Beyond Meat c.e.o. on 'the future of protein'

by Monica Watrous
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Beyond Beef beefy crumbles, Beyond Meat
Beyond Meat offers plant-based meat substitutes that have the taste and texture of animal protein.

EL SEGUNDO, CALIF. — What’s the future of protein? In a word, plants.

That’s according to Ethan Brown, the chief executive officer of the Beyond Meat brand of plant-based meat substitutes that have the taste and texture of animal protein. The company offers alternatives to meatballs, beef crumbles, chicken strips and tenders and burger patties. All products are made with soy or pea protein and contain no gluten, dairy, trans fats, cholesterol or bioengineered ingredients.

Driven by a mission to improve human health, positively impact climate change, conserve natural resources and improve animal welfare, the company’s goal is to reduce global meat consumption by 25% by 2020. When the brand debuted in 2013, products were available in 350 stores. Today, Beyond Meat is sold in 10,000 stores, including Whole Foods Market, Target, Wal-Mart and Kroger.

Beyond Meat is the product of more than a decade’s work by Fu-Hung Hsieh, Ph.D., and his team of scientists at the University of Missouri in Columbia. In 2009, Mr. Brown, who had previously worked at a leading fuel-cell company, began working with Dr. Hsieh to commercialize the product.

“It took a long time refining the product,” Mr. Brown recalled. “The whole ethos of the company is to create a product that is completely indistinguishable from animal protein. We’re not there yet, but every day we do get closer and we do know that scientifically it’s possible.”

Investors in the privately held business have included Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Twitter co-founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams. Earlier this year, former McDonald’s leader Don Thompson joined Beyond Meat’s board of directors, and Honest Tea c.e.o. and co-founder Seth Goldman became the board’s executive chairman. The company also named a scientific advisory board.

And just recently the company announced it had added a trio of industry veterans to the leadership team. Mark Mortimer, previously president and chief customer officer of Annie’s, Inc., joined Beyond Meat in the newly created role of chief commercial officer. He will be responsible for the company’s sales and marketing activities.

Jerry Joye, previously chief operating officer of Fiji Water, has taken the same position at Beyond Meat and will lead company operations, product commercialization and infrastructure.

Joining the company as chief financial officer is Mark Nelson, who most recently was c.f.o. and treasurer at Farmer Brothers Co., a manufacturer, wholesaler and distributor of coffee and tea products. Mr. Nelson has more than 25 years of experience at companies in the consumer and technology sectors.

Underpinning the company’s strategic growth plans is a new marketing campaign launched in September. Mr. Brown said he hired the architects of the got milk? campaign to develop Beyond Meat’s The Future of Protein campaign, with support from professional athlete partners, including New York Mets third baseman David Wright.

“There has been a perception around plant-based meats, that they aren’t sufficient, and that’s completely wrong — they are in fact extremely important as an overall healthy diet,” Mr. Brown said. “The F.D.A. is one thing, but your favorite movie star or athlete saying it is a very different thing.”

Ethan Brown, Beyond Meat
Ethan Brown, c.e.o. of Beyond Meat, says the future of protein is plants.

In an exclusive interview with Food Business News, Mr. Brown shared the past, present and future of Beyond Meat.

Food Business News: You started with chicken substitutes, moved into beef substitutes and launched a burger this year. What’s next?

Ethan Brown: We started with chicken because that’s where the platform first lent itself, and then to a ground beef as a frozen product.

What was interesting about the ground beef was we wanted to introduce pea protein, which at the time was a new protein to consumers. So, we really focused on making a product out of 100% pea protein. That product, which is a ground beef crumble, has done really well for us.

From there, we made a burger that doesn’t try to emulate a beef burger or a chicken burger or a salmon burger, but combines the best attributes of each from a nutritional perspective into a single product. So, our Beast Burger has omegas, antioxidants, a lot of calcium, a bit of iron and 22 grams of protein. That became a really popular product for us.

What we’re working on now is something even more transformational. It’s a pretty neat product that’s coming out next year.

You’ve recently built out your leadership team to support the next phase of growth for your company. What led to that decision?

Mr. Brown: We are growing really fast. We are adding capacity as quickly as we can because the demand has really taken off. As we grow, there’s always a risk everywhere. There’s market risk — are consumers going to accept this? I think we’ve passed that risk. We do know consumers want these products.

There’s research and development risk. We hired the very best scientists we can get a hold of from the best universities here in the United States. We have a terrific scientific advisory board. So I think we’ve addressed that risk.

Then there’s execution risk — how do we build out production, the supply chain, the delivery systems to provide this to consumers at a cost that they can afford and we can make money at? Every time you bring in more talent you begin to reduce that risk. So, as we’ve gotten into this hyper-growth stage, I wanted to make sure we had the talent to help us navigate what’s ahead.

Have you been surprised by the acceptance of Beyond Meat from the mainstream consumer?

Mr. Brown: The better we get, and every year we try to get better and better, the easier for mainstream consumers to trade off and to say, “I’m going to have that taco dish tonight, but I’m going to have it with plant-based protein instead of animal protein.”

Beyond Chicken strips, Beyond Meat
The company first started innovating with chicken substitutes.

The news could not be more favorable from our perspective. Whether you look at the recent (World Health Organization) report on certain types of meat, or you look at climate change and people beginning to understand how livestock plays a role in that, or you look at natural resources and the amount of water… I also think more and more people are becoming tuned in a little better to factory farm conditions.

If you look at all of those things, it doesn’t surprise me that consumers are starting to move to our products.

What are the challenges in your manufacturing?

Mr. Brown: I think it’s more frustration in a sense that I know our system can work with any number of proteins. If someone tomorrow showed up at our door with … protein from lupin or lentil that was scalable and had a commercially appropriate price, we could create awesome burgers with that through our ability to take amino acids and align them in the structure that they have roughly speaking within animal muscle. But we’re still pretty limited in what proteins are commercially available.

There are so many sources of protein in the world, and we’re working with a very small number of them because of what is commercially available.

What is the top request you receive from consumers in terms of product development?

Mr. Brown: We really get a lot of requests for home delivery. In terms of actual products, in some ways the consumer can’t tell you because you have to show them something first. The product we’re introducing next year — I don’t think they’d think it would be possible.

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