Food, says Lee, a chef by trade, “isn’t a place where people want to get dazzled by tech. They want to get dazzled by tech in their smartphones, but when it comes to food, things are going in the other direction. It’s about being less processed, simpler, artisan, handmade. And yet so many vegetarian products are high-tech… how do you get from a soybean to a Boca burger?
“For the same reason I’m not into cultured meat, although it will be interesting to see how it works out. But I think people want foods to be familiar, understandable, to know where they have come from.”
The days of holding animal foods as the nutritional standard are over
As for nutrition, Lee is not looking to precisely replicate the nutritional profile of meat and cheese, any more than he is trying to replicate their organoleptic properties, he stresses.
“I think the days of holding animal foods as ‘the’ nutritional standard are over. Yes animal foods can be good foods [nutritionally], but I think people seem to forget when they are talking about plant-based foods that a plant-based diet is not just about plant-based milk or meat, it’s about grains, vegetables, legumes, kale, quinoa, nuts, the whole diet.
“No one is going to be healthy if they eat nothing but pork sausages, just as no one is going to be healthy if they eat nothing but plant-based sausages.”
Combining Asian and European culinary traditions
Field Roast, which Lee launched 20 years ago with his brother, began as a vegan loaf company, starting with vital wheat gluten and red wine, tomato paste, wheat flakes, barley malt, fresh garlic, yeast extract, sea vegetables, paprika, lentils, and spices.
The Seattle-based company – which generates around 85% of its revenues from retail products and the rest for foodservice - has since branched out into refrigerated sausages, burgers, deli slices, fermented tofu-based cheeses and cheese pasta dishes; frozen Japanese-style Katsu cutlets, and mini-corn dogs; and is planning moves into vegan buttery spreads and mayo next year.
In each case, there is some culinary heritage to draw upon, says Lee, who is targeting flexitarians as well as vegans and vegetarians.
“There’s an Asian tradition of grain meats that began in China when Buddhist monks rinsed out the starch from a ball of wheat dough to basically isolate the protein [wheat gluten]. We’ve then infused it with the European charcuterie tradition, adding red wine, fresh garlic, vegetables, and bold flavors.”
“The products that people know what to do with, that fit into their paradigm, we’re selling more of, so things like burgers and sausages. For our loaves, the consumer profile is very different to someone buying a pack of sausages.”
David Lee, co-founder and president, Field Roast
It’s not fake Monterey Jack or Cheddar
The starting point for Field Roast’s Chao brand of vegan cheese – launched in 2015 – is also an Asian culinary tradition (fermented chao/tofu) which Lee inoculates with cultures, harvests and then soaks in brine for 30 days, before adding coconut oil, corn and potato starch, sea salt, natural flavors, olive extract, and beta carotene.
“It’s the cheese of Asia, Doufu-ru, and we’re the first plant in the US to make it. But it’s not fake Monterey Jack or Cheddar, we’ve got starch in there to keep things together but we’re not using gums to mimic fat or create texture. These are coconut fat-based cheeses. If you’re going to go up against animal products, you need to go up against them fat for fat.”
He added: “I think one reason that the plant-based milk category has taken off is that people see the products as real products, not fake milk. It’s almond milk, or cashew milk, not fake cow’s milk. It’s just a different product. It tastes different and it’s supposed to.
“The plant-based milks are on Broadway and the plant-based meats are off Broadway right now. We’re down in the village somewhere, but we’re heading north, and many of the brands are growing very fast.
“At Field Roast we’re growing at 40-50% annually, and we’re performing well in conventional as well as natural channels – we’re selling Chao slices in Walmart and Publix,” adds Lee, who started Field Roast with $10,000 with this brother, a “modest investment” from a group of shareholders, and bank financing, and is “looking at alternative methods of financing going forward.”
Merchandising plant-based foods
So where is the best place to merchandise Field Roast products?
“I think that what’s happened with plant-based milks (which sit in the dairy aisle next to regular dairy milk) will happen with meat, in 15-20 years there will just be a protein section. When we started, that was my vision [to sit alongside meat products], but it was too early. But over time, these products will all sit alongside each other just as they do in the dairy set.
“Having said that, I’m talking about cooked, ready-to-eat prepared foods. I’m not sure about having prepared food next to raw animal flesh [something Beyond Meat is experimenting with, with its refrigerated vegan Beyond Burger]. I’m not sure that’s such a smart move. But we’ll see.”
As for descriptors, while most dictionaries reference ‘animal flesh’ under the word ‘meat,’ both the OED and Webster’s define meat first simply as ‘solid food,’ while others refer to the edible parts of fruits and nuts, Lee points out.
“We’re selling something for the center of the plate, our grain meat would be the main component of your meal, so are we a meat company? Absolutely, we’re a meat and cheese company.”