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New Roots

A new zeitgeist

For the Swiss, some things in life are sacred and more or less non-negotiable: watches, chocolate, the Matterhorn, and cheese. New Roots is now turning one convention – cheese-making – on its head.

Young entrepreneur Freddy Hunziker (26) of New Roots explains: «I do love cheese, but nature and living beings mean even more to me. And that got me wondering how I could eat cheese without consuming milk from conventional dairy farming.» So Freddy and his partner Alice decided to look into making cheese with non-dairy milk, and they found what they were looking for in Indonesia. New Roots now produces a wide range of fresh, blue, aged and spreadable cheeses from organic, fair-trade, sun-dried cashew nuts. And what’s more, the yield is impressive. «One kilogram of cashew nuts will make almost two kilograms of cheese. For conventional cheese you need around twelve liters of fresh milk per kilogram,» Freddy explains.

Fresh from the communal kitchen

But first let’s rewind the clock four years. At that time, Freddy was an elite downhill skier and a polymechanic. After a serious skiing accident that put him out of action for months, he began to take a very close interest in nutrition. For him, there was no question: the right nutrition would benefit his healing process. And that led him to vegan food. In his little communal kitchen he began experimenting with making cheese from various nuts and seeds, giving the first fruits of his labor to family and friends. Later on, a communal room that had become free was converted into a cheese factory, complete with maturing cabinets, tables, large pans and sieves. The first cheeses were sold in the ÖKOLADEN health-food store in Thun. Today he exports to Germany, France and Britain and produces his cheese in a former Denner supermarket building, which he equipped and converted entirely with New Roots manpower. Any funding shortfalls are handled with creativity and sheer determination.

Investing in the future

«We didn’t have financial support from the outset,” the New Roots founder explains. «First we had to prove ourselves. Then, when we moved into the former Denner building, we had to make some major investments and took out a bank loan. We also asked the Bern Economic Development Agency for assistance. That was a surprisingly positive experience. I was a little wary to begin with, as Bern traditionally has the reputation of being somewhat sluggish and slow-moving. But actually it was quite the opposite. The BEDA people were very welcoming, they listened to us, they were interested in our vision, and they supported us, not least by sharing their valuable network. With the canton’s help we were able to purchase the packaging machine we had been longing for, which will make our work much easier.»

Think big, stay ethical

Nonetheless, the Thun-based entrepreneur can’t rest on his laurels. The company, which now employs 13 people, is planning to build its own New Roots building and create a form of live-work center. He wants to pursue shared goals, network and make a difference with like-minded people. He would also like to invest more in the research side, to explore producing tasty cheese from alternatives to cashews such as rapeseed, hemp, oats and local nuts. «That would mean working more closely with local farmers who want to invest in plant-based resources and move away from the conventional animal dairy production route,» he says. «The dairy business is no longer ethically and financially viable, and hasn’t been for some time now. Milk prices have hit rock bottom.»

Growth not at any cost

Freddy is currently converting an old farmhouse, where he plans to live and perhaps run a small animal sanctuary at some point in the future. But one thing is quite clear: «New Roots is growing very rapidly. In all of this hype, I don’t want to lose sight of my own roots. And I certainly don’t want the New Roots ethics, sustainability and philosophy to suffer as a result of this growth. Those are hugely important to me. The massive commitment shown by our staff stems from the fact that they are fully supportive of the product and what it represents. That mustn’t change.»

Not just courage but support too

What recommendations does Freddy Hunziker have for young people with new ideas and business models? «Courage and curiosity», he says emphatically. «Young people often come up to me and ask me how on earth I cope with this risk. But if you have a plan and a vision, you first have to deal with a certain financial and economic risk. Otherwise your idea will never be anything but an idea. There are plenty of places you can get information and advice. What is a pity is that promotion and support for startups tend to be low-key in Switzerland. We are lagging quite far behind in that area compared with other countries. Investors and organizations are often reluctant to get involved in startups before they are properly established. But it’s in the setup phase that that support is needed most.»

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