The food industry has seen hints lately that the market for plant-based meat alternatives has settled down since peaking in the midst of the pandemic. Retail sales of plant-based meats, including seafood alternatives, surged 74% between 2018 and 2021, according to SPINS data compiled by the Plant Based Foods Association, but sales between 2020 and 2021 were flat.
Plant-based seafood has often been an afterthought in the conversation about vegan and vegetarian meat alternatives, with most of the big buzz building around plant-based burger brands and alternatives to traditional chicken nuggets.
But sales of seafood alternatives have also been on the rise in recent years. Retail sales of plant-based seafood alternatives grew 42% during the three-year period through 2021. Plant-based fish analogs account for about three-quarters of the vegan seafood category, with shellfish alternatives making up the remaining 25%. In 2021, the plant-based seafood category grew to 40 items on US retail shelves.
Some plant-based seafood makers have been building their brands with shelf-stable alternatives to traditional tuna and frozen options, like Good Catch’s growing line of fish sticks and crabcakes and the Mind Blown brand of frozen crab cakes from The Plant Based Seafood Company.
One of the big challenges when it comes to replicating seafood with plants has been texture – unlike burgers and nuggets, consumers often seek out whole cuts when it comes to fish. While several brands are growing with plant-based versions of tuna, crab cakes, fish sticks and pressed filets, typically produced using extrusion methods that require heat, creating whole cuts using existing production methods has proved more challenging.
New School Foods says it has solved the conundrum by using a freezing technique instead of heat and a biopolymer gel to create a scaffolding that is then filled in with the plant-based ingredients, including proteins and fats as well as the coloring needed to create the signature salmon pink.
Hatching a plant-based seafood plan
The result – a plant-based version of a salmon filet that flakes and can be prepared just like traditional salmon, CEO Chris Bryson said.
Bryson came up with the idea for the company after selling his software startup, Unata, to grocery delivery platform Instacart in 2018.
“It was the first time I wasn’t working 18 hours a day,” Bryson said. “My mind was wandering and I was trying to think of what to do next.”
Companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat piqued his interest and Bryson said he was soon drawn into the world of plant-based food production and it wasn’t long before he became convinced that somebody needed to be working on advancing the technology that would be needed to create more realistic versions of plant-based meat and seafood.
“I didn’t think I had any business starting a food company, so I started as an angel investor,” Bryson said. “But it was 2018 and 2019 and there wasn’t that much innovation going on. There was a lot of hype, but it was mostly a lot of me-too products.”
So Bryson turned his attention to funding university research that could be the source of the innovation he sought. The Toronto-based entrepreneur put out the call and ultimately ended up funding six research projects at two private labs and three universities – McGill University, Toronto Metropolitan University, and St. Francis Xavier University.
Diving in with a focus on foodservice
Scalability was also a factor in developing the company’s production methods. To date, one of the main ways companies are creating whole cuts of plant-based meat involves 3D printing, a time-consuming process that’s not practical for mass production, Bryson said.
The freezing process, on the other hand, could be scaled. The company proved this using large-scale commercial freezing equipment that had been developed for another industry, and New School Foods has now raised a total of $13 million from venture capital investors to build out a production facility this year.
New School Foods has grown to 15 employees, including 12 food scientists and engineers, and the team has focused on creating a product that appeals first to chefs and restaurateurs, which makes sense in light of industry research on dining trends.
“Chefs and foodservice operators see the plant-based protein category as a versatile option to serve a greater diversity of guests,” NPD Group food and beverage analyst Darren Seifer said in a news release.
About 70% of seafood is eaten at restaurants and prepared by professionals, so appealing to chefs is key to breaking into the market in a big way, Bryson said.
The company’s plan is to roll out in restaurants first, starting next year. While the brand is headquartered in Toronto, Bryson expects US restaurants will be the first to put his products on the menu.
“With any new product or technology, you will always have early adopters,” Bryson said. “What’s incredible about this industry is that you have a built-in audience [of vegetarians and vegans.] You don’t want to ignore them, but you also want to create a product that appeals to flexitarians, which will create way more word-of-mouth.”
That’s what makes the chefs so important.
“We knew if we created a product that chefs would get excited about, consumers would get excited about it too.”
Swimming into the future
Winning over chefs is just the first step in winning consumers to plant-based alternatives, Bryson said.
“How are we going to convince our friends, our parents, the meat-eating crowd to try it?”
The goal of creating a more sustainable food production system rests on the ability to meet consumers’ expectations, Bryson said, which means in addition to developing a product with the right taste, texture and appearance, the protein content and price need to be right. And finally, the plant-based version must cook like the real thing.
The company’s name reflects both its university research origins and its goals for the future. Once New School Foods’ plant-based salmon is on menus and store shelves, the company aims to use the same proprietary process to develop whole cuts of meat.
“It doesn’t matter what your motivation is – we want to remove all the reasons why you wouldn’t try plant-based meat,” Bryson said.
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