Sunfed Meats founder talks world domination in plant-based meat
In terms of the global food industry, 2019 was the year of plant-based innovation, with major players through to start-ups exploring the opportunities in “green meat”. While the industry is still in its infancy, it has already demonstrated its potential to turn the current food system on its head.
According to a Barclays report, the global meat market is currently worth $1.3 trillion and over the next decade the alternative meat market is predicted to take 10 per cent of that, reaching a value of $140 billion.
Up until last year, most of the innovation was happening in the US, with the likes of Nestlé and Beyond Meat whipping up products that emulate the taste, feel and cooking process of meat. Now we are seeing some major players cropping up on the food scene in Australia and New Zealand who are driving the industry locally.
One of the leading figures in this burgeoning industry is Shama Sukul Lee, a software engineer turned food industry disruptor from New Zealand, whose Chicken Free Chicken hit the shelves of Coles last year following sellout success across the water.
The founder and CEO of Sunfed Meats began exploring plant-based meat alternatives as she believed there was a gap in the market, where consumers were looking for a clean, healthy protein that tastes “deliciously meaty”.
Why? Because “meat tastes f***ing delicious”, as she said herself during her keynote address at Australia’s inaugural Global Table conference.
Breaking up with meat
Lee’s journey into the food industry began after she experienced a rather crippling break up – with meat.
“I was a very big meat eater,” Lee told Inside FMCG. “But I became more and more aware of the health impacts of it … for a whole host of reasons I broke up with meat.”
From her first-hand experience, Lee found there was nothing in the market that could be a good substitute for animal meat. The seed was planted, but it wasn’t until Lee took some time out from her role in software engineering in 2012, that she started to think more seriously about the opportunities in this category.
“I had an existential crisis essentially, and had to stop and realise that I’d been going on autopilot. It’s the first time I became quite conscious of what I wanted to do with my life.
Through that introspection, eventually Sunfed was born.
“Back when I started, it certainly wasn’t thought of as a good business idea, before the current hype,” Lee said.
Lee had to self-fund as it was considered quite a risky project. To pour your own hard-earned cash into a business idea would take incredible self-belief and require the support of a strong and dedicated team, surely?
“Not at all, no! I was the only one for a very long time. It was a pure start-up, I didn’t know it was going to work,” she admitted.
“I wanted to do something that I felt could add some value to the world. And even if it didn’t work, at least there would be some learnings out of it.”
Much of the innovation in the plant-based category to date has centred around alternatives to red meat – mince, burger patties, etc. Lee’s decision to create an alternative to chicken was based on the health connotations associated with white meat and the desire to create a product that didn’t need to hide behind sauces or spices.
“Chicken is the fastest growing meat in the world by far,” Lee said. “It’s the most consumed meat in the western market. People are actually consuming less of other meat and consuming more chicken. The biggest driver for that is heath.
“There’s a growing awareness that animal protein is not so good for health and so people are trying to find cleaner, better sources of protein. Right now they feel the only option they have is either chicken or fish.”
With the poultry industry also facing backlash over intensive chicken farming, Lee wanted to create a healthy and sustainable alternative for those who inevitably will start to shift away from chicken.
“I wanted to make a very clean piece of meat that was completely naked, that didn’t have to hide behind sauces or flavours, and that the consumer could cook in the same way as animal meat.”
Sunfed’s Chicken Free Chicken launched in New Zealand just over two years ago and set the business on the path of world domination.
“It was a runaway success, we couldn’t keep up with demand,” Lee said. “The product and the tech we built was validated really quickly.”
In July 2019, Sunfed launched into Australia, with Coles snapping up the brand in the hopes that it will meet the changing needs of its consumer base.
Now Sunfed is eyeing new regions and plans to roll out many more products that it has up its sleeve from the R&D phase.
“You can make a great product, but if you can’t reach all corners of the earth, then it’s not going to change the world.
“Scalability is critical. That’s where we’re really strong. We built everything ourselves from the ground up keeping in mind we’re a born global business and want to scale this out.”
Sunfed’s ‘meats’ are made from yellow peas and contains double the protein of chicken and triple the iron of beef.
“We’re really different from your traditional soy-gluten based, soy-wheat based meat alternatives. They only appeal to vegans and vegetarians, because they don’t have the meaty experience. And, frankly speaking, a lot of them are not healthy.
“I wouldn’t put something out there that I wouldn’t eat, I’m a huge clean eater. So health was paramount, we would never ever compromise on that.”
Lee is going for the mainstream market and is reluctant to label her consumers.
“They are just labels. Essentially they are people who are looking to eat good, clean, healthy protein that tastes deliciously meaty.”
Building a coop of innovation
Now that Lee has a team around her and has big dreams for the business, she is focused on recruiting the right minds and building the right culture to ensure the business can expand internationally and be successful in the long run.
“We like to call ourselves the Ninja Navy SEALs,” Lee said of the Sunfed team.
“What you want to build is a culture of relentless innovation, where people actually enjoy that and get a kick out of the pressure. We attract people who love that sort of challenge and thrive under it.
“I tell my team that Sunfed is like the best spar partner you can ever train with. It won’t go easy on you but if you rise up to the challenge, there’s nothing in the world you cannot do.”
This interview first appeared in the January issue of Inside FMCG. Subscribe here to read the full story, the top FMCG trends for 2020, as well as interviews with Blackmores CEO Alastair Symington, Metro Food Co CEO Tom Paton and much more.