Food by VICE

The Mysterious Case of the Suspended, Fully-Funded Kickstarter 'Smart Cheesemaker'

Fromaggio reached its goal in five hours, but the campaign was suspended "tragically and unjustly" two weeks later.

by Bettina Makalintal
Mar 20 2019, 7:25pm

Screenshot via Kickstarter

In January, the Consumer Electronics Show flaunted tech’s solutions to a bunch of things that folks in the food world didn’t necessarily call problems in the first place, like an app-ready fridge, a breadmaking robot, and a voice-controlled faucet. Among the robots was Fromaggio, a machine that bills itself as the “world’s first smart, automatic home cheesemaker,” and does it all on your countertop with the tap of an app.

“To use [F]romaggio, users simply pour in milk, culture and rennet, choose from a default cheese setting or customize their own, and [F]romaggio automatically handles the rest,” reads the company’s press release. “It can take as little as 30 minutes to make fresh cheeses, such as mozzarella, or up to 48 hours for more complex, hard cheeses.”

Fromaggio hit Kickstarter two weeks ago, and the campaign quickly blasted past its $50,000 goal. The device got write ups on CNET, The Spoon, and Mental Floss. Clearly, its claims of fast and easy cheese were appealing, because as of this writing, 642 backers have pledged over $228,000 towards the device (a pledge of $249 or more will get you one). Technically, Fromaggio’s campaign should have almost a month left to raise more money.

But as of Tuesday afternoon, Kickstarter suspended Fromaggio’s campaign. “Our Kickstarter campaign has been suspended,” Fromaggio wrote in a Facebook post shortly after. “We found out just as you did and we are working to resolve this issue as soon as possible.” The company added a few hours later that the suspension was the result of failing to send Kickstarter “requested files.” According to Kickstarter’s troubleshooting guidelines, “once a project has been suspended it cannot be undone.” (MUNCHIES has reached out to both Kickstarter and Fromaggio for comment, but has not yet heard back.) UPDATE 3/28/19: Fromaggio provided MUNCHIES with comment after publication, and an update can be found below.

As news of the suspension makes its way to backers, some are expressing sadness and surprise. “Cancelled?!! I'm crying,” wrote one user in the comments on Kickstarter. Others, however, are now sharing suspicions that might have been buried by the campaign’s hype and instant success.

One user with the display name Hank Fox pointed out a few problems. Primarily, there haven’t been any videos of the process. “I don't think Fromaggio ever refused to produce these videos, but the fact that they don't exist or aren't available is suspect,” Fox wrote. And none of the glowing write ups of Fromaggio appear to rely on actual eyewitness accounts. The promotional video on Kickstarter shows milk going into the machine and cheese being taken out of the machine—but the process isn't shown, and the device doesn’t visibly run.

Fox also called out Fromaggio’s claims, particularly the fact that the device, well, makes cheese automatically. As Fox writes, mozzarella, which is one of the many cheeses that Fromaggio claims it can make, involves a few steps: the milk needs to be coagulated so the curds and whey can separate, the curds need to be formed into a mass, and the ball of curds must be stretched. The last step, while integral to making mozzarella, is one that Fromaggio can’t do; the consumer has to take the curds out and do it by hand.

In the case of several other cheeses Fromaggio claims to make—Comté, parmesan, Cheddar, and Camembert, for example—a similar problem stands. Those cheeses need to be aged: a process that not only involves specific spaces for aging (Fromaggio recommends a wine fridge in the absence of a cellar or cave), but also time and care. Comté, for example, ages for at least four months, but typically longer, during which time it needs to be checked and turned. That’s a far cry from Fromaggio’s blanket claim of a 48-hour maximum for complex, hard cheeses.

When MUNCHIES asked Fromaggio founder Glen Feder about this in a phone conversation a week before the campaign’s suspension, Feder acknowledged that the operational definition of Fromaggio’s “cheesemaking” really meant just forming a ball of curds and pressing them. “Certain cheeses will be easier to make than others. Feta, cream cheese, chèvre: those are cheeses where the output is going to be almost 100 percent success,” Feder told MUNCHIES. “There are other types of more complex cheeses where they might require some more user intervention.”

When asked about the cheesemaking device, Peter Jenkelunas, cave master at New York City’s Murray’s Cheese, told MUNCHIES by email, “Forming the cheese gets you half-way there (unless you’re making a fresh cheese). Caring for the cheese requires proper environmental conditions and a well thought out routine.”

Fromaggio’s limitations appeared to have come up before. “This is something I’ve been clarifying, which you’re also welcome to clarify: Fromaggio does not age the cheese. Fromaggio can prepare a cheese wonderfully for aging because it has a very strong press inside the machine which can press out all of the whey,” Feder told MUNCHIES. “But it is not a cheese ager, so in order to make Comté or even Camembert and Brie, there are aging requirements and the user will have to age the cheese.”

Those nuances regarding what “cheesemaking” really means, though, can be easily lost in the persuasive language of the device’s marketing materials, especially when taking Fromaggio’s target consumers into consideration: cheese lovers, but not trained cheesemakers. It’s not that Fromaggio’s claims are entirely untrue, but they come with caveats that aren’t immediately clear to people who aren't familiar with the process of making cheese. Simplifying language in hopes of making a sale introduces the potential to mislead consumers—whose ears perk up and wallets ready at the thought of homemade parmesan in two days.

As Rory Stamp, an award-winning cheesemonger and co-chair of Slow Food Vermont, told MUNCHIES, “When you get into the aged cheeses and the more complex cheese recipes—even with the temperature and mechanical control that Fromaggio claims to provide—home cheesemakers really lack the tools to safely make those cheeses.”

“...the fact that these discrepancies are NOT pointed out in the campaign makes it seem like the potential backers are being misled,” Fox wrote. “Again, I don't think that this in any way was their intention, they were open to answering my questions in the comment section here but it puts Kickstarter in a bad situation.”

It still isn’t clear how the situation will resolve itself, or why exactly Kickstarter suspended the account. Still, there’s a history of Kickstarters failing to deliver—like the “no mess French press” that blew past its delivery date and still asked for more money, despite having raised $3 million—and some backers are pulling out to avoid getting burned. “I was suspicious about the whole thing from the beginning because I know how hard and time consuming to make chess [sic],” wrote one user. “But I guess my passion for chess made me forgot [sic] about the possibility that it could be another fraud.”

Before the suspension, Feder had scheduled a livestream on Kickstarter for this afternoon to answer questions. That happened as scheduled, and backers had plenty of questions.

“We were doing great. In 12 days, we had $225,000. We had media. We’re going to get over this,” Feder said. “We were tragically and unjustly suspended from Kickstarter for a simple oversight of not catching an email. We’re going to come back bigger and better, maybe on Indiegogo.”

UPDATE 3/28/19: After publication, Fromaggio launched another Kickstarter campaign on March 22. Fromaggio provided the following statement to MUNCHIES:

"Fromaggio's campaign was quickly re-created with Kickstarter's help, after it was briefly, automatically suspended because we missed a Kickstarter support email. Our 'new' campaign has now been named 'Project we Love' by Kickstarter and we reached our funding goal in less than 3 hours! We have a growing and loyal backer following and look forward to delivering this first to market product to our backers worldwide."