Wicked Foods CEO and Unovis partner Pete Speranza – who joined the business in October 2020 after eight years at General Mills’ emerging brand elevator 301INC – is spearheading the US launch of the upmarket brand, which has notched up more than $20m in sales in the UK after launching with Tesco in 2018, growing from 20 SKUs to 160+ across shelf-stable, chilled, and frozen categories.
Unlike many players in the plant-based movement that are myopically focused on meat and dairy analogs that use a surprisingly limited number of plants, Wicked Kitchen has a distinct culinary vibe and a spans a broad range of products from black olive pesto to berry porridge showcasing a broad array of plants from beetroot and sweet potato to seeds and mushrooms, said Speranza.
“If you've ever been to a vegan restaurant, you walk out of there and you feel like, if someone cooked for me like that every day, I could be vegan in a heartbeat. That’s what the Wicked Kitchen brand is all about. It’s back to real food. Our whole thing is how do we make it easy and convenient to eat more plants?"
While it's early days for the brand, which is less than three years old, he said, “Derek, Chad and [Unovis partner] Chris Kerr, the other founder, always thought this could go global, all three of them are vegans, and they were just like, eventually, the stuff’s gonna go mainstream and the tailwinds that plant based has today… it really got them excited.”
'We'll be in about 2,500 stores in the US relatively soon'
The Wicked Kitchen brand – which has just made its US debut in Sprouts with 25 frozen and shelf-stable SKUs from meal kits, breakfast items and pesto to entrées (some featuring meat analogs from Beyond Meat)– is looking to develop close partnerships with key retail partners, rather than spraying and praying, said Speranza, who said buyers had been impressed by its success in the UK.
“We want to be a plant-based destination for a handful of retailers, not trying to hit every single person, because we can use the breadth of our innovation, see what works, and then select or curate a nice lineup for retailers to really, really go big with us. We’re starting in Sprouts, and we'll be in about 2,500 stores in the US relatively soon.”
First identify which products resonate with US consumers, then set up US manufacturing capability
Asked about the manufacturing and supply chain challenges of introducing such a complex range of products spanning multiple categories to a new market, he added: “Do I think that all of these products [in the initial US lineup] will be there two years from now? Probably not. There'll be some morphing and turning and figuring out the optimal solution.
"Then once we know where we’re getting pickup, then we'll take some miles off the product and actually start manufacturing them [via co-packers] in the US, but this allows us to be nimble to start.”
While the partnership approach Wicked developed in the UK with Tesco had been very successful, it was also the result of some unique circumstances: Derek Sarno is executive chef and head of plant-based innovation at Tesco, which clearly had something of a vested interest in ensuring the brand had every opportunity to succeed, although it is not - as some people assumed - a private label product line, said Speranza.
So would a similar tie-up with a major retailer work in the US market, which is far larger, and more fragmented?
No, said Speranza: “In the UK you could dedicate to your largest retailer and feel like you're hitting a good portion of the population [Tesco has a 27% share of the grocery market in Great Britain according to Kantar data]. Here [in the US], you have to be in almost every channel over time.
"However, I could see something similar to what we did in the UK happening elsewhere in Europe where there is more consolidation in food retail."
Fungi enthusiasts and Wicked Foods co-founders Chad and Derek Sarno (a.k.a. ‘the Mushroom Mafia’) have produced a series of cooking videos on their ‘Wicked Healthy’ YouTube channel, written several cookbooks, and pioneered techniques utilizing mushrooms as meat alternatives.
Launched at the UK’s largest food retailer, Tesco, in 2018, Wicked Kitchen focuses on grab-and-go and ready-in-minutes foods that are as “nutritionally satisfying” as they are “visually stunning,” say the Sarno brothers, who are also co-founders of plant-based seafood brand Good Catch.
Derek also served as the senior global executive chef for Whole Foods Market before becoming executive chef and head of plant-based innovation at Tesco.
Picture credit: Wicked Foods/Businesswire