Meat-free meat isn’t new. But a meat-free butcher shop is a recent trend that’s taken off across the globe. Leading the pack: the “bean butchers” out of Canada known as The Very Good Butchers. And if anyone can break the planet’s meat habit, it may just be them.
One might say that a butcher who doesn’t sell meat isn’t a butcher. But for Canada’s The Very Good Butchers (VGB), it’s just semantics: they butcher beans, making meat from plants. Meaty meat. Butcher-quality meat.
The company got its start in the spring of 2016 on the West coast of Canada, north of Victoria a few hours. James Davidson, a chef by trade, was struggling to find many vegan options locally. Along with his wife, he started making vegan sausage and burgers out of their family kitchen, selling them at local farmers’ markets—they were an instant hit.
Mitchell Scott, a family connection through Davidson’s wife, joined the company soon after. “We’re stepbrothers-in-law once removed, or, or something like that,” Scott told Ethos. He’s now the company’s CEO.
‘Meating’ the demand
It didn’t take them long to build momentum and demand. An early-stage Kickstarter campaign allowed them to expand production and offerings in the early months.
“Since then, we’ve just been kind of struggling to keep up with demand and to keep growing the business,” Scott says. The company went public on the CSE last year (“VERY”). That allowed the team to move from a 4,000 square-foot kitchen to a 45,000 square-foot manufacturing facility that has helped meet the meat-free demand in Canada. Now, it’s bringing its first U.S. facility online in Patterson, California.
“The idea from the start was to create these high-quality meat alternatives out of real whole food ingredients. And we have the kind of selection that you might expect to see in butcher shops.”
The company’s offerings include deli meats, steaks, ribs, pepperoni. Sold online and in select grocers, VGB also operates brick-and-mortar locations with fast-casual restaurants attached. It’s anticipating expanding flagships shops and restaurants into the U.S. market as well, opening two to three a year. Cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York are on the short list.
Davidson and Scott’s VGB may be the most well-known, but they aren’t the first to use the butcher reference.
The now Unilever-owned Dutch vegan meat brand The Vegetarian Butcher’s founder Jaap Korteweg said his work in animal agriculture led him to eschew animal products and start his own plant butchering. It was after being asked to store pig cadavers from a swine flu outbreak that he shifted away from meat.
“For me that was the moment to stop it, I’d had enough of that system using animals for meat,” he said in a recent Barron’s interview.
“My goal was to become the biggest butcher in the world as soon as possible, and at that time people laughed at it because they don’t take it seriously,” Korteweg said.
“But for me I took it [seriously] because I wanted to create an alternative for the industrial meat.” The company is now one of the fastest-growing vegan meat brands in Europe.
The UK recently got its first vegan butcher shop, Rudy’s, which opened last year.
“People understand what it is that we’re selling,” co-founder Matthew Foster told Reuters. “It’s all designed to emulate meat. It tastes like meat, it’s got meat-like texture.”
Minnesota-based The Herbivorous Butcher led the meat-free butcher revolution in the states.
“We’re here to bridge the gap so that omnivores can switch over,” Aubry Walch, Herbivorous Butcher co-founder, told the Guardian. “We don’t use funny words for our products. We call them what they are.”
Does vegan meat taste like meat?
The short answer? Yes. And no. It really depends on what the consumer is after and what type of product it is.
Leading vegan meat brands Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have replicated beef and pork incredibly well—nailing down the look, taste, and texture of traditional beef burgers and pork sausage. Their primary consumers are flexitarians, meat-eaters who diversify their protein to include more plant-based options. It’s why they’re seeing success in fast-food restaurants like Burger King, McDonald’s, and KFC.
Scott says items in VGB’s premium “Butchers Select” range can rival Beyond and Impossible in terms of taste in terms of texture. “We’re trying to be a little bit more premium just in terms of what what’s actually going into it,” he says. “We’ve worked really hard to make sure we don’t have a kind of pea protein aftertaste,” which he says the competition can have.
For some, though, meat-free products can be too, well, meaty. There’s a growing market for less meaty meat alternatives, too. There are products that can meet this demand, like Dr. Praeger’s vegan burgers, many of which feature whole foods, beans, and vegetables. There’s an emergent market for small-batch mock meats like tempeh. San Diego Tempeh uses unconventional beans for its fermented tempeh “cakes.” Beans like chickpeas, mung, split peas, and black beans take center stage in these Indonesian-inspired proteins.
There’s now tofu made from pumpkin seeds instead of the traditional soy. Small batch and locally-produced tofu is once again gaining popularity, similar to its heyday in health food stores and co-ops where consumers would fish out blocks from giant buckets.
Restaurants, like the Los Angeles-based Burgerlords, are making their own vegan burgers from scratch despite the array of meaty options available for food service. That burger was such a hit for Burgerlords it turned its whole menu vegan earlier this year. Fast-food chain Shake Shack made its own vegan burger option out of black beans, brown rice, and roasted beets.
This “old-school” vegan meat is where VGB got its start—bean and grain-based products that offer a dense and satisfying experience, but you won’t mistake it for a Whopper.
VGB is eying premium market—steakhouses rather than fast-food chains. “There’s no real clear player in that kind of premium plant-based space,” he says. “I think it’s hard for Beyond and Impossible to say that they have the absolute best product on the market when they’re putting them into Burger King. So we really think there’s space there. As more people start to eat plant-based, they’re going to take a closer look at the products. They’re going to shop around.”
The brand says it fills both gaps: premium ‘meaty’ products that surpass Beyond and Impossible, as well as those vegan meat products that now taste like quaint throwbacks to a time before heme—the meaty flavor and texture enhancer from the root of the soybean plant that gives Impossible its meatiness.
Vegan meat demand
Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are leading the pack when it comes to brand awareness and distribution—even if it’s mainly through fast-food partnerships. For VGB, Scott says they’re able to ride the coattails of the leaders a bit. “In a way, they’re part of our marketing team,” he says.
“They’re running Superbowl ads, and they’re trying to get as many people as possible to try a plant-based burger. And I think that’s the big thing—a lot of people have this preconceived notion that plant-based food isn’t great, or, maybe, over the past 20 years, they’ve had a couple of dodgy veggie burgers. So what [Beyond and Impossible] are doing is they’re getting people to try their products. And all of a sudden, people are going, ‘Wow, you know, plant-based food tastes good. I’m going to try more of this.’ And they’re growing the category.”
The IPO, Scott says, has also helped. “It’s really allowed us to accelerate our growth and really start to scale up in a way we couldn’t have done privately, and start to go head to head with some of the larger players.”
The focus for VGB is North America, specifically the U.S. market. It’s already selling direct to consumer but the new factory is allowing it to hit retail—and soon, hopefully, food service.
According to a recent industry report, the demand is booming. Not just for vegan meat, but gluten-free offerings, too, which the brand has increased. The global plant-based meat market value grew to $3.3 billion (USD) in 2019, and it’s expected to see a CAGR of nearly 20 percent through 2027.
That growth and demand are being driven by the ever-growing flexitarian consumer market segment, especially in the U.S. Those are consumers seeking, for the most part, meaty vegan meat.
The new Butchers Select line, the brand hopes, will fill that void for the consumer who doesn’t want fast food but wants to eat better meat. The company is pricing itself initially at about 20 percent higher than the competitors. But they see that as a mark of quality, a way to orient premium consumers toward the best possible products—for their health and the planet.
“We want to keep our core ethos of high quality, great ingredients—you know, ingredients you can pronounce—while we develop those products. I’m really happy with the line we’ve come out with,” Scott says.
“We’re just trying to show that plant-based eating is approachable and delicious.”