As a 14-year-old, Ben Pasternak built an app that became the top trending app in Apple’s App Store. By 15, he had dropped out of high school, moved to New York City, and started a social networking app that was later acquired. His latest venture: a plant-based chicken nugget brand that just raised $7 million in funding led by the food giant McCain Foods.
“After my previous company was acquired, I took some time to really explore some big problems and see how I could fit in and contribute to them,” he says. He saw the problems inherent in factory farming and the potential of plant-based meat, but also believed that the brands on the market haven’t gone as far as they could to reach meat eaters. “They weren’t very provocative,” he says. (Of some of the large food companies that have recently announced new plant-based products coming soon, he says, “I can’t say if the product’s good, but I can assure you that the brand is absolute shit.”)
Nuggs, the new brand, is more playful than, say, Tyson’s new version of plant-based “chicken” nuggets. “Kills you slower,” says the copy on Nuggs’ website, as it points out that the nuggets contain about twice as much protein as the animal-based equivalent, around 20% fewer calories, and no cholesterol.
“We’re a very young team, very young founders, and essentially we’re creating a product for ourselves. No big food company or any of these large companies can say that,” says Pasternak. The head of product, 20-year-old Liam Mullen—who started working in restaurants at 16, most recently as a pastry chef at a Michelin Star-awarded restaurant in New York—developed the recipe for the nuggets, which use pea protein “instead of primitive animal-based technology,” Pasternak says. An editor at Fast Company who tasted the nuggets proclaimed them delicious and said that her children never realized that they weren’t chicken, though she said that the nuggets tasted less like chicken as they cooled.
Nuggs 1.0 are sold only direct-to-consumer via the company’s website, which Pasternak claims allows the brand a closer relationship with customers and a constant cycle of feedback. “When you put a product in stores, you lose control, and you lose data, and you can’t really see what’s going on,” he says. “Our philosophy, with me coming from a digital world, is to treat food like software.” When customers buy a box of the nuggets, the company asks on the checkout page when they last ate meat. The goal, as with companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, is to reach as many omnivores as possible, not vegetarians. “We find these cohorts of people that have never really tried [plant-based] meat, and we bring them into it,” says Pasternak.