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These 3 unconventional leaders are reinventing the food industry

Challenging the meat industry, convincing people to eat vegan, and putting mom-and-pop restaurateurs in the spotlight.

These 3 unconventional leaders are reinventing the food industry
[Photo: Maja Saphir for Fast Company]

From ingredients and the curation of meals to the ways food gets distributed, the food industry is undergoing rapid change. And as three food industry innovators told audiences at the Fast Company Innovation Festival on Wednesday, the only way to keep up is continuous reinvention.

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From left: Jess Bursztynsky, staff writer, Fast Company; Joe Ariel, founder and CEO, Goldbelly; Ethan Brown, founder and CEO, Beyond Meat; and Pinky Cole, founder and CEO, Slutty Vegan. [Photo: Maja Saphir for Fast Company]
“We constantly innovate,” said Ethan Brown, founder and CEO of the plant-based protein maker Beyond Meat. “We try to make our products that are on the shelf obsolete through our own innovation.”

[Photo: Maja Saphir for Fast Company]
Brown’s company has been making large strides into the mainstream in recent years with major partnerships that have brought plant-based meat alternatives to grocery stores and fast-food chains. He says getting there has been a battle.

“We’re challenging the meat industry. They have a lot of money. They have a lot of lobbyists. They put full page ads in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times saying our products aren’t healthy,” Brown said. Countering that narrative takes more than ad dollars. Brown said that Beyond Meat is working with Stanford University on a long-term study looking at the impact on the human body of consuming its products, and running clinical trials to prove the health impacts of new products in the works. “Our products are not only healthy, they’re getting healthier,” he said.

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They’re also getting closer and closer to replicating the eating experience of meat-based foods, he added, enough so that Beyond Meat continues to make new partnerships with major fast-food chains like Taco Bell. Its new plant-based carne asada steak will be hitting some restaurants in October.

[Photo: Maja Saphir for Fast Company]
Beyond’s products are also popping up in more expected places, like the restaurants run by Pinky Cole, founder and CEO of the vegan fast-food chain Slutty Vegan. Cole told the Fast Company Innovation Festival audience that using established products in her restaurants helps lower the barrier to entry for non-vegans or people who might actively avoid food marketed that way.

Just making an intellectual argument about eating vegan—such as the low carbon footprint of plant-based food compared to meat, or the inhumane conditions of factory farms—can only go so far. “In order to get people to pay attention, you’ve got to meet them where they are. . . . If you automatically walk in the gate, like, ‘Yes, this is green, it’s healthy for you,’ the kind of people that I’m attracting, they’re not interested in that,” Cole said. “I’m giving them burgers, pies, and fries.”

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She’s also expanding the offerings on her menu, including new options targeted at kids. Just like the burgers and fries on the rest of the menu, they’re familiar dishes that will appeal to kids without focusing on their environmental or health benefits.

“I’m not targeting the vegan. I’m targeting the meat eater who eats chicken, beef, pork, everything,” Cole said. “Those are the people that I want to talk to.”

[Photo: Maja Saphir for Fast Company]
Bringing new foods to new audiences is an ongoing challenge for producers and restaurateurs, but Joe Ariel’s food delivery service Goldbelly is working to eliminate hurdles like distance and scale. With a curated marketplace offering national delivery of foods and regional products that would otherwise be only accessible in person, Goldbelly is giving restaurants a larger reach, and customers the kinds of culinary experiences they might only get while on vacation.

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“What we try to do is celebrate local mom and pop shops, to elevate main street and iconic regional foods that don’t get the love,” Ariel told the Innovation Festival audience.

He’s also finding new ways of broadening the reach of these restaurants. His company recently launched Goldbelly TV, a video platform that aims to highlight the small restaurants for which Goldbelly delivers. Ariel said it’s inspired by cooking shows on platforms like Netflix, but with a more democratic feel. “What you’ll notice is there’s really like a dozen chefs that are in all of those shows,” he said. “We’re trying to hit that emotional chord of what is the thing that you love, the thing that you want to try, the connection you want to make with a food maker. And we feel like video is that next frontier.”

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About the author

Nate Berg is a staff writer for Fast Company. He is based in Detroit.

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