We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Cole Orobetz, the co-founder and COO of Los Angeles-based startup Alpha Foods that has developed plant-based meat alternatives from “beefy” burrito ready-meals to “chicken” nuggets all made from non-GMO soy and now proudly palm-oil free. Born in 2015, the company has recently partnered up with Green Monday in Hong Kong to launch Happy Nuggets across Green Common stores, with plans to launch the rest of their product line in Asia in the near future. Below is our exclusive interview with Cole, who discussed his thoughts on a plant-based world, what it’s like to found a startup, his commitment to sustainable sourcing and food tech innovations of the future.
GQ: Welcome to Hong Kong and thank you for taking the time to speak to us at Green Queen. Let’s get started: what was your main motivation to found a plant-based meat company?
CO: When we started Alpha back in 2015, we wanted to have the biggest impact on the most number of people through bringing delicious plant-based products to the world. I have been reducing my meat consumption for a number of years as a meat eater myself, but at that time, there was nothing on the market that was plant-based that made me excited about it. That was what drove our concepts and the product development. It had to be delicious and accessible to the masses – so price and format had to be convenient. We wanted to make sure that there was something easy for those who were curious about plant-based, so they wouldn’t have to spend too much time or energy to think about how to prepare or enjoy plant-based foods.
GQ: You just mentioned that you are not plant-based yourself, which makes this even more interesting: why found a plant-based company as a meat eater?
CO: In 2013, I met with a nutritionist just for a general check in with my diet, exercise and lifestyle. Nothing was alarming, but they started to educate me on the heaviness of meat in my body, and what it does to my ability to be in a rested state. So I started to move away from red meats to lighter types of meat products, such as chicken and fish, and ultimately to plant-based products more often. I noticed a big difference in the way my body was more rested. Out of all the recommendations I was given to consider in terms of everyday lifestyle changes to make, reducing red meat consumption was the number one most impactful thing. I felt better.
I grew up in Canada, where every single day of my life, I ate meat products predominantly from land animals. Our family cooked animal products for almost every single meal, and I didn’t even know what “vegan” was for the first 30 years of my life! So when I began Alpha Foods, the idea was to make the plant-based transition easier. For myself, I eat plant-based as much as I possibly can. I travel a lot, so my lifestyle requires plant-based to be as convenient as possible. Eating is also a social occasion – when my mum invites me for dinner, you eat what’s on your plate, you can’t be too picky!
GQ: Do you think people have misconceptions about vegan foods in general? What are some misconceptions about Alpha Foods products you are having to overcome?
CO: In general, of course people have misconceptions about vegan food. When we first launched our four burrito products with Walmart in 2017, we had “vegan” on the front package. One week later, a study came out finding that if “vegan” was labelled on a product, people had an unhealthy association with it. We’ve since learned that vegan isn’t a great word to use when talking to consumers about our brand, because it can invoke a sense of lifestyle change that people don’t yet want to live. Vegan is a polarising word for some people, it connotes certain behaviours that they can’t relate to. But plant-based is a description of a product, rather than a lifestyle change, so we adopted it to create products for consumers in that middle ground. We don’t want to make them feel like they are changing their lives entirely, we just want them to feel like they are eating something made from plants!
GQ: Do you think that this is the approach then to use to push for a plant-based world? Or is this not the aim of Alpha Foods?
CO: I think that this is the big idea. A plant-based world would be the optimal gold standard for everyone in this industry, but I don’t think it is practical. There are too many habits and occasions where you can’t get away with plant based products. In my opinion, the world population isn’t yet ready to give up those social traditions and eating experiences to go fully plant-based.
That being said, it is now becoming more a part of people’s vocabulary. Even my grandmother who is 83 is sending me articles about plant-based eating! She has been eating steak and potatoes her whole life, so for her to know what plant-based really shows that the world’s consciousness is shifting now. That is where I think we are trying to go wit Alpha – to give people one option at a time, whether it is one meal a week or once a day. Our goal is to encourage everyone to move towards more plant-based options.
GQ: What made you decide to launch in Hong Kong?
CO: David decided! We’ve known Green Monday and David for a number of years. Our first products – burritos and pot pies – weren’t exactly the right fit for Hong Kong. But when the Green Monday team came by our booth last year at an exhibition where we launched our “chicken” nugget product, everyone loved it. It then evolved into a consensus that this would be well-received in Asia. The work that the Green Monday team has done is just incredible – they truly have a small army! So to have the right people on the ground who are well connected and passionate about the plant-based space, who are on the pulse with the future of food, that was the most important thing for us. We had a lot of interest in our brand globally, but they weren’t the right people.
GQ: Soy protein concentrate is one of the main ingredients listed in Alpha Foods’ products. Given what we have seen occur in the Amazon, which has raised attention on the role of soy cultivation in deforestation, can you tell us how Alpha Foods is tackling this problem in sourcing soy-based ingredients?
CO: Over the years, we have really done a lot to zoom in on the sustainability of our products. First and foremost, when we were sourcing soy, we made sure to use non-GMO soy, having in our minds the practices that come with GMO soybeans. And the more we realised how educated the consumer base is – people were learning a lot about soy production – we have been proud to say that all our soybeans are ethically sourced from the United States where there is no deforestation to be concerned of. I’d also like to add that we have made changes before upon learning new information. For example, we were previously using palm oil in our first pot pies. But when more news and reports came out about the ethical conflicts involved in palm oil production, we removed it from our ingredient list. Every single day, we really try to push to be as sustainable as possible.
GQ: Do you have any predictions on future innovations in the plant-based food scene?
CO: What we are learning in every single conference we attend, and all the industry publications we read, is that there will be an evolution in the different types of plant proteins being developed and used. We will be seeing newer types of plant proteins to create different product formats and to achieve different functional and nutritional characteristics of a product.
We have continued to use soy because it is economic and accessible. With our vision of trying to reach as many consumers around the globe, using a niche protein that could be unaffordable or unavailable just doesn’t fit with our mission.
But what I am consistently seeing is a lot of work being done on plant-based proteins right now. While the commercial availability of protein itself is not necessarily available in near terms. Things like oat protein, for example, and mushroom proteins are being lab-scaled but not yet used commercially. So I think that in the next 3-5 years, we’ll be seeing more of these newer proteins make their appearance in ingredient statements and more companies working with these proteins. With that, prices can be brought down, and it can hopefully enter the end-consumer product in the future.
GQ: As a food tech startup founder, what are some of the biggest challenges you have had to overcome and what advice would you give to others going on this journey?
CO: Whether it is a plant-based company or not, just the sheer amount of work to create a company of this scale was a huge challenge for us. Our first customer was Walmart, so being able to scale up and service a client like Walmart was a lot of work. Despite there being a lot of intrigue in plant-based protein, many distributors, consumers, retailers and restaurants are still not yet ready to engage in plant-based products and proteins yet. They just don’t believe that the industry is here to stay. There have been lots of retailers and service providers that have slammed the door in our face at times.
Another problem we faced is convincing consumers that plant-based is a buyable food option. There is an educative marketing component that is unique to this plant-based food industry that we have to overcome. Especially with Alpha starting out in the mass market, we had to invest upfront a bit more than others on our brand for those who weren’t familiar with plant-based.
In terms of advice, I would say that it takes just as much time to build a small company as it does to build a big company. So think your biggest thoughts and try and build something that can reach the biggest number of people. Over the years, I have seen some smaller brands and companies struggle to be big enough to be relevant. If we want to truly change the food system, we need big thoughts, a big vision to have the biggest impact.
GQ: Last question: team rice or team noodles?
Lead image courtesy of Green Queen.