“Consumers in the plant-based world expect there to be a mission behind the brands they buy, which has been true of all of us in the past,” said Jaime Athos, CEO of Tofurky, which was founded on the belief that “people, animals and the environment matter more than profit margins” and that animal-friendly foods can be “100% tasty.”
However, he said, he fears that the high premium previously placed on values shared with consumers could be changing “slowly, one at a time, as some of these companies are sold and no longer have the founder-passion or the original mission.”
“In the last year or so, we have seen Sweet Earth acquired by Nestle, we have seen Lightlife acquired by Maple Leaf and more recently seen Field Roast acquired by Maple Leaf as well. At the same time, we have seen other high profile investments by meat companies, like Tyson’s, investing in plant-based protein companies, and I think that is awesome. I am seeing some of their messaging reflecting their commitment to things other than animal protein and to me, as a consumer and a person who is an ethical vegan, I am thrilled and see these nuances more as milestones. To imagine that Tyson or Maple Leaf might present themselves as a protein company and not a meat company feels like a sea change in attitudes,” Athos said.
But at the same time, he said, many of the newcomers to the plant-based category also have fiduciary responsibilities that could “tie their hands” or serve as an “excuse for making less virtuous decisions.” Or at a minimum cast doubt in consumers’ minds about the underlying drivers or mission behind decisions.
Tofurky prides itself on its independence
At Tofurky, though, this is not a risk because as a family-owned company “we are the shareholders and we are all committed personally and professionally to the products that we make and to serving the needs of our consumers. And nowhere on the list of priorities for us is profits. So, that is a luxury for us … and a huge advantage,” Athos said.
In addition, the company’s status as a certified B-Corp also reinforces that it’s mission and dedication to vegan values are of primary importance.
“Maintaining our values is important because in this age of transparency, people care not just about what they buy, but who they buy it from and they want to know that they are not supporting companies that are doing evil,” Athos said.
As such, he said, when consumers find out about acquisitions of companies and brands they trust “they have to reanalyze what that brand is all about. Do they still stand for what I thought they did? And it may take a while for people to realize those transactions happened … but ultimately people figure it out and understand that they are not buying from the same kind of independent, ethically-based company, but something else and that there is a parent company involved that may stand for something different.”
At the same time that Athos insists Tofurky will not sell, he said he understands why some players do.
“If you track the dollar amounts of some of these transactions, they are ridiculous and I know there is a huge amount of money out there and some of these folks have worked for decades to build up their companies and it is hard to walk away from life-changing money,” he said.
He added: “We get offers on a weekly basis and, you know, it is may be fun to think about. Sort of like when you buy a lottery ticket and you imagine what you could do with all that money, but I think for me I would miss the positive acts that I think our company is able to make in the world and on behalf of our consumers, who on some level, I think I would be letting down.”
Offering a helping hand
One way that Tofurky is striving to “do good” is by helping new companies in the plant-based space succeed without or with as little investment funding as possible so that they don’t feel “beholden to outside interests.”
It does this by offering the use of its manufacturing facilities at greatly reduced rates and by sharing some of the lessons it has learned about bringing new products at a margin that is sustainable for the company and still compelling for consumers.
“We are also able to express this mentorship spirit that we have through the trade group that we helped found – the Plant Based Foods Association – and we actually have a mentorship program in there, so that those of us who have been around for a while can have regular check-ins with some of these younger companies and help them navigate some of the complexities of the business that we are all in,” Athos said.
By doing this, Athos said he believes, everyone together can continue to lift up the plant-based foods category.
Preserving diversity in the market
He also said he hopes that by working together plant-based players can preserve and expand the diversity of the segment, which could become threatened as large conglomerates and venture-capitalist backed players with deep pockets enter the space.
He explains that one of his fears is that large players with significant resources to buy shelf space at grocers could crowd-out some of the smaller companies that are not able to pay high slotting fees. He adds he would rather help competitors and expand the offerings so that consumers can pick the winners and losers and express their preferences though purchasing behavior.
Athos adds that while this is a significant concern of his, he has yet to see larger players actually do this and so he remains hopeful that the category will remain collaborative.
“I am an optimist ultimately, and I think overall what we are seeing is really positive and I think that through these acquisitions we are seeing the understanding and recognition on the parts of these big food companies that they need to be on board with the trends toward plant-based eating and that it is not just a flash in the pan,” he said, adding there is a plenty of room for plenty of winners in the space.