Portfolio News

Q&A: Thomas Bowman, Co-Founder & CTO, Eclipse Foods

Jenna Birch, Director, Content

Fall 2021

5 min to read

Thomas Bowman has been in the food industry his entire working life. To get his start, he worked on molecular gastronomy in the fine dining space in restaurants around the globe that had earned a total of 16 Michelin stars. Bowman was twice-nominated as a James Beard Rising Star Chef and named to Zagat’s 30 Under 30 list. Soon, though, serving great food wasn't enough. Bowman wanted to make more of an impact on sustainability. He made his way out of the kitchen and into product development and R&D, working at Just Foods as the Director of Product Development while creating some of the best-selling plant-based foods on the market today.

Eventually, Bowman teamed up with Eclipse Co-Founder Aylon Steinhart, keen on pushing the sustainable food space forward. They settled on two areas of interest for potential plant-based alternatives: Seafood and dairy. Bowman and Steinhart knew several teams aggressively working on seafood, but no one was working to create “the Impossible or Beyond of dairy.” So, they set out to make not a dairy alternative, but a dairy replacement that looks, acts, and tastes like real dairy—just try the brand's Cookie Butter ice cream if you want to experience the "wow" factor.

Here's more with Thomas on the pandemic, distribution challenges, and the moment he knew he wanted to work on plant-based alternatives. JB: You’ve been in the culinary world your entire adult life, but when did you become interested in the plant-based food movement?  TB: I was speaking at a conference in Brazil in 2011, and right after we were on stage, the President of the Slow Food Movement got on stage—this was a bunch of chefs, restaurateurs, food scientists at this conference—and I had the translation earphones in. He started out by pointing at the audience and saying, “The food system is broken and it’s largely your fault. If chefs weren’t only putting loin cuts on their menus, they wouldn’t be tearing down the rain forest to raise cattle. If chefs didn’t care how much it cost for sea bass to be on the menu, we wouldn’t be overfishing the oceans.” I went back to Chicago, where I was working at my restaurant, and really took a deep look into the menu. I realized that I was guilty of all the things he was saying, so I tore down the menu and started from scratch. I started a garden for the restaurant on an acre plot just south of Chicago, where I grew a lot of our own produce, really going local, using offcuts of meats and sustainable seafoods. I made it my mission to not be part of the problem, but to be part of the solution. Of course, that’s great for 100 or 200 people per night at my restaurant, but I knew there was more I could do to ensure that, 50 years from now, my kids have delicious, sustainable foods that won’t destroy the planet. JB: You started Eclipse with an innovative way to make non-dairy ice cream. Why did you start with ice cream versus another type of dairy?  TB: We first had our breakthrough during Y Combinator in early 2019. I was burning the midnight oil, running a formulation I had run many times over, but I changed one ingredient and one processing parameter. I heard a funny noise, and so I opened up the lid to see the formulation was acting like milk. It was curdling, turning into cheese. Then, I got a little bit crazy; I started making every dairy product you could think of, from cheeses to sour creams to yogurts. But at some point we realized that just because we can do everything doesn't mean we should. No company can do everything well. Strategically, ice cream made a lot of sense. Most dairy products are co-stars. They are not center-of-the-plate. Ice cream is at the center of the plate, so it was a capital-efficient way to build a brand. People will leave their house to get a pint of ice cream or a scoop of ice cream at a scoop shop, but if we’re just the slice of cheese on top of the Beyond Burger, people are still going out for the Beyond Burger and not the cheese on top.

JB: Especially with the pandemic hitting food service hard last year, what is one of the most challenging hurdles you’ve had to conquer in getting Eclipse to market? 

TB: Having scaled so many products from ideation to commercialization, I knew that getting enough mass manufacturing capabilities, and being able to spread it from regional to national to global, was going to be the biggest challenge. We needed great manufacturing partners. The pandemic was not just difficult for food service, but the winning products during the pandemic were really a few things: sanitizer, beer, and ice cream. Grocers could not keep the shelves stocked. Because we used co-production partners, they were seeing increases in demand, and there wasn’t enough availability for us in the beginning, so getting to scale was tough. We initially started in the food-service category, and really felt that rocket ship shaking and about to take off in February 2020. Then, the next month, we completely dried up. The pandemic was a big unknown. We made the decision to quickly pivot and move to DTC and retail, which we weren't planning to do for another 1.5 to 2 years. Thankfully, when our retail business started taking off, food service started coming back, and now we’re getting more manufacturing partners online. So it’s been very good. 

JB: What’s a moment or milestone you’re most proud of from the past year or two? 

TB: We spent probably a year and a half getting into distributors. You need to have enough sales to warrant getting into distribution, so it was a lot of grinding, door-to-door foot sales with our one salesperson at the time, really driving to get enough commitments to get our first distributor. Once we got one, it just clicked and we started getting more distribution. When we finally got UNFI onboarded, a national distributor, it was almost like the product sold itself. I have been getting text messages from people all across the country saying, “Oh, I just saw your product on shelves here!” In the early days, we knew exactly where we were sold. Now, we are popping up in places and geographies we didn’t even know we were in, because of all the avenues distribution has opened up for us. It’s really proud for me to be in D.C. or New York or Chicago and see Eclipse on shelves, not just the Bay Area where we started.

JB: Tell me a little bit about your goals for the future, both immediately and 5 or 10 years from now? 

TB: We still want to expand the offerings within ice cream, and really land some bigger national accounts in both food service and retail. We want to get a really great QSR [quick service restaurant] to really build the brand and move into some fun frozen dessert categories. But we’re not just an ice cream company; we are a dairy platform company. We want to move onto everything that is dairy, requiring no sacrifice on the consumer’s end—from milk to yogurt to cheeses. All of those are to come, but we are not rushing it. One great thing we learned from our partners at Y Combinator was focus. They would say, “I can’t tell you when it’s time to launch a new product, but I can tell you when it’s not. If you really haven’t proven the traction and got your first product line to sell sustainably, it’s not time." I think we’re getting very close to moving into the next product categories, so that is very exciting. There’s so much potential in dairy. The Beyonds and the Impossibles are serving less than 3% of the global population that is vegan or vegetarian, whereas over 65% of the global population has a lactose intolerance. It’s a big sector that’s ripe for innovation. 

JB: I have one last question. I hope it’s not like picking a favorite child, but I must know: What is your favorite Eclipse ice cream flavor?

TB: Oh, I’m more than happy to share. It’s a sleeper, and people have told me it’s kind of an old-school flavor: the Caramel Butter Pecan. In my opinion, from texture to flavor, the sweet-to-salty balance, it’s my favorite.

For more information, visit eclipsefoods.com. Or, to have your mind blown, find an Eclipse ice cream location near you. 

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We’re a diverse team of visionaries and veterans who looked at the VC industry and said: “We can do more.” Together, we’re redefining what VC can be — for consumers who deserve better.

We’re a diverse team of visionaries and veterans who looked at the VC industry and said: “We can do more.” Together, we’re redefining what VC can be — for consumers who deserve better.