MOSS LANDING, CALIF. — One of the fastest growing companies in Silicon Valley, Sweet Earth Natural Foods was launched in 2012 by husband-and-wife team Kelly and Brian Swette. Previously, both worked at PepsiCo, Inc., where Mr. Swette was chief marketing officer of the beverage division before moving on to become chief operating officer of eBay. (He also has served on a number of boards, including that of Burger King, Jamba Juice and Schiff Nutrition.) Ms. Swette held a variety of sales and marketing positions at PepsiCo before joining Calvin Klein, where she became global vice-president of marketing.
Five years ago, the couple checked out of the c-suite and planted the seeds of a plant-based convenience meal company, which has doubled sales every year since its launch. At Sweet Earth Natural Foods, Mr. Swette is president, and Ms. Swette is chief executive officer.
Available in more than 10,000 retail outlets, including Target, Whole Foods, Kroger and Wal-Mart, Sweet Earth’s products include frozen burritos, breakfast sandwiches, vegetable burgers and meatless grounds, slices and strips made with seitan, also known as vital wheat gluten, which is high in protein and has a texture similar to that of chicken.
Most recently, Sweet Earth launched a line of frozen entree bowls in eight globally inspired varieties, including Moroccan tagine, Spanish paella, curry tiger and pizza mac and cheese.
The plant-based food and beverage market now exceeds $4.9 billion in U.S. sales, according to SPINS, growing 3.5% since last year and outpacing the total food and beverage industry. Sweet Earth Natural Foods is one of the founding board members of the Plant Based Foods Association, which launched earlier this year.
“My take on it was (plant-based) really was the next frontier in terms of where food was going, and it was about a focus on real food, real ingredients, fresh ingredients, that really offered more flavor because the ingredients were fresh, more texture because you have the combination of grains,” Ms. Swette told Food Business News. “And particularly ancient grains I felt needed to be rediscovered, and that combination with vegetables gives you more fiber, gives you more protein, more phytonutrients. All of the things consumers today are recognizing they need more of.”
In an interview, Ms. Swette discussed her vision for the company and the insights she gained at PepsiCo that helped her start Sweet Earth.
Food Business News: Why did you launch a plant-based food company?
Kelly Swette: Amy’s was really the only brand that was out there in a big way in plant-based foods. They’re a wonderful company, but their flavor sensibility was very different than where I felt the market was going. I believe it’s food first, flavor forward, and I felt there was really an opportunity for a brand with a more modern sensibility, still with a focus on fresh, real food but strong bold flavors, this culinary exploration of what was going on globally. The kind of food people want to eat when they go to restaurants.
I felt there were simply too many mac and cheese choices in plant-based foods. A significant portion of what you were seeing in frozen was mac and cheese and just the same old, same old, and I felt that the freezer case really needed some reinvigoration.
Since you’ve been in this business, how has consumer acceptance of plant-based foods evolved?
Ms. Swette: There’s been an incredible shift in consumers’ interest in health and wellness… The internet has allowed for this exploration of different alternatives. Clearly there was a transition from dieting to healthy eating and a healthy lifestyle. This whole idea of having a higher quality of life, which means eating foods that you love and enjoy versus sacrificing. I would call it positive nutrition from good ingredients, from real food.
There is a segment of consumers who really don’t want any mimicking of meat, but as the market continues to get larger and larger and you’re pulling more people in, it makes it simpler for them to use their recipes they’ve worked with for a long time if the cuts act in a familiar way. So, having grounds, slices, things you can cut, things that have chew and juiciness makes the food seem more familiar. Because the product also is a high-protein product, it makes staying on a plant-based diet more sustainable, in that you feel full, and you enjoyed eating it because it was tender, juicy and satiating.
Why do you use seitan in your products as an alternative to meat?
Ms. Swette: Initially I felt that there was a tremendous amount of soy on the market, and that meant there was an opportunity to go another way. Seitan is a wheat-based protein, and it was developed by Buddhist monks looking for an alternative not only to meat but to soy to have that balance. It really fits into the lifestyle of someone who needs alternatives and options to get different sources of protein. We also work with 15 different types of beans, several types of lentils.
How do you identify food trends and whitespace opportunities?
Ms. Swette: I go into retail grocery stores constantly. I look and assess what’s out there. I also follow what’s happening in restaurants. If you were to look at what consumers eat, particularly millennials when they go to restaurants, they’re interested in a host of ethnic cuisines. It is Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Korean. All of these cuisines are really interesting, and that’s what they’re eating.
I’m all over Pinterest. I think Pinterest has a wealth of information on what’s trending. I subscribe to a variety of food magazines. I take cooking classes all the time and am meeting with different chefs. I travel as much as I can and see what’s happening in restaurants around the country.
You and Brian previously worked at PepsiCo. How did your experience there prepare you for this business?
Ms. Swette: It was an exceptional experience… Just a diverse exposure to the different functional areas prepares you to be a better manager and really prepared us to run our own business. Brian and I naturally have segmented different parts. He’s running sales and operations, and I’m running product development and marketing and strategy.
What’s next for Sweet Earth Natural Foods?
Ms. Swette: We have still a tremendous amount of opportunity for expansion into more retailers with our burrito line and our entree line. I always have my eye on where the business is going. I think snacks are going to be an important place to play at some point.We always want to keep reinventing the foods we’re making and making sure we’re offering the most premium experience we can. So we continue to look at better sourcing, getting more organic ingredients, playing with flavor profiles that we think are really intriguing.