A new entrant is set to stir up the long stagnant shelf stable meat replacement market. Neat Foods, a Lancaster, PA-based startup, will debut its line of vegan, gluten- and soy-free, non GMO meat replacements at the upcoming Expo East trade show in New York City.
Like so many new food products, the idea for the Neat line was born in a home kitchen blender, as company co-founder Laura Lapp, who is trained as a neuroscientist, sought meat and gluten-free alternatives to serve to her family.
Food, not business, came first
“We never set out to create a business or a product. We set out to solve a problem and in so doing we created a company,” said the other co-founder, Phil Lapp, Laura’s husband. The family was transitioning into vegetarianism for various reasons, he said.
“My cholesterol was over 300. My natural grandfather died of a heart attack when he was in his 30s,” Phil Lapp told FoodNavigator-USA. “My wife just transitioned to being vegetarian over the years. My kids didn’t like the idea of eating animals.”
“But we like eating dinner as a family and we liked having a taco night,” he said. So Laura set out to concoct a meat alternative that was tastier than existing choices and one that didn’t have the long, intimidating ingredient list.
“I couldn’t find anything that was vegetarian and didn’t have the chemicals. Which I found kind of puzzling,” she said. “Along with the (soy-based) TVP you get a whole long list of additives.”
“At first I was only looking at taste. My sole mission was to make something my kids would like. I was all about the taste and the texture, too,” she said.
Laura Lapp based her formulation on pecans, white and garbanzo beans and organic cornmeal. Phil Lapp had experience selling consumer food products, and after tasting her recipes he saw a business opportunity.
“I had experience selling shelf stable products into grocery. I told her, ‘If you can turn this into a shelf stable product, I can sell it,’ ” he said.
“The meat replacement category in general is just under $600 million. And 37% of all Americans are eating a meat replacement on a regular basis. It’s a huge market and I thought we could have a piece of that,” Phil Lapp said.
Easier path to the shelf
The shelf stable niche seemed to offer an easier path to market, Laura Lapp said.
“I wasn’t even going for shelf stability at first. I was just making something to serve to my family that same evening. But it was a way without having to go up against some of the big names that are in frozen meat alternatives,” she said.
“(Frozen) is expensive; you have to pay for that space in the freezer. Whereas on the shelf a store will give you more of a chance. We would love to do a frozen ‘meatball’ sometime in the future. But it is a lot easier to do that on the second pass,” Laura Lapp said.
The company is offering its launch product in three flavors: Mexican, Italian and ‘Original,’ meant to closely mimic the taste of browned ground beef.
“Mexican goes back to the taco night experience,” Phil Lapp said. “We just picked the other two based on what we thought would be the highest demand.”
The product’s instructions call for reconstituting with the addition of two eggs and a little water. Vegan instructions call for the use of the Ener-G egg replacement product. Even with those additions, the end result is cost competitive, Laura Lapp said.
“It’s cost competitive with cheap ground beef,” she said.
Laura Lapp said she has organic sources for the beans and corn in the product. The pecans are not yet certified organic, making an organic certification a project for the future. The product already has a gluten-free certification and the company hopes to have a non GMO certification in place for Expo West in September, she said.
The company has been selling its products online and recently entered into an agreement for distribution on the East Coast. Phil Lapp said he hopes their debut at Expo East will be an opportunity to interest distributors with greater reach.