“We’re a meat company that make products from plants”, say the entrepreneurs behind Beyond Meat, which makes "near-perfect replicas of meat" from plants. And they’re thinking big. After all, why settle for a slice of the $600m US meat-alternatives market when you can go after a chunk of the $180bn meat market?
If this sounds somewhat ambitious for a start-up that only launched its first products on the national stage in 2013, take a look at its backers, which include VC legend Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers (which backed Amazon and Google - before everyone else did), and The Obvious Corporation (an investment vehicle created by the founders of Twitter).
And then try some Beyond Meat chicken-free strips and beef crumbles and see if you can tell the difference between its pea- and soy-based products and the real thing, says the firm, which has the license to use a patented process to make meat-replicas developed by Fu-Hung Hsieh and Harold Huff at the University of Missouri.
Meat analogs have been around for years, acknowledges Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown on a call with FoodNavigator-USA from the firm’s HQ in El Segundo, CA.
But while sales are growing - and some players such as Gardein are doing extremely well - the category hasn't exploded, in part because most meat analogs just don’t taste like meat.
The problem is the spongy structure (not fibrous like meat), poor flavor retention and poor moisture retention, which means meat-lovers try them once, and don’t buy them again, claims Brown, who promises to deliver “a seamless experience for carnivores, like shifting from one meat to another [that just happens to be made from plants].”
A seamless experience for carnivores
If you break it down to its constituent parts, he says, “meat is fat, water, minerals, amino acids, and carbohydrates, and these things are also in plants,” so it seems logical that if you play around with these components for long enough, “you should be able to come up with something just as good.”
From an ingredients perspective, meanwhile, there is nothing especially exotic about Beyond Meat, which manufacturers its goods from a dedicated plant in Columbia, Missouri, which opened in November 2012.
The chicken-free strips (launched nationally in April 2013) use non-GMO pea and soy protein isolates, plus soy and carrot fiber, yeast extract, amaranth and non-GMO expeller pressed canola oil; while the new beef-free crumbles (launched in February 2014) are made primarily from pea protein, observes Brown.
The secret to their success, he says, is the manufacturing process. And at a basic level, even this is fairly simple: “It’s about heating, cooling and pressure”.
However, to perfectly recreate the fibrous texture of muscle,elements such as temperature, pH and the cooling process must be “exactly right.”
So what about canola, lupin, beans, or other sources of protein? “We will look at different proteins in future as we’re constantly improving the products,” says Brown. “But we wanted to make something with commercially available proteins that we could take to market immediately.”
We have to compete with beef and chicken
From a pricing perspective, Beyond Meat is not comparing itself with Quorn Chik'n tenders or MorningStar Farms crumbles, but with meat, which is what it is really competing with, says co-founder and VP corporate development Brent Taylor.
“To cross over into the mainstream market, we have to compete with beef and chicken. We’re around $7-10/lb depending on which retailer we’re in and cooked chicken is around $9-11/lb or $14+lb if you’re buying antibiotic-free, natural, organic cooked chicken, so we’re providing a convenient protein that’s competitively priced, and doesn’t involve any kind of sacrifice.
“For consumers, there’s no downside, it’s healthier, it taste great and it’s much more sustainable.”
In the longer-term, absolutely I can see our products at Taco Bell, McDonald’s and Burger King
The business strategy is two-pronged, focusing on retail (customers include Whole Foods, Sprouts, Bristol Farms, Publix and HEB, with a national roll-out at Safeway and Target to come); and foodservice, says Taylor.
“The response so far has been really fantastic. We’ve gone from zero stores to several thousand in less than a year. But we’re also talking to lots of people on the foodservice and industrial side. In the longer-term, absolutely I can see our products at chains like Taco Bell, McDonald’s and Burger King.”
What do we all do three times day, seven days a week? Eat.
Much like Josh Tetrick - who has persuaded equally high-profile investors to support his plant-based egg replacement business Hampton Creek Foods - Brown is convinced that changing the way we eat can change the world, and if you hand people solutions on a plate (literally) such that no sacrifice is involved, why wouldn’t they jump at the opportunity?
People are always saying what can I do about climate change, but feel overwhelmed by how little difference they can make in the scheme of things, he says. You can buy a hybrid car - if you can afford it - he says, or you can do something more cost-effective, like changing your diet.
“What do we all do three times day, seven days a week? Eat.”