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The newest fake meat startup wants to make the ‘world’s favorite protein’ a plant, not a bird

The plant-based chicken company Daring is going after the chicken industry—with new investment help from a meat powerhouse.

The newest fake meat startup wants to make the ‘world’s favorite protein’ a plant, not a bird
[Photo: Davide Luciano for Daring Foods]
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“How much chicken do you get in one order?” I ask Ross Mackay, before it took a solid beat for me to register that his product, of course, is not chicken. It is, in fact, the anti-chicken. As the marketing materials boldly state, it’s “1000% not chicken.”

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Daring is an imitation chicken, which replicates the taste and texture of the familiar fowl, and which is targeted specifically at people who love eating chicken. While many carnivores have reduced their red meat intake, on health grounds, chicken has not similarly been caught in the firing line. After all, chicken breast is “the cleanest protein on the market, other than egg white,” admits Mackay, age 28, one of Daring’s two cofounders, referring to minimally processed food that is closest to its natural state, and with high nutritional value. That’s why the company is focusing on sustainability, at a time when that particular message has the attention of the masses—even those diners most disinclined to put down the drumstick.

[Photo: Davide Luciano for Daring Foods]
“We have a large mission, and it’s to reduce the amount of chickens that are consumed on the planet,” Mackay says.

Originally a U.K. business, Daring moved to set up as a U.S. company because of the demand for sustainable eating, bigger market opportunity, and proven presence of plant-based products. On this side of the Atlantic, it’s attracted investors, including a major meat processor, which has helped achieve its goal to introduce e-commerce sales with next-day delivery, as well as to gain restaurant and supermarket partners. Its earnings objectives are no less ambitious: It’s predicting a revenue of $12 million to $15 million, and profitability, by the end of the year.

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On a convection stove, Mackay pan-fries strips of the chicken—fake chicken—for me. The strips are sold frozen and ready to cook from that state. When warmed and crackling in the pan with olive oil, the smell that emanates is unmistakably that of chicken. It’s chicken-like in its juiciness, and its texture: the crispiness, the strands, the pull-apartness. I notice a lingering soy aftertaste, but Mackay assures that that’s because he didn’t season it, to give me the fullest, closest experience to chicken.

[Photo: Davide Luciano for Daring Foods]

Uncompromising on the health factor

It’s that pureness of product that Mackay homes in on, in his Scottish accent. He became vegan by recommendation of his coach as a young athlete, but was frustrated with the lack of choice in Glasgow—”we eat haggis!”—where most imitation-meat products included a substantial dose of additives such as maltodextrin, a preservative and thickening agent that some studies have shown can cause blood sugar levels to spike and affect the balance of gut bacteria. Fake-meat foods that started emerging, from Impossible and Beyond Meat and Morningstar, were chiefly based around burgers and sausage links, fast-food staples to which you’d still be tempted to add cheese and mayo and a side of french fries. For Mackay, who still craved the flavor of meat, it was hard to be vegan and healthy.

So, he and his business partner, Elliot Kessas, also 28, started developing imitation chicken in London. The end product, the chicken strips, are made of just a handful of ingredients: soy protein, water, and a blend of spices including pepper, paprika, ginger, cardamom, mace, and sunflower. It’s GMO-free and gluten-free; it contains 14 grams of protein, but just 0.36 grams of sodium, and more than a gram of carbohydrates. But it took four years and many iterations to develop.

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That was likely a laborious process, I’m told by Sarah Masoni, a “formulation” expert at the Food Innovation Center at Oregon State University, helping brands create new and specialty foods and beverages. She’s described in a New York Times profile as having “a million-dollar palate,” for her sensitivity to the most esoteric ingredients formed from her 30 years of food development experience.

The Daring lab processors would start with soy flour, she says, and put it through a high-pressure system to push the air out and extrude the dense texture; they then line all the proteins inside of the soy flour, and texturize them with pressure and steam and heat, to create long, not-too-chewy strands. She judges that the Daring’s process keeps the product close to a “single origin” item, meaning it’s free from additives, and high saturated fats, of which many other fake meats are guilty. “Some of those burgers can end up with 20 or 30 or 40 ingredients,” she says, “all coming together trying to act like it’s something that it isn’t.”

[Photo: Davide Luciano for Daring Foods]

The sustainability argument is Daring’s most powerful persuasion tool. No one needs to convince a vegan to eat plant-based, and that’s why the target consumer is the carnivore, specifically, the lover of the “world’s favorite protein.” That’s no exaggeration: The average American consumes almost 100 pounds of chicken per year, according to the National Chicken Council, a figure significantly higher than that of any other meat. “If you’ve got chicken in your shopping basket,” Mackay says, “that’s who I want to win over.”

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Sustainable and ethically sourced food options are in high demand in the U.S., Mackay says, which is why he and Kessas folded their original U.K. business and set Daring up as a U.S. company, based in New York. Daring’s soy is sourced from farms in Germany (via a French company), which are compliant with EU regulations regarding both pesticide use and labor rights, and which practice deforestation-free cultivation. The factory recycles its water usage, and creates little wastage, because they freeze the product immediately, he says, and any excess protein is reused in product development.

The founders are unapologetic about their animal-friendly ambitions, and that starts with targeting the chicken industry as their rivals, rather than other plant-based meat companies, which are actually growing market awareness to the common goal. “So, I think we can have an impact by directly targeting consumers, brands, and businesses that are utilizing animal protein such as chicken as their main source of revenue,” Mackay says. “We will do our best to take some market share away from the suppliers.”

[Photo: Davide Luciano for Daring Foods]

An unlikely partner to help beat Big Meat

That’s why it’s surprising that Daring’s top investor is a meat powerhouse. Rastelli Foods Group is a family-owned meat-processing business that started humbly as a butcher’s shop in Southern New Jersey, which now processes beef, and works with retailers and restaurants across the country, with unmistakably meat-friendly names like Cleaver’s Organic and Three Jerks Jerky (“The Original Filet Mignon Jerky”). But, alternative meats are increasingly on their radar, says Ray Rastelli III, the company’s CEO. “We really try to be a center-of-the-plate protein solution,” he says.

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Rastelli Foods invested $10 million in cash and infrastructure and is leading the direct-to-consumer distribution, because Daring is promising next-day delivery anywhere in the U.S. Daring is using Rastelli’s own fulfillment center outside Philadelphia. Because Daring began as a U.K. company, the research and development is still in London, and soy is sourced from French farms, so Rastelli helps bring the product over before it’s shipped to doors around the country, in frozen pouches inside boxes, reminiscent of the Blue Apron school of delivery.

The international supply chain, Rastelli says, works well and is relatively inexpensive. And it’s worth it, because of the integrity of the product. “It’s very clean label, with ingredients that you can pronounce,” Rastelli says, “and there’s not a lot of processed things in there that are going turn the customer off.” It’s the next iteration of alternative proteins, a healthier version, which Rastelli dubs “plant-based 2.0.”

What remains to be seen is if plant-based 2.0 is here to stay, or merely a fad. Masoni, the lab expert, says plant-based has been around for decades—certainly the more than 30 years she’s been in food formulation—but now’s the time the demand from customers is high. So much so that the world’s most famous chicken connoisseur, KFC, recently launched a plant-based chicken, as KFC teamed up with Beyond Meat. Plant-based chicken was trialed in February in the Charlotte, North Carolina, and Nashville markets.

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Unlike fried chicken and burger patties, it’s the versatility of chicken breast that Mackay believes is the reason for its popularity. “You can batter it, breadcrumb it, bake in the oven, boil it, put it in soups,” and that’s true for both chicken and Daring. That’s the key idea: that Daring is a straight swap for chicken, whether in a fajita, in a salad, or in a rice bowl. They’re working on launching chicken-friendly flavors including lemon and herb, Cajun, and peri-peri.

In addition to the e-commerce platform, which launches in April, they’re rolling out a partnership with grocery store Sprouts, with the product hitting the shelves of all 340 stores by March 6. They’re in a testing phase to sell it in restaurants in New York and L.A. Guests will be able to “go Daring,” just like they can “Go Beyond,” essentially turning an orange or teriyaki chicken into an orange or teriyaki Daring. “We’re still a small market, but we believe we have the ability to remove animals from the food system eventually,” Mackay says.

Changing minds and mouths is a laborious process, but the key is working together, with both Daring converts and chicken defenders at the table. “If you want to have chicken fajitas and I want to have Daring fajitas, we can have the same experience and break bread together,” he says. “It’s always been us versus them. It doesn’t have to be that way.”