South Korea-based plant-based dairy company Armored Fresh expanded into the global market only last year – yet, you’ve probably already heard of them. With unique, multi-patented food technology and a keen, focused eye for R&D, Armored Fresh Founder and CEO Rudy Yoo is ready to help plant-based cheese reach new heights. 

Beginning in 1999 as an IMC marketing company developing proprietary data solutions that would help them uncover consumer secrets in the market, Armored Fresh uncovered an opportunity to not only close a frustrating gap for plant-based eaters, but force the food tech world to take plant-based seriously: they opened an alternative dairy research institute. Now, they’re on a mission to design a catalog of plant-based dairy products so delicious, nutritious, and tempting that not even the most loyal animal-based cheese lovers will be able to resist a bite.

Q: Can you tell us a bit more about the history of Armored Fresh and the inspiration behind its founding? 

A: We are a food tech company that specializes in alternative dairy products. We have developed our own technology and hold patents and have the capacity to produce around 7,000 tons of products annually; and we are a food tech company that has continuously invested in technological research for food innovation. We began our business 24 years ago as a specialized IMC marketing company, and through our experience and accumulated expertise, we developed a data-intensive big data solution and obtained multiple patents. This solution played a significant role in uncovering opportunities for our current alternative food business. As a food tech specialist, we are now able to focus on developing new products based on our proprietary technology.

Our “Pincette” system, which is based on big data, holds three patents. Its fundamental structure involves analyzing big data from various portal sites and social channels to understand the rapidly changing consumer trends and preferences. Its most powerful feature is generating predictive data based on big data analysis. Based on the big data calculated by Pincette, we identify the flow of consumption needs in advance and preemptively create best items, and the items launched in this way go through a verification process through rapid market testing. And we’ve come to realize that in this big data solution, the keyword ‘alternative food’ is increasingly expanding globally.

This realization was made four years ago when we aimed to launch a new product, vegan pizza, under our brick-oven pizza brand. To achieve this, we embarked on developing plant-based cheese. Though we tested numerous existing vegan cheese options, none met our standards. As soon as we made the decision, we established an alternative dairy research institute and succeeded in launching a cube-type vegan cheese with plain, cheddar, and blueberry flavors after a year and a half of research based on the goal of “making the same taste and quality as animal cheese.

Our company has a lot of food marketing and public relations experts, plus we’re starting to create opportunity for us by hiring professional dairy researchers and reinforcing our focus on vegan dairy research technology. We have successfully raised $29 million in investments from a multitude of investors, including investment firms that have backed pioneering vegan food companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. The company’s remarkable progress can be attributed to the proficiency of our highly skilled personnel and the proprietary big data solution we have developed in-house.

What do people need to know about Armored Fresh’s mission?

We are on a mission to bring vegan cheese that everyone can enjoy no matter if they are plant-based or not. We have always had people in our core value. Having given financially to organizations that helped underprivileged children, and in 2020 we added environmental and animal welfare to the company’s core values and mission. Our mission is now embedded in our name.  Armored – to Guard and to protect… our mission is to guard and protect people’s health and well-being while at the same time guarding and protecting our environment and our animals.

Taking a look at your process for producing aromatic plant-based cheese, some might say this is the cheese of the future. Why is science-based innovation so crucial to your company’s mission? 

Indeed, while dairy cheese isn’t going away, plant-based cheese is going to continue to become a bigger and bigger part of the cheese category.  

This technology, converting plant materials to cheese, has been around for a long time, and in earnest, since the 70’s.  For the better part of its history, it’s been more of a science experiment in the halls of academia than a legitimate threat to dairy cheese.  However, roughly in the last 10 years, through a confluence of cultural, political and natural events, plant-based and plant-based cheese in particular has made significant strides to come close to mimicking the taste and texture of cheese. All this was made possible through technological advances and innovation. Recent advances in AI (Artificial Intelligence) will make Armored Fresh and companies in our category continue to improve on every aspect of the product.   

One of the tenets of our mission is to help people in their health and well being.  One of the chief complaints against plant -based cheese is its lack of nutrition.  Our goal is to bring products to market that at a minimum equals the nutrition content of dairy cheese. Ultimately, we think we’ll be able to bring to market cheese that exceeds the nutrition found in dairy cheese, with more protein, and more vitamins and other nutrition that isn’t found in dairy cheese. 

Technological innovation like AI, new fermentation technologies, and ingredient development and formulation will continue drive growth by addressing not only taste and texture but also nutrition content of cheese.  Utilizing and taking careful approaches to technology and innovation in the industry will help Armored Fresh bring products that achieve its mission of guarding and protecting people’s health and well-being.  

One of the goals of this series is to help shine a light on the stories and individuals behind the companies. What is your big “why” for working in the plant-based foods industry? Is there a particular cause or fact that you learned that motivated your work and passion?

Answered by Rudy Yoo, Founder and CEO:  The big “why” for working in the plant-based food industry is because there was a great need for great tasting plant-based cheese product that was also good for you.  While this “technology” of creating cheese out of plant-based materials has been around for more than 50 years, the biggest complaint was that it didn’t taste good and it lacked nutrition that you got from animal based cheese.

Plant based cheese started with a good idea.  It was healthier for you and was good for the environment.  But it was only going to help people and the environment if people consumed it.  

[I] decided to solve the problems… [I] came to the conclusion that if we could solve the product problem, the other problems could also be solved; if a superior product could be delivered then we can also solve the problem with the environment and help protect our animals.

Armored Fresh is relatively new on the scene, launching globally just last year and already taking your product overseas in a big way. How has this rapid growth impacted your innovation style? Have you felt the need to adapt your research technology and/or product development strategy now that you’ve expanded internationally? 

Our international launch and our rapid growth haven’t necessarily impacted our innovation style nor our R&D schedule or strategy.  We planned from early on to allocate the necessary resources to support our growth from our product development and R&D perspective.  In fact, we planned and continue to adjust our plans to accommodate growth and changes in the marketplace.  Of course there’s always a push and pull between sales and business development and R&D and product development. Because of our initial planning and execution so far, we feel like all the parts of the company are firing on all cylinders.  

 As a South Korea-based company, are there any Korean culinary values or conventions that you hope the American market can take away from your product? 

There isn’t anything specifically exclusive to Korean culinary values, but we place a strong emphasis on meticulous flavor adjustments and handling ingredients with utmost detail and sensitivity. While these aspects may be reminiscent of the delicacy found in Korean food research, we believe that similar attention to detail exists in many global food research fields. Our focus lies in the capabilities that lead to finely-crafted products, and it is not limited to production exclusively in Korea. In fact, we have plans to establish production facilities in the United States and expand to Europe, showcasing products based on our ‘ability’ rather than being confined by national boundaries.

What has been the most rewarding moment or pivotal milestone you’ve witnessed during your time at Armored Fresh? As an innovative and unique plant-based startup, are there any big moments of celebration you’d like to share?

The initial reactions of the sales managers from various stores when they first tasted our product remain the most memorable and exhilarating moments for me, even to this day. It instilled a great sense of confidence in our ability to sell our product successfully. Moreover, one executive from a renowned company who sampled our cheese exclaimed, “Shit!” and displayed an extremely excited reaction, realizing that they could completely replace the animal-based cheese they had been avoiding due to concerns about cholesterol and health. This response perfectly aligned with our goal throughout this journey—to create a vegan cheese that matches the taste and quality of traditional animal-based cheese—and it further validated the potential of our business going forward. As a result, it brought even greater conviction and unity among all teams, fostering a shared belief in our efforts and the future. These captivating and genuine reactions collectively reinforce the reason why we are driven to do what we do.

Based on your experience, what were some obstacles you had to overcome in scaling your business, and what advice would you share with other aspiring plant-based founders?  

I think the best advice may be to question everything and not accept things because experienced people said so.  Don’t be afraid to ask the ‘why’ question. 

Certainly, venturing into the realm of plant-based products opens up new doors in an untapped market, but it also presents us with numerous challenges to overcome. Throughout this process, we must not hesitate to embrace new attempts and embrace challenges. Hesitation could lead to a delayed expansion in this growing market, and we risk falling behind. We must all remember that embarking on the journey of business expansion inevitably involves daring to tread uncharted paths. It is crucial not to forget that pushing boundaries and embracing the unconventional are essential elements of our growth.

Can you give us a sneak peek into any notable news or exciting product launches in the pipeline for 2023? 

We are excited about bringing new products in the market.  We are working on various flavors for our sliced cheese for 2023.  One of the most anticipated product for Armored Fresh is the Shredded Mozzarella, the holy grail in the plant-based cheese category.  We’re excited about our shredded mozzarella that you’ll be able to sample by the end of 2023.

Where can we learn more about Armored Fresh? 

You can find us on Instagram and of course you can go to our webpage.