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Vegan company's foods have 'bean' there

By Jessica Thayer

Ryan Howard

Photo by Tom Campbell, Purdue Agricultural Communication
In this 2006 photo, Ryan Howard takes a bite of Temptation Vegan Ice Cream. The 2000 biological and food process engineering graduate started Chicago Soydairy, a company that makes vegan food products.
Full-size image (105 KB)

Ryan Howard may think of himself as a businessman by day and a skateboarder by night, but he has worked hard to build his company since it began in his basement in 2001.

The 2000 Purdue biological and food process engineering graduate dedicated nights, weekends and any free time he had to his company, Chicago Soydairy. The company produces a line of vegan foods, which means they contain no animal products.

With the help of his business partner, Howard started the company by turning his basement into a pilot plant, complete with dairy brick flooring.

"I remember bringing 2,000 pounds of soybeans - a 50-pound bag at a time - off a truck, up my front stairs, through my living room, down the back stairs and into the basement," he said about the early days of his company. "Crazy, but that's what had to be done."

The effort was worth it, even if he experienced a few detours along the way.

"It's funny looking back because almost nothing in the business plan worked out," Howard said.

Originally, Howard wanted his company to produce soy milk, a staple item for vegans and those who avoid dairy products. One of the best-known soy milk products is Silk.

"2001 was right on the cusp of the Silk wave and I wanted to start a soy dairy that would provide this newly popular beverage to households in the same way dairy milk is: locally," Howard said.

Howard said local dairies had similar ideas, and his basement startup could not compete with facilities that produce 4,000 gallons of soy milk an hour. So he decided to shift gears and develop a niche product.

"Essentially, we started looking at areas in the vegan food market that needed improvement: ice cream, cheese and finally marshmallows," said Howard. "We took familiar products that require some know-how or expertise in processing and brought them to market."

Chicago Soydairy has grown fast and Howard's basement was small. In 2005 he moved the business into its current 1,600-square-foot facility where it has grown to the 4,400 square feet he's working in now. In addition to the ice cream, Chicago Soydairy now produces Teese Vegan Cheese and Dandies Vegan Marshmallows.

Chicago Soydairy's success can probably be credited as much to Howard's commitment to veganism as to his hard work. Howard became a vegan in 1993 while he was a high school sophomore. He said it was easy to become a vegan because, for him, it was an ethical issue.

"The health and environmental benefits are good reasons to be vegan, but not the main ones for me," he said.

At Chicago Soydairy, Howard said the company produces all of its products in its own facility to eliminate the possibility of cross contamination. This, he said, gives peace of mind to both his vegan and allergy-sensitive customers.

His early experience with veganism influenced his studies while a student at Purdue.

"My grandmother vegan-ized her chocolate chip cookie recipe for me," said Howard. "I was so impressed by them and wanted to share them with the world." In his first year at Purdue, he saw his opportunity when he learned about the food process engineering major.

"My eyes opened up wide and I knew I had found what I was looking for," he said. "It really was an amazing fit, the perfect program for me."

But that came only after Howard first went to college at Indiana University.

"I joke that I majored in skateboarding with minors in staying up late and basketball," Howard said. "Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on who you are, this meant I took all science and engineering classes at Purdue."

Of course, Howard hasn't completely given up skateboarding.

"I skateboard still and am thinking about getting back into rock climbing," he said. "I'm also trying to hang out with my friends more and stop spending so much time at the plant."

"I'm 34 and want to retire by 40, so anyone looking to buy an up-and-coming natural foods business with nine employees: make an offer!"

Innovation began with college contests

Staff Reports

When he was a Purdue student, Ryan Howard participated in (and won) the Student Soybean and Corn Innovation Contests three years in a row.

Howard's team made a soybean-based ski wax in 1998, a soy protein gelatin in 1999 that didn't use any animal products, and a foamed dessert product in 2000.

Each year, student teams develop new products for corn and soybeans. Howard's teams won $5,000 each year. Members of last year's winning team shared a prize of $20,000.

Some products that have won the competition have led to commercial development. For example, Prang offers soy-based crayons.

Find out more

Purdue Agricultural and Biological Engineering
YouTube video of Mac with Teese