With their muted color schemes and callouts highlighting nutritional or environmental attributes, some brands in the meat alternative segment, claimed Zilko, have forgotten that people “eat with their eyes,” and don't want to be lectured to, especially in a category such as fried chicken: “These are chicken nuggets for crying out loud.”
Zilko - who built the Garden Fresh Gourmet dips and chips brand with Jack Aronson into a multi-million-dollar business before selling it to Campbell Soup for a cool $231m in 2015 – is under no illusions about how competitive the plant-based meat category has become, but says many market entrants don't really bring anything new to the segment.
Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods re-energized a relatively niche category thanks to superior technology and a clear focus on meat eaters and flexitarians, rather than vegans and vegetarians, prompting “probably one of the greatest gold rushes in this industry in our lifetime," noted Zilko. But they also inspired a flurry of me-too products which were not quite ready for prime time.
With Skinny Butcher – launching nationwide this month with a suite of ‘double-breaded’ plant-based poultry products inspired by the fried chicken sandwiches driving sales in QSR chains ('crazy crispy' chick’n nuggets, patties, tenders and breasts, turk’y strips etc) – the aim is to “win on branding and flavor profile,” said Zilko, who is based in Detroit and serves as CEO.
Injecting fun and excitement into a category where ‘a lot of people take themselves very, very seriously’
Featuring pop art-inspired graphics and speech bubbles (‘Gobble this!’ ‘Can’t beat the heat…’ ‘They’re the breast you can buy…’ ‘The cluck stops here…’ ‘This butcher makes house calls!’) Skinny Butcher was designed with a “retro-throwback feel,” said Zilko, who has teamed up with Golden West Food Group, Valor Equity Partners (which contributed $10m), and Wow Bao (majority-owned by Valor) to bring the brand to market.
“When your grandmother would go buy meat a couple of times a week, she’d run into the butcher … and there's that old joke that says you never trust a skinny butcher or a skinny chef, but our skinny butcher is winking at you.”
'The reaction we're getting has been universally positive'
Manufactured by Golden West Food Group, which has a large production facility in California and established relationships with leading retailers and foodservice companies, Skinny Butcher products are made from a base of pea and wheat protein, coupled with bamboo fiber (also found in the NotBurger, Tyson’s Raised & Rooted brand, and some Meatless Farm products) and a proprietary spice blend.
Spicy chick'n tenders will come next, with plant-based fish sticks and fillets to follow in Q3.
Golden West - which has a “significant equity stake” in Skinny Butcher - has exclusive rights to manufacture the brand, and will also serve as its vendor of record, said Zilko, who said the ability to scale up rapidly at a time when many startups in the plant-based meat space are struggling to secure co-packing partners gave Skinny Butcher a strong advantage.
“We’ve hired an in-house chief marketing officer and creative director, but we’re using Golden West’s manufacturing, their trucks, their sales force, their manufacturer UPC prefixes, and so on, so if Costco orders a Skinny Butcher product, we don't have to set up a new vendor form with Costco, and so on.”
He added: "We ship to Safeway mid-Atlantic next week and the week after that we ship to Costco in the Bay Area, and then more retailers are coming on board, so we're onboarding right now. The reaction we're getting has been universally positive. The same with foodservice… people we’re talking to you say this is a really fun brand that puts a smile on your face.”
Price: 'I tell people, think Absolut Vodka, not Grey Goose. We want to be approachable'
Asked about the price of plant-based meat, which logically should be cheaper than animal meat given you're effectively cutting out the middleman, he noted that the meat industry has had a significant head start when it came to building the infrastructure to support the mass market.
But as manufacturing capacity for plant-based ingredients and finished goods increases, pricing for meat alternatives will become far more competitive, he predicted.
If the products are just as good, and prices reach parity, he argued, “I don't know why anybody would eat animal chicken nuggets, but right now, pea protein prices are literally three times what soy protein is, and it's still not as cheap as real chicken meat. But when that gap closes, I think it's Katie bar the door for the plant based categories Skinny Butcher is in now.
"But right now, we are positioning ourselves as a premium product, but not out of reach, so you'll see MorningStar Farms on shelf at $4.99 and you'll see us between $5.49 and $5.99. I tell people, think Absolut Vodka, not Grey Goose. We want to be approachable.”