Chicken without the bird, milk without the cow: meet the five Kiwi startups catapulting vegan alternatives into the mouths of mainstream consumers.
Eggs Benedict, mac ‘n’ cheese, and spaghetti bolognese. I’m not just listing random foods – they’re a selection of meals over the past year that I’ve tried in a 100% vegan state. And while it obviously doesn’t compare to the real thing, a variety of weird and wonderful ingredients have emerged over the years to try to closely replicate the textures and taste profiles of our favourite animal-based products which, if you’re as fascinated about food innovation as I am, is pretty damn intriguing.
Vegan lifestyles were once considered radically left-of-centre, but the past few years have seen plant-based diets become incredibly en vogue among the wider population. Unsurprisingly, mainstream corporations have tried their best to cash in: McDonald’s have rolled out a vegan burger, KFC is looking into faux fried chicken, and UK supermarket giant Tesco has started selling steaks built out of wheat and soy.
In New Zealand, traditional agriculture still reigns supreme. But that dominance, in turn, has incentivised several small startups to emerge over the years to try their hand at creating locally-made, plant-based produce. Little Bird Organics have made a name for themselves with their selection of raw, vegan treats, while specialist supermarkets like Huckleberry have also tried to tap into the market on a high-end scale. Or, if you feel like egg-free aioli or dairy-free cheddar, local brand Zenzo is an emerging name.
With that said, I’ve picked out five New Zealand businesses that – if you’ve never looked into plant-based alternatives before – probably deserve your attention.
It looks like chicken, tastes like chicken, and cooks like chicken, but confusingly enough, it’s not actually chicken at all. In fact, it’s just Sunfed Meat – an innovative pea protein made using clean water-based cooking methods to turn “protein-packed pulses into delicious meaty goodness”.
Since launching in early 2017, the Auckland-based startup’s been hustling to keep up with relentless demand, which is why it’s now embarked on a coveted series A capital raise to significantly expand its production capacities and export to overseas markets. It’s also looking to develop more meat alternatives on the back of its wildly successful chicken-free chicken, with Sunfed ‘beef’ and ‘bacon’ preparing to launch later this year.
“The response to our product has been nothing short of phenomenal if you consider the fact that we haven’t invested in any traditional advertising and marketing. It’s all been organic word-of-mouth, which speaks to the product,” said Sunfed founder Shama Lee at the time. In any case, the rising popularity of meat-substitutes has certainly ruffled a few feathers among the traditional players, with PIANZ (Poultry Industry Association New Zealand) taking Sunfed to the Commerce Commission just days after announcing its capital raise for a potential breach of the Fair Trading Act.
Little Island Coconut Creamery
First came Nice Blocks in 2010, created by entrepreneurs Tommy Holden and James Crow as a healthier summer treat for their kids. Then came Nice Cream, which seemed a lot like regular ice cream, but made with coconut milk instead of cow’s milk. The move won them plaudits at the 2014 New Zealand Food Awards and provided them with a launch pad for their new line of coconut milk. A year later, the pair ramped up their operations under the Little Island name, partnering up with Samoan coconut cream producer Ah Liki Investment for the long-term supply of coconut cream.
Nowadays, Little Island operates as a stiff competitor in supermarket aisle freezers. Its coconut milk, which comprises half of the startup’s $5 million of annual revenue, thrives as an all-year-round drink option, while its ice cream – which now has seven flavours – has gone on to become one of the most popular dairy-free ice cream substitutes on the market today. And to take full advantage of the global popularity of plant-based diets, Little Island has started exporting its food and beverage products overseas to countries like Australia, the US, Singapore, and Malaysia.
Back in 2006, Auckland resident Alice Shopland launched a business to import and distribute vegan products for organic food stores. Seven years later, she decided to try her hand at formulating and creating her own products, birthing what we now know today as Angel Food, makers of a variety of dairy-free cheeses. Its two most popular products, the cheddar and mozzarella alternatives, primarily consist of just three key ingredients: water, sunflower oil, and modified pea and maize starch.
The decision to move away from high cost, low margin importation into local production has paid off for Angel Food, establishing itself as the go-to brand for vegan cheese. In 2015, Shopland launched an equity crowdfunding campaign on PledgeMe in order to help her budding business expand. She asked the public for $75,000. In return, they got a massive $151,000. Today, major supermarket retailers like Countdown, FourSquare, Pak n Save and New World all stock Angel Food products alongside regular cheese brands, while eateries like Lord of the Fries, Taco Loco, and Tart Bakery also use the locally-produced cheese alternative for their vegan meals.
Raglan Coconut Yoghurt
When Raglan local Seb Walter started to develop an allergic reaction to his morning yoghurt, his wife Latesha Randall spent three months crafting a dairy-free alternative using coconut as the main ingredient. She went on to advertise three jars of her newly formulated coconut yoghurt on the Raglan Noticeboard Facebook page, and was was quickly overwhelmed with demand. “We had Raglaners traipsing in and out of our garage the next week, bringing cash for their white magic. Our neighbours thought we were running some sort of weed racket,” Randall wrote back in 2015.
By 2016, Raglan Coconut Yoghurt was a thriving local business, doubling its number of stockists and moving into a shipping container-turned-commercial kitchen. It now produces thousands of jars of “white magic” every week, employs almost 20 people to oversee the careful production of its product, and is stocked in more 500 stores and 80 cafes across New Zealand (including a handful over in Australia).
If Sunfed encompasses the cutting edge of modern technology, Bean Supreme encompasses the more simple and wholesome side of plant-based eating. Founded more than 30 years ago in 1984 by tofu-connossieur Paul Johnston, Bean Supreme was one of the earliest pioneers of meat-free diets in New Zealand. In 2006, Life Health Foods (who also own Lisa’s and Naked Cuisine) bought Bean Supreme, which would go on to form the basis of the company’s tofu and protein-alternatives offering. Nowadays, it offers everything from vegetarian sausages, mince and burger patties made out of ingredients like beetroot, chickpeas, kumara, beans, tofu, and soy protein