Whether you have resolved to get healthier in 2018 or to lead a more earth-friendly lifestyle, choosing plant-based foods is a great place to start. It’s becoming increasingly easy to do so as the plant-based market shifts from niche to mainstream. Citing everything from personal wellness and public health to ethical concerns and environmental responsibility, a growing number of consumers are opting for plant-based products. Investors like Bill Gates and even Tyson Foods are betting on the plant-based businesses. According to recent Nielsen data commissioned by the Plant Based Foods Association and the Good Food Institute, plant-based food and beverage retail sales in the U.S. grew by 8.1 percent from August 2016 to August 2017. In contrast with the 0.2 percent decline of total food sales through the same channels, this growth is especially noteworthy.
Mission minded entrepreneurs are finding opportunities to make an impact, turn a profit, and stoke the flames of a growing plant-based market. At Food FutureCo, we’re proud to have three plant-based startups in our third cohort. Read on for the inside scoop on how they’re changing the game with innovative plant-based products.
Co-Founders Zoë Lloyd and Nilofer Ahmed launched their frozen meal kit company, Zoni Foods, with the mission to “make it easy for everyone to eat healthy, plant-based food for our health and for the health of the planet.” Zoë shares the Zoni Foods origin story below.
How did the Zoni Foods dream start?
While we were getting our MBAs, we found that we had no time or energy to cook and eat healthy meals. We realized there was this disconnect between what we aspired to eat and what we were eating in reality. We founded Zoni Foods to remove the barriers to eating healthy, plant-based food for everyone. We saw an opportunity in the frozen food aisle to reinvent the tv dinner by making a plant-based frozen meal kit that cooks on the stove in 10 minutes, providing a simple way for people to prepare healthy meals that look and taste fresh, even on the busiest of days.
What sets Zoni Foods apart from other meal kit options?
Unlike microwavable “TV dinner” meals, Zoni Foods’ meals contain a filling serving of plant-based, all-natural food that has low amounts of sodium and no preservatives. Each stovetop meal takes ten minutes to cook in one pan on the stove.
Our secondary competitors are meal kit delivery services like Blue Apron and Purple Carrot. Based on customer interviews, common pain points for these include long prep and cooking time, the expense ($10-$15+/serving), and the high risk of spoilage.
Unlike meal kit delivery services, Zoni Foods’ frozen meals take 10 minutes to prepare on the stove in one pan, are affordable at $5.99-$6.99/serving, and can be prepared when most convenient for the consumer--there’s no risk of spoilage for 6 months!
What have the most noteworthy challenges and/or breakthroughs been?
It has been difficult to decide how much data is enough data to decide what to change and improve - especially in terms of the recipes and packaging. On the other hand, it has been incredible to hear how many consumers love our products as well as to see so much interest from retail chains looking to fill a growing need for plant-based, easy-to-prepare meals in the frozen aisle.
What does success look like for you?
We started Zoni Foods not only to help improve human health but to decrease the impact our diets have on the environment by encouraging people to eat less meat and dairy overall.
Our goal is to get into mainstream grocery stores throughout the country so that a large majority of urban professionals are able to eat healthier meals at home instead of alternative tv dinners, takeout, or fast food. We really want to make this good-quality, plant-based food accessible to all people.
When you’re not eating Zoni foods, what are your favorite noms?
Favorite noms include garlic hummus, avocado, sweet potato fries, and all of minimalist baker's dinner recipes!
Meta Mavens Natalie Neumann & Romy Raad are making the energy drinks of the future using healthy oils and superfoods. Their nut-buttered tea and nut-buttered coffee make a little caffeine go a long way. Natalie and Romy talk purpose, plants, and product development below.
What was the inspiration behind Metabrew?
When Romy and I we met during grad school, we were both struggling with health issues and caffeine. I have a very low heart rate, and I used to drink about eight cups of coffees a day. Romy on the other side has a super sensitive stomach and couldn’t drink any coffee without feeling sick. Being grad students working intense hours and attending classes at night, we set out to reinvent how we caffeinate. After a year of iterations and gathering feedback, we found a blend that actually helped the both of us. It gave us a nice energy boost that kept us running for hours. No jitters or crashing. No stomach complaints. And all that with 70 percent less caffeine than your Starbucks latte. That’s when it struck us - with this we can serve a huge market.
Was it intentional or happenstance that Metabrew is a plant-based product?
That we use plant-based ingredients is very intentional. An important part of our vision is to be very accessible to everyone. And everyone - vegans and non-vegans alike -can benefit from plant-based products. We want to help more people start living happier, healthier lives and show them that real food makes them feel really good. Each of the ingredients we select has a unique yet complimentary purpose and there are so many amazing plant-based superfoods to choose from.
How has your business model evolved since you launched?
We started with a subscription model where you ordered through our website, and our boxes of Metabrew were delivered to our NYC customers every seven days on cargo bikes.
The big challenge here was our 7-day shelf life, so we started working with high pressure processing (HPP), which allows a fresh beverage like ours to last longer without having to cook it. HPP increased the shelf life of Metabrew to three months. With this new extended shelf life, we realized that we can sell the product in grocery stores, which we started in August 2016. It has been great to be in stores because we get exposed to many customers and are easier for people to access.
What have consumer reactions been?
So positive! Hearing from our customers how Metabrew has improved their lives keeps us going every day. People seek to perform at their best and Metabrew helps them with that; whether it is going through a “Big Thinking” period, an intense training session or that extra long client meeting on a Friday afternoon. And in the long run, our customers feel the effect of having a healthy drink made out of REAL FOOD. They will make better choices and help companies like ours to reinvent the traditional food and beverage industry.
Brothers Wyatt and Hunter Bryson and co-owner Darren Racusen combine their passion for the Fungi kingdom and sustainable food systems at their farm Jewels of the Forest, where they create premium mushroom jerky, i.e. Shroom Snacks. Read on for some insight into their fungi-centric business from Darren below.
Where did the idea behind mushroom jerky come from?
Professional chef and lead product developer Hunter Bryson got his inspiration to create Shroom Jerky after visits to his wife’s native country of Thailand. As a mushroom-lover, he has been particularly inspired by the use of mushrooms in Thai cuisine and innovative snack products. In 2016, he decided to use exotic mushrooms for a new take on an American snacking favorite - chewy, hearty jerky. He tested the product in his own kitchen and after getting big thumbs up from his wife and kids, he took the product to local trade shows and local stores. The product has been organically gaining momentum and popping up all over the Bay Area ever since.
What drew you to the plant-based market?
Well, technically, fungi are not plants! They are their own classification on the tree of life and a unique organism all their own. That aside, the plant(& fungi?)-based market is a very high-growth market with plenty of room for innovation. Our founders were drawn by the opportunity emerging snack products have to thrive in meeting the needs of plant-based consumers who are seeking alternatives to popular animal-derived products.
Why do you use oyster mushrooms?
Oyster mushrooms prove to be a great base for absorbing flavors and lend themselves well to our cooking process. They boast a bevy of health benefits including: Vitamin D, calcium, high fiber, antioxidants, and protein. And from a practical standpoint, high-quality, organic oyster mushrooms are widely available and affordable.
What’s the most challenging aspect of navigating the food industry?
We are in the process of developing our own food manufacturing facility in Northern California in order to scale production to meet demand. The process of building, certifying and operating a food-manufacturing facility presents loads of new challenges. Luckily, we have enlisted the help of the FoodFutureCo team to help take our production to the next level!
When you’re not snacking on Shroom Jerky, what’s your favorite munchie?
We’re blessed to live where we do in Northern CA and we take advantage by snacking on local produce at every opportunity (seriously!).