The pandemic has accelerated a trend of people looking for healthy alternatives to meat, both for home cooking and the restaurant counter.
By Adam Grogan as told to Zagat Stories
Zagat and The Infatuation were proud to welcome Lightlife Foods as a partner on the Feed the Polls initiative, which provided free meals to American citizens waiting in line to vote on Election Day in November 2020.
I’ve spent the last 20 years of my career with Maple Leaf Foods, which is very rare in this world. I started right out of college—I spent time in sales, in marketing, in supply chain logistics. I worked my way up through the company. I call it a “real-life MBA.”
I was the SVP of marketing and innovation at Maple Leaf, which meant that I looked after all of the R&D, all of our process technology, our marketing, our in-house media buying. Part of that was running our selling organization both in Canada and in the United States.
There is a strong desire and a demand—and a need, frankly—for plant-based protein. By 2050, we’re going to have to feed 9 billion people. We’re a company that actually serves Asia with animal protein. We could see where the world was going, and North America was catching up quickly.
In 2017, we had done a lot of strategic work around where we wanted to take the organization. We’re the largest food suppliers in Canada, but we also sell to the United States and across the globe in Asia. We did a bunch of work around this idea of becoming the most sustainable protein company on Earth. Part of that required pivoting quite a substantial amount of capital into plant-based protein. And so I was involved in the transaction to acquire Lightlife in 2017. Afterwards we bought a company called Field Roast, and then all of a sudden we were quite significant in the plant-protein world.
We’ve committed almost $1 billion in capital between the purchasing and the procurement of those two businesses. We have our own plants and operations. I don’t think there’s any brand today in North America investing as much as we are with their research and advertising and promoting the category, as well as renovating and cleaning up our food offerings.
Both Lightlife and Field Roast have their histories. Lightlife was started 40 years ago by two hippies, then sold to ConAgra, and then sold to private equity. Field Roast was started by an incredible chef and entrepreneur, David Lee. But the business scales, and sometimes food entrepreneurs are unable to keep up with the capital as well as the innovative demands of the business.
With Lightlife, over the past 12 months, every single food that was part of that portfolio has been upgraded. We’ve eliminated unnecessary ingredients. For example, the Smart Dog has been around for a very long time. It’s the number-one-selling plant-based hot dog in North America, but we still thought it was important to improve its taste, improve its ingredient panel, and also to redress it.
Lightlife is about clean, nourishing ingredients—the simplest ingredients that we possibly can get. For example, our burger only has 11 ingredients, all non-GMO. It won’t have meat mimicry at every price, but you will see it in formats that consumers are used to consuming animal meat products.
And with Field Roast—we’ve just relaunched the brand. It’s coming out in the first quarter of 2021. We’ve just signed a multiyear deal with chef Roy Choi. We use a lot of fresh ingredients. Sometimes vegan and vegetarian foods have required a lot of seasoning. This is more like something that really seasons the dish for you. We’ll do things very differently—less about mimicry, and a little bit more about flavor delivery.
We know 93 percent of new consumers in the space are flexitarian. Maybe they started out with a plant-based burger at a quick-service restaurant, but now want to try more. We want to be the disruptive brands in the space. Between investment in R&D, the brands, and facilities, we believe that Lightlife and Field Roast are certainly respectful of their pasts, but are made to be attractive to a completely brand-new consumer who is maybe experiencing this category for the very first time.
For some of our competitors, a big part of their journey is working with QSRs. We have a different approach, although we have a couple of really interesting partnerships. One of our competitors is doing a lot of work with KFC here in the United States, but you’ll find Lightlife on KFC menus across Canada. We have partnerships with Dave and Buster’s here in the United States. We’re in the throes of launching a new pizza pepperoni, and we just did a soft launch with a pizza chain out of Orlando called Flippers.
As far as pandemic effects—operationally, we’re one of the few in this space that actually has control over our own production. We have our own facilities, one in Seattle and one in western Massachusetts, as well as a couple of operations up in Canada that service this business. Because we look after our own production, we’ve got just over 500 associates under our care. Similar to retailers or food service outlets, obviously taking care of our people is the number-one thing that we’ve been focused on.
Pandemic demand on the retail side has been particularly strong. But demand has also been really erratic, so keeping up with those demand signals is something we’re continuously struggling with. We’re seeing a lot more consumers trying new things, new recipes, in greater concern for their health, but also in terms of being concerned about getting any virus.
We recently came out with an 11,500-person study in the middle of this, and I will tell you that what we hear is that people are really mindful about what they’re consuming. It’s unlike any time I’ve seen. People are making their own meals, they’re concerned about their own health and well-being, and they’re just much more conscious about what they’re eating in general.
The definition of “healthy” is really different now. People are balancing different priorities as they make their food choices. I think plant-based proteins in general are here to stay. Think about what’s happened here—people want to know where their food is coming from, and they want to know if it’s got as few ingredients and as little intervention as possible. Is it going to help maintain the health of my family?
And because we are talking about food—is it going to taste great? One of the areas that’s growing exponentially is tempeh. I think it’s poised to become the next kombucha. It’s prebiotic. It’s bioavailable. It’s versatile. Watch out for that one. That one’s going to be a big trend. I think it’s our secret weapon.