LOS ANGELES — Count quarterback Cam Newton, “Aquaman” actor Jason Momoa and socialite Kourtney Kardashian among fans of Daring Foods, a fledgling brand of plant-based poultry products.
The faux-fowl startup has gained a celebrity following, significant funding and rapid retail distribution since its market debut just over two years ago. To date, Daring Foods has sold more than 2 million lbs of its plant protein, the equivalent of 575,000 birds, driven by founder and chief executive officer Ross Mackay’s ambition “to replace and rethink chicken in the global food system.”
“There’s very little daylight between me and the mission,” said Mr. Mackay, a former competitive tennis player. “I’ve been plant-based for more than 12 years, and as cliché as it sounds, I do feel it’s a massive part of my job to make sure we scale this company to bring Daring to more and more people.”
The brand’s products are formulated with soy protein, vegetable oil and spices such as paprika, cardamom and oregano, and produced using high-moisture extrusion technology to replicate the juicy, fibrous texture of whole-muscle chicken. The non-breaded pieces are available in original, lemon and herb, and Cajun flavors. The company also offers crispy breaded pieces, which will soon feature a new, gluten-free recipe. Two additional flavored offerings will join the assortment early next year.
Daring products are available in nearly 10,000 stores nationwide, including Whole Foods Market, Sprouts Farmers Market, Walmart, Target and Kroger. The core selection is currently found in the freezer aisle, but future launches will expand the brand’s presence into the fresh set, where most conventional chicken is sold. The plant protein also is on the menus at health-centric hotspots, including Juice Press and Monty’s Good Burger.
The startup has raised more than $120 million in capital to date to fuel its aggressive growth while expanding its team and formulating new products. Its research and development efforts are led by senior vice president of innovation Paul Neumann, whose career spans nearly two decades at Kellogg Co. and a five-year stint at Califia Farms.
Sales of frozen plant-based chicken tenders and nuggets in the United States grew 29% to $112 million in 2021, according to market researcher NielsenIQ, as shoppers flock to more options in the marketplace that mimic the taste and texture of America’s preferred protein. (The average consumer eats about 100 lbs of chicken each year, amounting to annual sales of $120 billion, according to the National Chicken Council).
Daring Foods has become the top-selling non-breaded plant-based chicken alternative brand in retail, with sales 13 times higher than that of the second largest brand in the category, according to the company.
“Daring has demonstrated impressive product-market fit in a short period of time,” said Michael Tully, investor at D1 Capital Partners, a lead backer in Daring Foods. “The brand has a significant growth runway ahead of it as the chicken market remains underpenetrated by plant-based products.”
Health and nutrition were priorities when developing Daring, which touts only simple ingredients and no saturated fat in its non-breaded products. Ms. Kardashian, admittedly “not fully vegan,” said of the brand, “I honestly cannot believe how much it tastes like chicken. There are lots of plant proteins out there, but we’re always looking for options that are super clean with all-natural ingredients.”
The environmental benefits may also be compelling to carnivorous converts; producing the plant-based pieces uses 6.8 billion fewer kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions and roughly 98% less water compared to conventional chicken, according to the company.“We want vegans, flexitarians and chicken lovers to feel connected to the brand,” Mr. Mackay said. “It’s not a celebrity-focused brand. We’ve built a brand that feels familiar and approachable to people who are looking for something a little bit better.”