KANSAS CITY — Emerging brands are using simple yet surprising ingredients to redefine dietary staples.
Mushrooms masquerade as meat snacks. Beans and peas pose as faux fish. Hemp seed oil and cocoa butter mimic milk fat in a non-dairy gelato alternative.
Pan’s Mushroom Jerky, Gathered Foods and Wonderlab’s Doozy Pots are among companies tapping into culinary creativity to deliver the taste and texture of traditional animal products with nutritional and sustainable benefits. The founders behind the businesses are part of a $7 billion movement in the United States that is pushing the boundaries of plant-based innovation beyond burgers and milk.
Much ado about mushrooms
Shiitakes star in Pan’s Mushroom Jerky, a line of savory snacks inspired by a family recipe. Michael Pan launched the venture shortly after a trip to Malaysia to visit family and connect with his culture.
“On one of the visits, I met a cousin of mine who put a bowl of food on the table; I tried it and actually thought it was pork,” Mr. Pan recalled. “But I was super confused because this cousin was a vegetarian. I quickly found out it was actually a mushroom. He told me he had been making this snack for himself and his family and selling it locally… That’s when I knew our family had a snack that needed to be shared with the rest of the world.”
Mr. Pan, an electrical engineer with no prior food industry experience, initially pursued his plant-based snack startup on a part-time basis. Ten years later, he decided to focus fully on Pan’s Mushroom Jerky and opened a manufacturing facility in Portland, Ore.
“I went all in, cashed out my 401(k), and that’s how I got off the ground,” Mr. Pan said. “Our product and process are unique in the sense that it’s truly this family recipe that we’re trying to scale. I wanted to be an expert at manufacturing our recipe to a certain standard and manage that through as we scale and become the experts at that.”
The products are formulated with dried shiitake mushrooms, coconut sugar, avocado oil, Himalayan pink salt and chia seeds. Flavors include original, zesty Thai, applewood barbecue, and salt and pepper. Two recent additions are curry and teriyaki.
An appearance on the television show “Shark Tank” in 2020 marked a turning point in the business. Mr. Pan pitched to the panel of investors on the program and accepted a deal with Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who offered to pay $300,000 in exchange for an 18% equity stake in the business.
“We were already on pace to double our sales in 2020 to something like $1.2 million to $1.4 million,” Mr. Pan said. “But the show really blew away our expectations. We ended up selling about $1 million in sales online in four days… We finished around $2.3 million in 2020, half of that due to the volume from the show.”
Prior to partnering with Mr. Cuban, Pan’s Mushroom Jerky was self-funded. The investment has enabled the brand to introduce new flavors, increase distribution and continue to expand production to meet rising demand, Mr. Pan said.
Pan’s Mushroom Jerky is sold online and in approximately 3,000 retail stores nationwide. Earlier this year, the company announced a significant expansion into more than 1,900 Kroger stores.
“If you would have asked me five years ago whether it would be smart to launch at Kroger, is the customer the right customer, I would have paused,” Mr. Pan said. “I would have been a little hesitant because the playbook has always been to go deep in the natural channel and work on direct-to-consumer as well. But what’s amazing is we’ve seen this in general … the customers have changed.”
In recent years, several competitors have emerged, promoting the meatiness of mushrooms in similar products using portobellos, criminis and others.
“It’s a great testament to what we helped start years ago,” Mr. Pan said. “And our product, we stand behind it. We think it’s the best texture profile you want in a mushroom jerky, and we are trying to bring innovative and delicious flavors to the market. We have other exciting things planned beyond mushroom jerky to help differentiate our brand in the market as well.”
Future innovation will advance Pan’s mission to reduce meat consumption, he added, “by offering satisfying, nutritious, delicious foods made from mushrooms.”
The scoop on hemp
Hemp seed oil and whole oat flour create the creaminess of gelato in a line of frozen desserts developed by a food scientist-turned-entrepreneur. Prior to launching Wonderlab’s Doozy Pots, Kirsten Sutaria for nearly a decade formulated a variety of products for Ben & Jerry’s, including its Greek frozen yogurt and non-dairy offerings.
“I was doing ingredient research and started learning about hemp, how nutritious and sustainable it is, and I thought, ‘I can make a great ice cream out of hemp hearts,’” she said. “I started playing in my kitchen and trying to source hemp ingredients. Five years ago, the hemp space was pretty nascent. You could find some dark green hemp protein and hemp hearts, but there weren’t really many plant-based alternatives using hemp.”
Following a year of experimentation, she and her husband, Karl, a corporate tax lawyer, began packing pints in a commercial kitchen to sell at markets around Cleveland. Soon after, the pair snagged freezer space at specialty grocer Heinen’s. Less than three years later, the brand has expanded to 400 stores, including Sprouts Farmers Market nationwide, Erewhon in Los Angeles and Jimbo’s Naturally in San Diego.
Wonderlab’s Doozy Pots flavors include coffee, banana cinnamon date swirl, chocolate raspberry swirl, vanilla bean, coffee and cookies, and chocolate mint chip. The formulations are lower in saturated fat and sugar than most leading frozen treats, Ms. Sutaria said.
“So many plant-based alternative ice creams use coconut milk or coconut oil, which is great but also very high in saturated fat,” she said. “I’ve developed a recipe to mimic the blend of fats that dairy cream has, so we use a blend of hemp heart oil and a little bit of cocoa butter to make it feel more like a dairy cream, whereas coconut milk is so heavy in saturated fats that it sometimes leads to a heavier eat. Our gelatos eat more like a traditional gelato, which is made with milk instead of cream.”
Sustainability is central to the company’s mission. All ingredients are organic, regeneratively grown or fair trade, and the packaging is produced with certified renewable resources.
“We’ve definitely had some headwinds in terms of using hemp, but it’s a crop we really believe in,” Ms. Sutaria said. “The supply chain on hemp has been a challenge. Hemp was illegal to grow until the end of 2018. So, there’s not really a US supply chain.
“Our initial challenge was, how do we find ingredients that are neutral in taste and functional? We’ve really been working to find the best people who have the best technology right now, and there’s only a few. I picked probably one of the most obscure ingredients to use, but we’ve done a ton of work on creating flavors that work with the hemp profile.”
The brand also has encountered resistance from retailers, hesitant to stock hemp products on shelves, as well as confusion among shoppers.
“Demoing in stores, when we were allowed to do that, people asked, ‘Is this a weed ice cream? Am I going to get high? How am I going to feel? Am I going to be able to pass a drug test?’” Ms. Sutaria said. “There is so much confusion, and that creates challenges for us as well as opportunities for us to educate the consumer about hemp grains and hemp foods and how nutritious and sustainable they can be and how they can be part of your diet.”
Another hurdle is digital advertising. Facebook and Instagram historically have censored or prohibited marketing for hemp-based products, Ms. Sutaria said.
“Our packaging used to say ‘made with organic hemp’ on the top, and if I put a photo up and tried to run a paid ad and you could see the word ‘hemp’ on the packaging, it would be rejected, and we’ve had our account shut down because of it,” she said. “We’ve figured out ways around it, but it’s sad for us, and it makes it harder. Our product is no different than cashew milk ice cream or a coconut milk ice cream, but we can say a lot less about what we’re actually doing.”
In the year ahead, the founders are focused on building brand awareness and driving sales velocity. An ongoing priority is product development — Ms. Sutaria’s sweet spot.
“Innovation is my wheelhouse,” she said. “Our goal is to be able to create plant-based desserts using ingredients that are kind to the earth, whether that’s hemp or oats or whatever the next new ingredient is. That’s always top of mind.”
The reel deal
Tackling texture was a challenge in developing plant-based spins on popular fish dishes. The research and development team at Gathered Foods, the Austin, Texas-based parent company of Good Catch, tinkered for nearly two years prior to landing on a combination of beans, peas and lentils that captured the flakiness of canned tuna.
“We launched around the time Impossible and Beyond were really taking off, and we knew the bar was set high by the consumer when it comes to taste and cooking experience of alternatives on the market,” said Chad Sarno, co-founder and chief culinary officer of Gathered Foods. “Only after we nailed texture, we started looking at the different attributes when it came to functionality and taste.”
Flavored with spices and seaweed, the seafood substitutes are rich in protein and beneficial fats, Mr. Sarno said. They also, notably, lack a fishy scent, which consumer polling revealed as a downside of traditional tuna, Mr. Sarno said.
“We focused on clean ingredients and diversifying our protein,” he said. “Our tuna on the market has over 20 grams of protein per serving, which is right up there with albacore.”
A self-described “plant-pusher” and longtime vegan, Mr. Sarno is the co-founder of Wicked Healthy, Wicked Kitchen and Wicked Food brands and has opened plant-based restaurants in several European cities. He established Gathered Foods with his brother and fellow chef, Derek, and impact investor Chris Kerr.
“The commercial fishing industry is quite destructive, and we wanted to offer a solution to keep fish in our oceans and off of our plates,” Mr. Sarno said.
Over the past three years, Gathered Foods has expanded the Good Catch portfolio to include frozen entrees and appetizers, spanning plant-based alternatives to crab cakes, whitefish burgers, breaded fish fillets and fish sticks. The newest addition, salmon-style burgers, are flavored with lemon, shallot, orange and garlic. All products rely on the same plant protein blend.
“We’ve checked all our boxes with what we wanted to launch since early investment,” Mr. Sarno said. “We wanted to launch the most consumed seafood out there … whitefish, tuna, salmon, crab and shrimp. We’ve launched four of those already.”
To date, Gathered Foods has raised more than $70 million to support new product development, production and distribution in North America, Europe and Asia, netting a number of celebrity backers, including Woody Harrelson, Shailene Woodley, Paris Hilton and Lance Bass. The company operates a production facility in Heath, Ohio, and has a distribution deal with The Bumble Bee Seafood Co.
Good Catch products are sold in more than 6,000 retail locations nationwide, including Whole Foods Market and Kroger stores. Several restaurants offer the brand’s items, too. The company partnered with Long John Silver’s last summer to offer its fish-free fillets and breaded crab-free cakes in select markets.
Sales of seafood alternatives in the United States grew 23% to $12 million in 2020, according to the Good Food Institute. The burgeoning segment represents a small fraction of total plant-based food sales, which reached $7 billion in 2020.
“What inspired us to launch Good Catch was really the whitespace,” Mr. Sarno said. “Globally, we consume a few dozen land animals, but we consume over 200 to 300 species from the ocean. Looking at what we’re doing from an innovation standpoint, it opens up so much opportunity.”