When vegan chef Sofia Banks decided to launch a plant-based powder cheese business, she’d hoped it would be a salve, allowing her to recoup some of the cost sunk in her last venture, a café she’d been pressured to shut down last fall after mounting transphobic harassment. However, once again, things are not auguring well for the chef, who says that the branding and packaging of her product has been lifted by a company that recently entered the Canadian vegan food retail space.
“It’s so hard to do things as a trans woman. I’m just constantly facing these obstacles,” Banks tells Eater. “I’m like, ‘Great, I’m going to open up a café.’ And then ‘Oh, no, wait, people are leaving me dead animals, and I’m fleeing my home because my life is in danger.’ And then, I’m like, ‘Okay, we’re going to try retail where we don’t have a face to the business,’ and then it’s like, ‘Oh, okay, people are just gonna steal from us.’ I’m so tired of just constantly having the door kicked down on me as a marginalized person in the food industry.”
Banks’s vegan e-commerce cheese business, Vegan Canteen, dons the same name (but in English) as the café she operated in Val-David, an hour outside of Montreal. The restaurant had been open for only seven weeks when Banks decided she could no longer endure the remarks, vandalism, and threats levied her way, which included dead birds being left at her restaurant’s doorstep, community members boycotting her business because of her trans identity, and a fire being lit to her neighbour’s car in the middle of the night (which Banks believes was intended for her). She and her partner packed up their things and headed out west — to British Columbia.
Banks was cued to the lookalike packaging after one of the stores that carries her product sent her an Instagram link saying, “This kind of looks like your packaging.” When Banks pored over Plantworthy Food’s marketing assets, she recalled thinking it was suspicious: “Don’t tell me you didn’t do your homework. If you’re going to start a business and launch a vegan cheese in Canada, you’re probably going to look around at what other companies are doing.” Eater found that a cursory Google search for “vegan powder cheese Canada” returns Vegan Canteen’s homepage as a first hit.
Both companies are selling powdered vegan cheese — though Banks’s uses pea protein and Plantworthy Food’s relies on cashews — in predominantly blue packaging emblazoned with their respective (though quite similar) product names in large block letters. The overlap does not end there. They both prominently feature a metal-looking utensil holding a noodle dripping with what looks like molten cheese, and the use of the word “guilt-free” in their marketing materials.
Plantworthy Food has yet to reply to Eater’s request for comment, but in an update posted to its Kickstarter page on October 8, owner Andrew Zuk addresses the accusation:
For those of you who follow us on social media (@plantworthyfood) unfortunately will see a company called Vegan Canteen has been claiming on all our social media channels we have stolen their design and branding. I can confirm this is as far from the truth as possible as my company has been in business since 2017 and in early 2018 created the branding we have today. Further while working tirelessly with our designers to develop our packaging we in no way, shape or form were trying to replicate any brand on the market.
While Ontario-based Plantworthy Food, as a YouTube channel and Facebook account publishing vegan recipe videos, does seem to have existed since May 2018, Plantworthy Food’s Kickstarter campaign for the powder cheese product launched on June 30, 2020, with the packaging and branding that is currently under scrutiny published earlier this month on Facebook. According to the company’s Instagram bio, the product will officially launch next month. Proof of the disputed packaging’s existence prior to the above-delineated timeline has not been released.
For her part, Banks launched the Kickstarter campaign on November 1, 2019, began working with Halifax-based design agency the Small Monsters a couple weeks thereafter, and shared a rendering of the packaging on December 27, 2019. Details about the process and strategy behind the design were shared publicly on June 12, 2020, on packaging design blog Packaging of the World, where early sketches of the design can be easily accessed.
“Okay, use the blue packaging, and I can’t say anything about them using ‘guilt-free’ either, because we can’t trademark that sort of stuff; I’m not Pepsi. But the fork with the cheesy noodles? That is just a blatant rip-off,” Banks says. “I just don’t believe that they never heard of us. If they didn’t, that is just such poor research on their part and their designer’s.”
Screenshots from an Instagram conversation between the two companies posted to Banks’ Twitter account show that Plantworthy Food was initially willing to revise its packaging. However, another Instagram message shows that the company rescinded that offer shortly after.
I tried to be nice after @plantworthyfood agreed to change their design. But they seem compelled to be little asses. Sue me for slander for that. I am sure stealing from a trans woman will go down great in vegan groups for them. pic.twitter.com/R13t8QAmS7— Sophia Banks (@sophiaphotos) October 13, 2020
“After thoroughly documenting and reviewing the false accusations & defamation from this account, your Sophia Banks Twitter account and your followers at your request we will not be willing to appease you with revising any part of our original brand and/or packaging,” Plantworthy Food is shown saying in a screenshot shared on Banks’s Twitter page.
“I really can’t ignore these similarities, but it’s also such an upward battle as a small business. Lawyers are expensive, especially for intellectual property kind of stuff. You’re looking at tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees. We’re a little startup that launched during a pandemic; we don’t have $20,000 in the bank account to do this sort of thing. It very much feels like they knew they could get away with this because they know what a lawyer is going to cost to pursue,” Banks says.
Instead, Banks says she is appealing to the court of public opinion, and to a Twitter following that is 18,600 strong. Banks has been chronicling the situation on her account since October 7, with one of her tweets, which asks followers to “Please feel free to let plantworthy know on social media that stealing from a trans woman is very low,” garnering hundreds of likes and retweets.
“When they said they were going to change their packaging, we accepted that and I posted that I was willing to let it go and not pursue it any further,” Banks says. “I have no qualms with someone starting another vegan cheese powder company. That’s fine. That’s how this works. I get that sort of thing. But just do something original.”
- Alleged Alt-Right Vandalism Forces a Laurentian Vegan Restaurant Out of Business [EMTL]
- Vegan Cheez [Packaging of the World]