Shoes of Prey founder takes fresh approach to market research with plant-based meat company, Fable

Michael Fox is no stranger to the start-up world. In fact, the Fable Food Co founder said his previous fashion venture Shoes of Prey taught him a few hard lessons.

“If I think back to the main reason that we didn’t succeed or get to where we wanted with Shoes of Prey, it was getting our market research wrong,” Fox told Inside FMCG.

Their market research determined that the mass market consumer wanted to customise their own shoes. But in reality, that didn’t translate.

“After we built the value proposition, turns out that she [the consumer] doesn’t really want to customise. She wants to see what’s popular and on-trend, and just buy those exact shoes.

“It’s still valuable talking to customers for sure, but the ideal market research is actually watching how consumers behave.”

Fox has been putting those learnings into practice with his new labour of love; a plant-based meat business. After switching to a vegetarian diet four years ago, he is eager to carve out a more purpose-driven story in which he can help reduce people’s reliance on industrial animal agriculture for health, environmental and ethical reasons.

After the collapse of Shoes of Prey, Fox took a six month hiatus in Denmark to recover from the “rollercoaster ride”, explore his personal interests and plot his next move.

“I couldn’t think of any bigger problem in the world that I wanted to work on than helping to contribute to ending industrial animal agriculture, for those same reasons that I’d gone vegetarian,” Fox said.

As the plant-based meat space is already progressing quite rapidly, Fox was able to observe customer behaviour as part of his market research.

“I can walk into Coles and Woolies and watch how customers behave when they’re deciding between a meat product or a plant-based meat product. I can see which products they’re choosing and can make hypotheses as to why they’re choosing those, and actually talk to them after they’ve made that purchasing decision and ask them why.”

Having studied the big plant-based players including Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat and Sunfed Meats, Fox decided that he needed to carve his own segment and settled on replicating slow-cooked meats.

With the help of food giant Mars and its Seeds of Change accelerator, Fox got to grips with a whole new industry and learned about everything from sourcing ingredients and manufacturing to food safety and labelling.

Last month, he launched Fable Food Co alongside co-founders Jim Fuller and Chris McLoghlin and with the support of British chef Heston Blumenthol.

“If you can produce a [plant-based] product with the taste and texture of meat, at a price on par or cheaper than meat, and have it conveniently available in supermarkets and restaurants, then there’s no reason those flexitarian customers and even meat-eating customers wouldn’t buy the plant-based versions.”

The start-up aims to emulate the meaty experience using mushrooms as the base ingredient.

“We developed this product that replicates the taste and texture of a pulled pork or a braised beef and the bulk of the ingredient list is mushrooms and then some other all-natural plant-based ingredients.”

So, why mushrooms?

“They’ve got the Umami flavours that you have in meats … They’ve been an amazing base product to work with. They’re incredibly healthy and incredibly versatile.

“I eat mostly organic products when I’m at home so I wanted to do a really natural, healthy meat alternative.”

Both Chris and Jim have extensive knowledge and experience of working with mushrooms and the trio managed to find a way to mimic the “stringy, slow cooked meaty texture” that they were after.

Now a world away from fashion retail, Fox is conscious of the risks that come with operating in this new territory.

“The worst that could happen in a women’s shoe business is if a heel broke, someone might break an ankle,” Fox said. “Luckily that never happened to us; but in food, people have been poisoned and died by food companies not getting things right. So I’ve been been very conscious of that. We’ve got a food scientist on our advisory team to make sure that we were dotting our i’s and crossing our t’s.”

After getting high praise from chef Heston Blumenthal, Fable is now on the menu in his Perfectionist Cafe in the UK and will soon be introduced at The Fat Duck in London.

“We want to make sure we get the product right. Chefs are obviously a great group to work with on that front because they’re in front of customers every day getting feedback on food that they’re creating. Then from a branding perspective, it’s a good way for consumers to be able to try the product cooked up in all sorts of interesting, creative ways.”

Over the next few months Fable will be rolled out at restaurants across Australia and Singapore, and later this year they will be looking at moving into QSRs and retailers as well as introducing a direct-to-consumer component.

“We want to do a direct-to-consumer option with Fable and that probably partially stems from my retail background but it’s also a great way to have a direct connection with consumers.”

Michael Fox will be speaking at Inside Retail Live, February 26-27. Tickets available here.

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