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Miyoko Schinner: The Tale of a Tenacious Entrepreneur

Story Holly Feral

Photos Holly Feral, Jeremie Frémaux, courtesy of Miyoko Schinner

Web Feature sponsor Bare Bones Body Care

Originally published in Driftwood Issue Two

As someone who recently started a business, I can tell you that the fear of failing wakes me up at night. It ranks between the fear of death and having an unknown sex tape surface. The thought of going on to start another business, and then another, and another after that… It seems an unfathomable feat of human resilience.

That’s where Miyoko Schinner proves her place in the hall of greats.

We know her now as the pioneer behind the artisan cultured nut cheeses of Miyoko’s Kitchen. But her life started in a small farmers village outside Tokyo, her home surrounded by rice paddies. In the mornings, she rushed to use the bathroom before a farmer came to collect sewage for fertilizer. There was one car in town and it didn’t belong to her family. Life was simple.

At 7, her family moved to the States, but she always felt that a piece of herself was missing. As soon as she graduated from St. John’s College in Maryland, she went back to Japan on a quest to find that missing piece. By that time, the little farmers village she’d left had been engulfed by the ever-expanding reach of Tokyo.

She stayed with family and hustled to get on her feet, teaching English by day and moonlighting as a jazz singer. At that time in the ’80s, the French cooking revolution was flavoring Japan. Miyoko, who’d been vegetarian since childhood, indulged in rich bakery, heavy with creams and eggs.

“America was still eating Kraft singles and Hostess cupcakes. Japan had all these French pastries. They were eons ahead of America. I’d become completely addicted to rich French things and so when I became vegan, I had to find a way to make really delicious, fantastic food without dairy or eggs.”

The road to becoming a famous vegan entrepreneur began with the perfection of a simple pound cake.

“I thought, ‘Gee, I oughta go into business!’ which I’d actually advise against doing. But I went ahead and did it anyway. I rented this little bakery, this expired, old bakery that was covered in dust.”

Four days a week, she rotated between baking and delivering her Madame Miyoko cakes around the city. On her two delivery days, she packed 70 pound cakes (70 heavy pounds of cake, to be clear) into a backpack and hopped on a train. The other three days of the week, she juggled her other gigs. And every night, she slumped into bed completely exhausted, until one day a man approached her with an investment offer. She’d have the money to start making cakes in a commercial kitchen. She’d be able to pay for distribution and packaging. Her fledgling bakery was about to get a big break.

They were still in the planning phase, just starting contract negotiations, when things went sour. Her investor, her angel, suddenly he wanted more—not only more of the bakery business but a cut from her other gigs, too. He wanted half of the money she earned singing jazz and anything else she touched, including a book she was writing. When she refused, the late-night phone calls started. Gruff voices insisted that she sign aggressive contracts.

He’d offered to use his connections to help the business. It turned out his connections were with a yakuza gang, one of the organized crime families that form the Japanese mafia.

They leaned on Miyoko’s employers, caused a culinary school to break its contract with her, and promised she’d never work in Tokyo again. “I either had to sign my life over to him or get out of town.”

She made her way to San Francisco, where she couldn’t help but start another bakery. She started baking in her own kitchen and, before long, opened a café called Now and Zen. As the menu evolved, the bakery grew into a restaurant. When the holidays came around, she created a masterpiece that would be her first big hit: the UnTurkey. It was a seitan roast covered in a crispy yuba shell and it was the beginning of the holiday dinner revolution.

In 1995, after running the restaurant for a few years, she took the UnTurkey to the Natural Products Expo East trade show. It was there she met the UnTurkey’s main competitor, the creator of Tofurky, Seth Tibbot.

“We used to hang out, poke fun at each other’s products. At the Natural Products Expo, people sort of spy on each other’s products, but it’s a really friendly group of people. It’s a wonderful industry with good vibes.”

During that first trade show, she met others like herself looking to change the world by creating new, responsible products, and in one week wrote $50,000 in orders.

Her little company wasn’t prepared for that amount of success, and after the trade show push, the orders kept flowing in. By the end of the month, they’d taken around $200,000 in UnTurkey orders. The trade show was in late September and the orders had to be delivered by early November in time for holiday dinners. Miyoko sold the restaurant, turned Now and Zen into a manufacturing company, and threw herself into the task with the fervor of someone who has no idea what can go wrong. “I was completely undaunted. If someone were to tell me I had to do this now, I would say that it’s completely unreasonable.”

The UnTurkey survived the holiday craze, but afterward she faced a new dilemma: figuring out what to sell throughout the year to keep the business afloat. “I didn’t have a business plan, so I hadn’t thought beyond selling the UnTurkeys.” Now and Zen had a few investors, and one of them phoned up with a tip. He told her that United Airlines was looking for a cookie that would fit a cross-section of dietary needs. The deadline was just two days away.

“Once again, I was undaunted. I had no reason to believe that sending cookies to United Airlines would lead to a massive contract, but that’s exactly what happened.”

She rushed to the kitchen and produced a single recipe. She baked one batch, no time for testing, and sent it out for consideration. One week later, a letter came from United saying they wanted Miyoko’s product.

“It happened because I wasn't thinking of any roadblocks. It happened because I was thinking, ‘Oh, I’ll do this!’ rather than thinking of all the reasons I couldn’t do it. Which is what stops people. They think too much.”

Once again, Miyoko found herself suddenly at the helm of a massive production with no time to plan. She moved into a 7,500-foot facility, got a massive oven and a packaging machine, and soon enough, they were making 10,000 cookies a day.

“Eventually, I couldn’t cope anymore.”The strain had been building in the background all along. Running a restaurant had turned out to be a nightmare and it didn’t get easier when it transitioned into the manufacturing company. Now and Zen struggled by. It was all happening around the millennium, when investors were rushing to the tech world. Even though Miyoko’s businesses were well received, she needed an infusion of capital to leap the final hurdles that make a business successful. Miyoko wasn’t paying herself and life was not taking any pauses. She’d married shortly before starting the café, and three months after they opened the door she gave birth to her second child. In fact, her water broke on the restaurant floor during lunch hour. Then, the head chef quit and his replacement turned out to have a heroin problem. Her mother, who’d needed Miyoko’s care in her lastfew years of life, died in 2000, and within a few months her father began to fade, also requiring end-of-life care until his passing in 2002. Finally, in 2003 Miyoko called it quits.

“Rather than going under, I sold the company for just enough to get out of debt.” The day after the business sold, she jumped on a plane with her family for her first vacation in years. She was so exhausted that she fainted somewhere over the Atlantic. Her husband begged the flight attendants not to turn the plane around—what she needed was to get away.

“It was probably the worst period of my life. I call it the Dark Ages. Nothing I touched turned to gold; it all seemed to crumble.”

Miyoko had always instinctively sought work doing something she believed in, but her passions had unfolded and she was drained. She went to work at her husband’s new law firm as a qualified intermediary, helping people move money from one thing to another, tax-free. Suddenly, she was making more money than she’d ever dreamed of. And she was making it while doing very little work.

It was incredible, for a while. For the first time in her life, if she wanted nice shoes, she bought them. Nice things, time raising the children, all for utilizing her organizational skills. What’s not to love?

“There’s no soul in it. I wasn’t interested in it.

”Deep depression set in. Her desire to do something that made the world a better place was drowning in easy money. “The financial world is rigged so that people make Monopoly money without creating any real value, without producing any real goods, without making the world a better place. They’re just making money off of money. I did it for a few years and it didn’t feel right.”

She couldn’t do it anymore. Years ago, she’d written The New Now and Zen Epicure, a vegan gourmet cookbook, one of the first, in fact, before the words “vegan” and “gourmet” shared much space together. But in the time she’d been gone, lost in the financial world, the blogosphere had bloomed. Standing out in the newly crowded world of vegan recipe writing was daunting, but the vegan movement was calling her back.

“I thought, ‘I’ll never make money again. I’ll probably fall flat on my face again.’ But I’d learned that in order for one door to open you have to completely close the other door.”

Miyoko left the law firm and started teaching cooking classes. She was in San Francisco, demo'ing vegan cheesemaking, when someone asked if she was planning to write a new cookbook. She assembled her recipes and published Artisan Vegan Cheese. Before long, the familiar light of the intrepid entrepreneur flicked back on. People loved her cheese recipes, and they would really love if she went ahead and made the cheese as well.

“I thought, ‘You know what? It’s time to start another business!’”

In September 2014, she launched Miyoko’s Kitchen, and within a year it was turning a profit and winning awards.

The money flow has shifted. For the first time in McDonald’s history, they’re closing more restaurants than they’re opening, and experts are saying it’s a sign that the times are a’changing. Investors are looking at food now, especially artisan and vegan food. All those lessons and connections she made along the way have turned into resources. Seth Tibbot, one of her early competitors, is now one of her main investors. The odds have inarguably turned in favor of this tenacious vegan-preneur.

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