When Justin Miller started making cashew cheese, little did he know that his hobby would grow into one of Portland’s hottest vegan businesses, slinging rich and creamy dairy-free creations at farmers markets, on restaurant menus, and now out of its very own shop at the Vegan Mini-Mall. Cultured Kindness is not the only dairy-free cheese brand in town that’s made a name for itself — Vtopian Artisan Cheeses and Vtopia Cheese Shop also specialize in cultured cashew cheeses — but Miller doesn’t see this as a problem; as far as he’s concerned, they’re all on the same team. “I’m here to put dairy out of business,” he says. “I don’t view other vegan cheese-makers as competition.”
In September, Miller and his husband and co-owner Mike Mendiola opened their highly anticipated cheese shop after four years of popping up at farmers markets and local grocery stores. The shop doubles as a production kitchen and a deli carrying small-batch, handmade aged cashew cheeses and cheesy lunch fare, in the former Food Fight Grocery space on Southeast Stark. The men, who previously both worked in consumer finance, have come a long way with cheese-making: When Cultured Kindness made its debut in 2017 at the St. Johns Farmers Market in Miller and Mendiola’s neighborhood, they had 20 rounds of cultured cashew cheese for sale. Today, Cultured Kindness produces 600 cheese wheels per week, available for sale at their cheese shop, Food Fight Grocery, Market of Choice, 45th Parallel Wines, and co-ops throughout Portland and Seattle. Portlanders may very well have had Cultured Kindness without knowing it — local cafes and restaurants like Coffee Beer, Secret Pizza Society, Happy Day Juice, and Spielman Bagels all use Cultured Kindness cheese, be it as a rich cheesy base on vegan pizza or slathered generously between two bagel halves.
On the shop’s first day of business, a line of masked customers eager to nab cashew cheeses and baguettes formed outside well before the doors had opened. In the deli case and fridge, little rounds of cultured cashew cheese sat neatly on wooden trays, in flavors like black garlic and sundried tomato. The first three cheeses that Miller developed remain popular: soft brie covered in crushed black peppercorns, cashew chevre with balsamic caramelized onion, and Miller’s personal favorite, smoky gouda. Dairy-free takes on more traditional cheeses also hold a place in the shop’s various cases, like the classic cream cheese with a hint of tang and the cleverly named Pepper Jill — pepper jack’s vegan sister — blended with dried guajillo and habanero peppers.
At the counter, customers might catch a glimpse of Miller hand-mixing tubs of cultured cheese as they peer into the production kitchen in the back, before ordering things like cheesy Buffalo dip, smoky spinach artichoke dip, and grilled cheese sandwiches. Mendiola and Miller decided to add grilled cheese to the menu as an allusion to the previous tenant — specifically, the sandwich painted across the awning that remains from Food Fight’s 13-year run in the space. But one of the highlights of the shop’s food menu is not a savory item: Cultured Kindness offers cheesecakes — Mendiola’s specialty and contribution to the business. The ube cheesecakes come with an almond flour-and-shredded coconut crust, a nod to his Filipino American heritage. The New York-style cheesecake is topped with Bloom caramel on a Biscoff-knockoff crust made of brown and white rice flour.
What sets Cultured Kindness apart from many vegan cheeses available on the market is how closely its flavor resembles dairy. To create the distinctive funky flavor, Miller ferments blended organic cashews with fructooligosaccharides and ascorbic palmitate — cultures found in dairy cheeses like mozzarella, cheddar, and feta — for 24 hours. Next, he adds fair-trade coconut oil to the cashew mixture to create traditional dairy cheese’s classic creaminess. Then, the cheese ages: one week quick-aging to create a light tang, three weeks for increased depth of flavor, like the smoky gouda, and up to 30 days for specials, like the red wine-brined gouda. The longer a cheese ages, the firmer and more grate-able it becomes. While many vegan cheese-makers like to use additives like tapioca and agar agar for firmer cheeses, Miller likes to lean on other techniques to create his cheese. “We like to keep a simple ingredient list and use techniques closer to traditional cheese-making, like aging, to create harder textures,” he says.
Miller and Mendiola met while they were both working in consumer finance in 2003. When Miller was just starting to make vegan cheese recreationally, Mendiola and a slew of friends and family acted as the original taste testers, who encouraged him to turn his hobby into something bigger. As he dove deeper into cheese-making, the mission became clear: to create a vegan alternative that rivaled the taste and flavor of traditional dairy-based cheese without the ethical and environmental impacts of animal-based products. In fact, making cheese was what prompted Miller to take the final step to go fully vegan; prior to that, he had been a vegetarian since the age of 14. “I had wanted to be vegan for a while, but really struggled with cheese,” he says. “So when I finally [went vegan], I think it was more an awakening that cheese doesn’t have to be from dairy than it was about dairy itself.”
In 2017, Miller quit his corporate job to turn his passion of vegan cheese-making into a full-fledged business. Mendiola stayed in consumer finance, to support the couple. When he joined the business full-time, that’s when Mendiola went vegan. “The cheeses [Miller] makes have definitely helped as we’ve found easy ways to incorporate them into dishes we cook at home,” Mendiola says. “Since becoming part of the business, I’m very cognizant of issues that veganism helps address, and it’s rewarding to provide a way for others to move toward vegan products as well.”
Like many budding vegan cheese-makers, Miller started making cheese with the Artisan Vegan Cheese cookbook by Miyoko Schinner — the superstar vegan chef behind dairy-free cheese brand Miyoko’s Creamery and a leading advocate for the use of traditional meat and dairy terms on vegan product labels. After his initial consultation with the Oregon Department of Agriculture, Miller reached out to Schinner, who was happy to discuss the food safety aspects of the fermentation process. “Miyoko doesn’t see other vegan cheeses as competition,” Miller says. “She wants vegan businesses to grow.”
In July 2017, Cultured Kindness sold its first batch of cashew cheese at the St. Johns Farmers Market, in their own neighborhood, before graduating to small grocery stores and co-ops, including Alberta Co-op, which remains their largest wholesale account, ordering around 36 cheese rounds every week. In 2019, Mendiola quit his day job as the vegan cheese business was taking off. But when the pandemic hit, they felt the loss: A large portion of Cultured Kindness sales still came from farmers markets, which had slowed or shut down in the early days of the pandemic. Instead, Cultured Kindness pivoted to home deliveries, with the pair personally delivering cheeses across the greater Portland area. Market of Choice took an interest in the cheese brand, ordering as many as 80 cheese rounds every two to three weeks to stock their shelves at four locations in Portland, West Linn, and Medford, and even ran discounts to encourage customers to support a locally made product.
In September 2020, the couple announced on Instagram that Cultured Kindness was taking over the Food Fight Grocery location on Stark. Finally, the cheese brand would have a storefront to accompany its production kitchen — and the couple lucked out with the prime spot between Herbivore Clothing and Ice Queen at Portland’s beloved Vegan Mini-Mall. Landing a larger production space offers new opportunities, like fermenting with different cultures, aging cheeses for longer periods, and developing cheese slices for sandwiches — a request that Cultured Kindness receives from time to time. The cheese-makers plan to offer vegan cheese boards for the holiday season and collaborate with local businesses, from menu items like cheesecake specials to cheese pairings at local wineries. Down the road, Miller wants to venture into making vegan meats like salami to complement the cheese — similar to how the Herbivorous Butcher in Minneapolis, which began with vegan meat alternatives, has grown to offer both. However, Miller has no intention of turning Cultured Kindness into a restaurant; the brand will continue to focus on packaged goods and items to go.
In addition to partnering with other makers and businesses, giving back to the community has always been a part of Miller and Mendiola’s game plan. Cultured Kindness has held fundraisers for local vegan and justice organizations, such as Green Acres Farm Sanctuary, Portland Guinea Pig Rescue, Black Resilience Fund, Brave Space Resiliency Project, and the Asian American Youth Leadership Conference. That mission will continue at the new shop. “The vegan causes we support tend to be rescue organizations. All the unwanted animals in the world is something that has always weighed on me,” says Miller. “Non-animal causes we support are things important to us as members of those communities. We both are part of the LGBT community and see firsthand how marginalized trans folks still are. And as a half BIPOC-owned business, we wanted to support organizations that will create the next generation of leaders of color.”
Located at 1217 SE Stark Street, Cultured Kindness cheese shop is open from noon to 6 p.m. on Wednesdays to Fridays and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.