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Texas-based Project Pollo was recently represented by founder and CEO Lucas Bradbury in the season finale episode of Shark Tank. He pitched the vegan chicken chain to residents ‘sharks’ Mark Cuban, Lori Greiner, Kevin O’Leary and Barbara Corcoran, alongside guest shark, comedian Kevin Hart, before coming away without a deal.
Bradbury has revealed that it was Cuban who recommended that he apply for the show, sending the startup founder an email, with the show’s casting director copied in. Filming was completed on September 18 last year with the episode just airing on ABC.
Wowing with chicken-free meat
Samples of Project Pollo were offered to the sharks as part of Bradbury’s presentation. Nuggets, sandwiches and a side of buffalo macaroni cheese were passed around before O’Leary commented that it was the best “fake” chicken he had ever tasted.
The entire panel agreed that the product was good, however, Bradbury left without any investment. The fast expansion of the chain was given as the reason for unilateral reluctance to back the company, with Bradbury being advised to “slow down”.
After the pitch, it was revealed on-screen that Greiner has compared Bradbury to a cyclone.
“I’m from Kansas. Tornadoes are in our backyard every day. We’re going to explode, and we’re going to continue this pattern and go all across the United States opening up Project Pollo [locations],” Bradbury retorted.
Going into filming, Bradbury claims he was adamant that he would be acting in the best interest of Project Pollo only. He has stated that he was open to partnering with a shark but would not be undervaluing his business. As a result, his request for $2.5 million in return for a 5 percent stake was rejected. It has since been reported that a number of investors have come on board after the show aired, all of which are well-versed in the fast-food sector.
Taking on conventional chicken
Project Pollo was founded to fill a gap in the plant-based market. Bradbury observed that most fast-food companies were looking to replace beef, but he decided to create an alternative to the second most widely-eaten meat instead. Chicken follows pork on meat consumption tables.
The take-out fried chicken market is predicted to reach $8.25 billion 2025. The APAC region is driving growth with 39 percent of market share and the U.S. following after. Bradbury has spoken of his desire to tempt consumers over to sustainable plant-based alternatives. He cites taking part in Meat-Free May, in 2020, as the final confirmation that he was on the right track.
Bradbury’s family joined him in his plant-based challenge and acknowledged that it was fun but not viable long-term, due to the costs involved. This observation formed a central part of Project Pollo’s democratic ethos.
Chicken for the people
Project Pollo has become known for its egalitarian approach to food provisions. Bradbury cites watching his mother work multiple jobs as his motivation for never letting a restaurant visitor leave hungry or out of pocket. Guests are offered a pay-what-you-can pricing structure, with regular community food donations being made outside restaurant walls.
The chain aims to have 100 locations fully operational by 2025. It repurposes existing fast-food locations, replacing like for plant-based like. Bradbury is particularly gunning for Chick-fil-A.
“Right now we are on pace to save more than one million chickens this year from being slaughtered and by doing so at scale, we can really challenge the system,” Bradbury said last year. “I’m making it a priority to start shutting down Chick-fil-A’s, one of the largest U.S. chicken fast-food chains because there is an alternative and you do not have to sacrifice quality—we call it ‘challenging chicken.”
Founders knowing their worth
Bradbury is not the only founder to have walked away from Shark Tank without a deal, only to continue growing a successful business. Fellow chicken entrepreneur Deborah Torres turned down a $1 million buy-out offer from Mark Cuban last year. Seeing the offer as a sign that her company had legs, she chose to walk away and later highlighted the misogyny and racism that she encountered in the editing of her pitch. Torres’ brand, Atlas Monroe, is now the largest manufacturer of plant-based chicken in the world.
Lead photo by ABC.