Canadian company slices into meatless market

VICTORIA-Mitchell Scott and James Davison were aiming pretty high.

If they could just get their products - conceived in a kitchen and barbecue on tiny Denman Island - onto the shelves at Whole Foods, they really would have made it, they thought.

Their "Very Good Butchers" shop was, in 2017, just a stand in the Victoria Public Market on Vancouver Island, albeit a popular one that had to close temporarily on its second day because they couldn't truck coolers of food from their kitchen fast enough to feed the long line of hungry plant-eaters.

Now, their vegan burgers, bangers and "steaks" are on the shelves at some Whole Foods stores. And, it turns out, that's just the beginning. Scott and Davison, who took their company public last year, are scaling up their business, with their alternative meat products set to appear across Canada in grocery stores such as Farm Boy in the coming weeks, and then in the United States.

They're one of the fastest-growing plant-based meat companies in North America, with second-quarter results that surpassed plant-meat giant Beyond Burger in 2020, according to the trends-predicting agency WGSN. And, in a food market where the appetite for meat alternatives is vast and still growing, the B.C. pair intend to surpass giants such as Beyond and Impossible on one subjective but key metric: prestige.

"For us, 'butcher shop' is kind of synonymous with quality," Scott said. "You go for nice quality cut, and also range of selection."

The only difference is what they're butchering. A typical butcher's shop offers prime cuts of cattle, pork and poultry. The Very Good Butchers' slogan? "We butcher beans."

The offerings include two kinds of burgers and bangers, as well as steak, "ribz" and the Seussically-named "Roast Beast."

"It looks like meat, it tastes like meat, we just call it plant meat," Scott said, referring to Davison's handmade creations using wheat, vegetables and beans. "When we started, there was still very much this perception that vegetarians eat rabbit food.

"We wanted to show that plant-based eating was delicious, approachable."

"And our goal is to take that globally, to take that high-quality product around the world."

The pair teamed up after Scott tasted Davison's vegan burger creation at a barbecue on Denman Island, from which both men hail. Davison was a vegan chef, serious about elevating "fake meat" beyond mushy peas and soy protein. Scott was a lifelong vegetarian with some savings and business acumen.

They were also lucky. They met at a time when vegetarianism and veganism were on the rise among younger Canadians, and in Canada's highest per-capita meat-free province. As they opened their first brick-and mortar vegan butcher's shop in 2017, products such as the Beyond Burger and the Impossible Burger were just on the horizon.

Those products would go a long way to normalizing plant-based meats - these convenience foods aimed not only at vegans and vegetarians, but veggie-curious people and flexitarians looking to eat less meat for environmental or health reasons.

"Both these companies were instrumental in shifting the conversation in a big way," said Kara Nielsen, director of Food and Drink for WGSN. "The fact that they started getting these items in the fridges (of grocery stores) near the meat was another big step forward."

Partnerships with fast food restaurants such as A&W, White Spot, Starbucks and McDonald's also did a lot to raise the meatless burger profile.

Now, Nielsen says, the appetite for meatless meat - high quality plant-based products that taste comparable to meat and are as convenient - is as high as ever. A report showed U.S. sales of fresh, plant-based meat doubled every month in 2020.

But she said consumers are looking for something different than the simple burger-in-a-package offering.

Very Good Butchers' response to that has been variety, and, in their view, quality. Scott said they're focused on making meatless offerings that are minimally processed - meaning the ingredients on the label are generally foods a shopper would recognize.

"I don't know about competing (with Beyond and Impossible). I think they're going for a much more mainstream audience," Scott said. "I don't see us in McDonald's ... but we've had a number of conversations with restaurants - we're looking at that mid-fast-casual chain between five and 30 locations at least here in Canada."

Nielsen said it's a play that makes sense.

"I do think if it has a good ingredient sourcing story, if it's made in a careful way, there will definitely be a market for that kind of premium experience," she said.

They also have an online order business, where consumers can buy boxes of their product anywhere in North America as a one-off, or part of a subscription.

But by far their biggest play is in grocery, where they aim to become a fixture in natural and quality-focused grocery stores across the continent. They are working with Farm Boy, Whole Foods, IGA and Sobeys-owned Thrifty Markets (based in B.C.), a total of 300 stores and counting.

Funded by their public offering last year, they're opening three new facilities to make the products that will go there: Two in Vancouver, and one in California. The year 2020, which saw many businesses struggle, was a year of unfettered growth for the Very Good Food Company. They went from 30 employees in January, to about 110 at the end of the year. They hired the former CFO at plant-based dairy alternative company Daiya to be their president.

Gail Hammond, a professor in the University of British Columbia's Land and Food Systems faculty, said she was intrigued by the company's ingredient list.

She said the only super-processed ingredient she noticed on their website was a liquid smoke flavouring.

"Aside from that it's based on whole foods, vegetables, beans, legumes," she said.

That doesn't mean it's entirely a health product. The sodium in one "Very Good Burger" is equal to 17 per cent of the recommended daily amount, for example.

But Hammond said the closer a food is to its original form, the better, generally, for both health and the environment.

Scott said that's the idea they want to hold onto as the company scales. And - of course - to make it taste good.

"If we encourage more people to eat plant based - there's so many benefits," he said. "It's really about showing people that they don't have to sacrifice something to eat a delicious plant-based burger or steak."

Par Alex McKeen (20/03/2021)

Source : Toronto Star

Photo : Capture d'écran - Site Internet Very Good Butchers