How many options do vegetarians and flexitarians (meat reducers) have when they go out to eat (if they are not in the mood for bean burgers and Margherita pizza)?
Not as many as they would like, says AB Foods founder Alison Burgess, who first got interested in meat analogs a decade ago after "gradually going vegetarian" and discovering that going out to eat was not as much fun as it used to be.
Shortly afterwards, the Match brand was born.
I got fed up with going to a restaurant and getting served a plate of grilled vegetables
We hear a lot about the big players in the retail meat alternatives category (Morningstar Farms, Boca, Quorn, Tofurky, Gardein and Gardenburger), she says, but diners often struggle to find good quality meat analogs when they eat out.
“I got fed up with going to a restaurant and getting served a plate of grilled vegetables. Then it occurred to me that the chefs didn’t have anything decent to work with.
“So I got in touch with the director of protein research at the University of Illinois and spent two years working on a product. I was using textured soy protein, isolated soy protein and wheat gluten, water, canola oil, vegetable gums and spices.
“I wanted to replicate the texture of meat as closely as possible.
“At first I made small batches and said to people, try using this in an existing recipe. I started with veggie burgers and then moved on to pork and sausage and crab meat [analogs].”
Retailers put up too many roadblocks for small companies
Before long, Burgess was getting calls from retailers (including Whole Foods Market) asking to stock her products, but she “didn’t think it was feasible for a small company to enter the retail market”.
She adds: “I still have my sincere doubts about it. They put up too many roadblocks for a small company. Today we are in some independent grocery stores and some Whole Foods Market stores, but our focus is on foodservice."
Today, the St Louis, MO-based firm also makes a range of prepared entrees including a holiday roast, Maryland crab cakes, beef wellington and stuffed pork chops, she says.
“Chefs love our product. More and more meat eaters are now eating two or three meat-free meals a week.”
There will be a market for more of these products in mid-range restaurants
But what kinds of restaurants are buying her products?
“Mainly high-end restaurants”, says Burgess. “But I think there will be a market for more of these products in mid-range restaurants.
“We are getting asked a lot for samples. You can sell a traditional dry, cheap meat-free pattie that tastes like sawdust, but people will only buy it once.”
People tried them once and said never again. But things have changed
The quality-oriented strategy is clearly paying off, as sales rose 21% last year, she says. “And that was with zero marketing. Momentum is really building now and I think we can grow to 10 times our current size.”
The biggest challenge, she says, is getting people that have tried sub-par meat-free products in the past to revisit them today.
“The biggest challenge is the market perception of some of the old veggie burgers and crumbles. People tried them once and said never again.
“But things have changed. Our goal is to supply restaurants with gourmet [meat-free] entrees so that they can build a loyal following and deliver a new kind of eating experience.”