This plant-based ice cream startup celebrated its first summer season during a pandemic

October 12, 2020, 11:00 AM UTC

This is an installment in a special series, Startup Year One, interviewing startup founders about the major lessons they learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.

Eclipse Foods introduced its first product in November 2019: a plant-based ice cream developed to taste and function just like conventionally-made dairy ice cream—only that it’s made with a blend of plants including cassava, potato, oats, and corn. Aiming to distinguish itself from other vegan ice cream makers, Eclipse makes its ice cream base in a kitchen, not a lab, using only whole, sustainable ingredients—no GMOs, no nuts, no soy, no coconut, and no gluten.

But what would have been the brand’s first summer ice cream season was turned on its head with the pandemic. With so many restaurants struggling during the pandemic, Eclipse quickly switched to a direct-to-consumer model, and launched national shipping earlier this summer.

Fortune recently spoke with cofounder Aylon Steinhart (formerly of the Good Food Institute) about how the first few months are going and what the company plans to do next.

Start-Up Eclipse Foods Ice Cream
Eclipse Foods cofounders Aylon Steinhart and Thomas Bowman
Courtesy of Eclipse Foods

The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Fortune: A few years ago, dairy-free ice cream didn’t get much respect, but now it’s one of the most popular items in the frozen foods aisle, from Halo Top to Ben & Jerry’s producing their own vegan ice creams. What inspired the launch of Eclipse? How does it stand apart from the rest?

Steinhart: [My cofounder] Thomas Bowman and I started Eclipse to change the food system—for good. Today, many of the default options for our food (meat, dairy, eggs) are produced through industrial animal agriculture. This is a system that is destroying the planet, hurting animals, and making people sick.

What we knew from our work in the alternative protein world, however, is that mainstream consumers would be happy to switch their animal-based products to plant-based ones as long as the switch doesn’t require a sacrifice in taste, texture, price, or availability. It is with this understanding that we created Eclipse, to provide incredibly delicious and affordable plant-based dairy products that are indistinguishable from conventional dairy, thus making the sustainable, healthy, and humane choice the default choice. This is how we will change the world.

What all of this really culminates to is that Eclipse is the first ever dairy replacement (versus a dairy substitute). In the burger world, substitutes are things like black-bean burgers, while true replacements are things like the Beyond Burger. In dairy, there are many substitutes (oat milk, cashew cheese, soy ice cream), but Eclipse has created the first ever true dairy replacement. 

“Thomas and I joined forces because we believe the best way to create a more sustainable, healthy, and ethical food system is by giving consumers plant-based products that don’t require any sacrifice on taste, texture, or functionality, ever,” Steinhart says.
Courtesy of Eclipse Foods

Restaurants and retailers have taken huge hits during the pandemic. Eclipse was originally supposed to partner with local eateries and ice cream shops (including OddFellows in New York City and Mitchell’s Homemade Ice Cream in San Francisco, among others), but since pivoted to a direct-to-consumer model. What motivated this change precisely, and how has it worked out thus far?

Before the pandemic, Eclipse was focused almost exclusively on foodservice: restaurants, ice cream shops, burger chains, universities, etc. The reception in the foodservice world was astounding; just weeks after Eclipse publicly launched, we had hundreds of businesses asking to put Eclipse on their menus. Sadly, the pandemic hit the foodservice industry hard with many of these businesses shifting their focus on their internal operations. This shift caused us to take a step back and ask: What can Eclipse do to support our foodservice partners and the industry at large, and how can Eclipse retool our strategy to make our product available in additional channels to complement foodservice?

The answer to what Eclipse could do to support foodservice led us to two paths. First, we continued partnering with amazing foodservice operators to help drive lots of attention to their brands and new customers to their business. For example, we recently launched a partnership with Afters Ice Cream, a popular 28-location ice cream chain in Southern California. The launch created tons of exciting attention on social for the partnership as well as several news articles.

Second, we could support foodservice by creating a campaign to donate proceeds to restaurant support funds and other non-profits, which is exactly what we did. In the past few months, we have had the honor of partnering with some of the most acclaimed chefs in the world to create exclusive limited-time collaboration pints with all proceeds going to support the restaurant industry and other important nonprofits.

The pandemic’s impact on foodservice also led us to retool our strategy to make our product available to consumers in additional channels. We quickly expanded to two new channels: direct-to-consumer and grocery stores. In doing so, we gave consumers the ability to order Eclipse directly to their door or to find Eclipse at their local grocery store so they could experience our indistinguishable, cowlessly creamy ice cream anywhere they chose.

Prior to founding Eclipse, Steinhart was a software entrepreneur turned self-described vegan advocate.
Courtesy of Eclipse Foods

Our direct-to-consumer channel has been an incredible success. While setting up a direct-to-consumer channel for a frozen product had its challenges, from maintaining our commitment to sustainable packaging to ensuring that product arrives perfect and cold, we were able to execute efficiently to create an incredible customer experience with customers telling us they were impressed by our product. We also launched our chef collaboration flavors on the website, and they sold out in a matter of days. We are incredibly grateful to all of the people from all across the nation who have been early supporters of our online store.

Our grocery channel has been exciting as well. While getting started in grocery required some heavy lifting, including designing pints that would pop on freezer shelves and figuring out frozen distribution, the reception from buyers and consumers has been phenomenal. Since launching just a few months ago in the Bay Area, our ice cream pints are selling faster (per store per week) than [other] plant-based ice creams at Whole Foods. We are seeing volumes go up every week and more and more stores are coming on-board. We’re excited to bring our groundbreaking ice cream to consumers all over the nation.

All that said, what has it been like to secure funding for Eclipse? How did Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian and Beyond Meat Executive Chair Seth Goldman get involved? How has business and funding progressed during the pandemic and economic downturn?

Eclipse is blessed to get to work with some of the best investors out there. Alexis Ohanian has been an Eclipse supporter since the early days. Seth Goldman is one of the most knowledgeable people in our industry. Paul Buchheit (the creator of Gmail), Eric Patel (a former Dreyer’s exec), and Y Combinator have all also been incredible supporters. All of these visionaries got involved with Eclipse because they share Eclipse’s vision for transforming the food system and believe that Eclipse is poised to make that vision a reality.  

With the support of such superb investors, along with the exciting growth of Eclipse and the overall plant-based space throughout the pandemic, we’ve been able to keep the business going strong. As the world realizes the importance of the plant-based industry in helping prevent future pandemics, climate disasters, and other threats, there continues to be a high level of investor interest in plant-based companies like Eclipse. With plant-based meat demand continuing to skyrocket through the pandemic (with sales jumping 264% from March to May 2020), in part due to consumer health and environmental concerns and in part due to supply chain disruptions in the meat industry, the momentum of the plant-based space is clearly only accelerating. This growth is exciting for investors, retail and foodservice partners, and consumers alike. 

A dairy-free collaboration between Eclipse Foods and popular New York ice creamery OddFellows.
Courtesy of Eclipse Foods

Post-pandemic and five years down the road, where do you see Eclipse Foods in the market?

Eclipse’s mission to create a more sustainable, healthy, and humane food system will only succeed when our indistinguishable, delicious plant-based dairy products are available in every place and every form.  This means continuing to focus on increasing availability in food service, retail, and through direct to consumer channels.

This means our plant-based soft serve being available in every Wendy’s and our ice cream pints being available in every grocery store. This also means expanding into other dairy categories, like Eclipse cheese, milk and sour cream, and more, with these products being available in dairy cases across the world.

The future of Eclipse is the future of the world, one where the default choice, the best choice, is the more sustainable, healthy, and humane one. We’re excited for that future.