time, and I was literally starting this with nothing. With the help of some friends, I scaled up from a small home-kitchen trial to full time production.

At first I was literally setting a fridge full of Notzarella in take-away containers, vacuum sealing them and walking to the post office every day with 20kg of non-dairy cheese in a backpack ready for posting. I advertised the product on a Facebook page, setup an ecwid store on the website. People were happy to “donate” for the “reward” (I had not setup a business or got council approval yet) as well pay for postage, and I was putting money in the bank to upscale production from a stove-top 20L pot to a 50L vat.

With support from some kind new friends who wanted to see the product flourish, Notzarella became a reality, being quickly distributed around the eastern states of Australia and sold in specialty and health food shops.

Notzarella went to my then partner who is still slowly scaling the business. Five years on, after new products have arrived from overseas, it’s still a popular choice and in many people’s mind, still the best (making it the best of it’s kind in the world).

The website is currently very minimal, but here’s the old Notzarella Feedback page rescued from the Way Back Machine. Just so you know I’m not fibbing when I tell you it was the greatest thing ever.

Posted on March 27, 2013 Modified January 19, 2018