After her transition to a vegan diet several years ago, Kati Ohens felt an itch that she was meant to do something more meaningful in her life. With a successful career in advertising and software development, she was put in touch with Csaba Hetenyi, a financier who had recently acquired a unique IP to develop a pasta product. Seeing the potential to do something more, what started as Kati advising on brand development soon transitioned into a cofounding team, with the two coming together and creating Plantcraft, a startup focussed on transforming deli, one slice at a time. In this episode, we talk to Kati about the company's unique approach to plant-based meat production, as well as the lack of innovation when it comes to deli meats and why it's a market we can no longer ignore. We also spoke about their upcoming launch, their achievements at the World Plant Based Food Awards and what a 'clean' label means for the brand, highlighting the importance of supporting all plant-based companies, processed or not, as key players in the future food system.
If you haven't gathered already, it's safe to say that Plantcraft are clear innovators when it comes to plant-based meat.
Kati: 'We make meat out of green bananas.'
Not to mention upcycled ingredients such as grape seeds, with the brand taking on a relatively clean label, their use of interesting and rather unusual ingredients meaning their products pack a nutritional punch.
But it wasn't always this way. Before embarking on this new journey as a cofounder of a plant-based business, Kati had a successful career in advertising and software development.
Kati: 'I went vegan around 7 years ago and as I continued with my work I just started feeling that itch, that itch that doesn't go away.'
Kati: 'First I tried to turn my company vegan, which went really well.'
Then there were some challenges.
Kati: 'It was hard to keep doing business, when especially here in New Zealand, advertising is mostly about animal-based products.'
Kati then began to find herself running out of clients, and from there it became obvious that something needed to change, and she had to find a new path to do something else that was meaningful with her life, and in line with her values.
It was at that point that she received a call from an old acquaintance, who just so happened to be looking for a branding specialist for a food company. The founder? Csaba, Kati's now co-founder, a financier who had acquired an interesting IP that was intended for pasta production.
Kati: 'We actually started our relationship as a client and service provider, developing branding for him. And then I realised that there's a huge opportunity within the IP that was much more exciting than a new pasta product and I managed to convince him to make meat.'
That's how Plantcraft was born.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the things that stands out the most about the business is that they have a 'clean' label and don't use any preservatives or additives in their products. But in a world of consumer confusion, what does that word actually mean?
Kati: 'I think we are touching on one of my favourite topics, and it's a sensitive one as well.'
Kati: 'I really think that the whole narrative around overly processed plant-based meat alternatives and these being not healthy comes from the meat lobby.'
Kati: 'If a financial consumer would turn around an ordinary ham, they would find all sort of artificial ingredients.'
And in a non-vegan world where we make up the minority, and are all working hard to accelerate a plant-based food revolution, it doesn't seem productive for us to argue, with plant-based meat alternatives objectively being healthier than their animal product counterparts and that being evidence enough that we should support them in their success.
In saying that Kati went on to talk about the mission of Plantcraft and how they strive to use clean ingredients so that their products are not just 'not bad' for us but are actually good for the human body.
Kati: 'We choose 3-4 different proteins to create a full amino acid profile in our products.'
From different legumes, to grape seeds, green bananas, herbs and spices, they certainly are optimising familiar and beneficial ingredients to create a delicious and healthy deli alternative.
In terms of the scale of the brand?
Kati: 'We've been planning to go global from the get-go. So our operations and our operation planning have been quite large scale.'
At the moment they are working with industry specialists in the US to get their products to the market, negotiating with co-packers and trials to hopefully be 2-3 months away from reaching consumers in the US.
As a global brand however, there also come bigger questions and challenges about how much you want to commit to production runs, especially when you're not quite sure on market validation and how the product will be received by retailers.
Kati: 'We're in a very fortunate position of our products having an 180 days shelf life which is quite rare for chilled products.'
On the other hand, COVID has also made certain go-to launch strategies no longer possible such as in-store sampling or taste tests.
Kati: 'You can't just go into a free corporate office anymore with a free lunch. Those are new challenges that we're working through, especially since we have a refrigerated product which is harder to post or deliver door-to-door direct to consumer.'
Which poses a question on sustainability.
Kati: 'We try to be as sustainable as possible. But as soon as you begin to deliver products that are supposed to be refrigerated, you find yourself facing huge polystyrene boxes and nitrogen and other additional packaging and plastic - which is quite hard to accept.'
These challenges have encouraged the company to brainstorm new and creative ways to make sure that they can retain their values whilst getting the product out there, with the pair currently exploring opportunities with existing services of tasting or subscription boxes to navigate that obstacle.
Also it's opened up new prospects for food service, with Plantcraft's pepperoni easily being used by pizza parlours, and their ham (hopefully) to be used in Subway's kitchen.
We also spoke about branding and the practicalities of making your product stand out on the shelf.
Kati: 'We really rely on social media and influencers, change-makers like yourselves who can help us get the brand out there.'
Kati: 'But ultimately it's going to be in-store, and it's a decision that customers will have to make on the spot when they're making the purchase.'
For that reason they made sure that the packaging, colours and the brand are eye-catching and stand out against other products in the category. For deli meat, there hasn't been any innovation since the 1980s, so a modern and unique product such as Plantcraft is sure to grab any consumer, plant-based or not's attention. Also product placement has been a key factor, with their products standing side by side on the shelf with other options, inciting consumer change through behaviour change.
And if you're at an early-stage and want to achieve a similar result?
Kati is kindly offering her help and advice, and you can get in touch with her through us (firstname.lastname@example.org) or reach out to her directly, either through Plantcraft's socials or via LinkedIn.
Kati: 'It has to be true to what you as founders believe in.'
Kati: You have to define what your mission statement is, your drivers. And then you create a whole system around it with your colours, the words you choose, even the way you speak and the copy you write on the website.
Kati: 'That consistency will help yourself hold the brand, and it also helps your customers to connect and bond with that message.'
We left the episode with some thoughts on deli meats in general, and the lack of innovation there and why it needs to change, as well as the placement of the brand as finalists in this year's World's Plant Based Food awards and what it meant for the business.
Kati: 'When we're looking at eating a sandwich, it's such an invisible act. Nobody's really thinking about it.'
Kati: 'When it's an invisible act, there's an invisible victim, and that victim is pigs. There is very little innovation going on and pigs are huge victims of the processed meat industry.'
With many companies focussed on replacing beef, dairy, and now chickens and seafood, it seems as though this category is relatively under-tapped when it comes to food technology and plant-based food options, which is why it was so fantastic to see the brand make headlines earlier this year for their products.
Kati: 'When we bring some attention to these categories we feel like it's a win not just for us, but also for the category, and somewhere in the shadows, for the pigs as well.'
For those that want to follow their journey you can find Kati @plancraftfood, or head to their website plantcraft.com for more info.
We hope you enjoyed this week's episode. Have a great day and remember to #biteforwhatsright!