Former Boeing engineer Christie Lagally thinks vegan meat has a problem: the cheap options aren’t tasty, and the tasty options aren’t cheap. She’s on a mission to change that equation with Rebellyous Foods, a Seattle startup that’s targeting cafeteria staples in the form of chicken-free nuggets, patties and strips.
Why nuggets? Because Americans eat an astonishing number of them. Chicken is by far the most-consumed meat in the U.S., and prepared products account for about half of all chicken consumption.
“People love chicken nuggets. We eat chicken every day,” Lagally said.
Formerly known as Seattle Food Tech, Rebellyous relaunched today with a clever tagline — “No harm. No fowl.” — and big ambitions. The startup has raised more than $2 million from backers including Joe Montana’s Liquid 2 Ventures, Blue Horizon and Fifty Years, among others.
Investors are clearly hungry for more plant-based meats. Impossible Foods, the maker of a meatless burger, raised $300 million from private investors last month and reached a $2 billion valuation. It recently inked a deal with Burger King.
Plant-based rival Beyond Meat raised more than $240 million during its IPO last month. The company’s stock has since exploded, gaining more than 500 percent and reaching $9.8 billion in valuation.
Update, June 14: Plant-based startups got a big new rival: Tyson Foods, the nations No. 1 producer of broiler chickens, is rolling out plant-based nuggets and other meat substitutes under a new brand called Raised & Rooted.
While the share of vegans and vegetarians hasn’t changed much in recent years, more and more Americans are looking to eat less meat. The market for meat substitutes is expected to reach $5.8 billion by 2022, according to Grand View Research.
Like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, Rebellyous wants to make tasty, healthy alternatives that are better for the planet — but the startup also wants to price that food low enough so everyone can enjoy it. Beyond Meat’s patties cost around three times what an average beef patty goes for, and Impossible’s burgers are still only available in restaurants.
Rebellyous started selling its plant-based nuggets in February at a price that is comparable to frozen chicken nuggets. Within the next few years, as it moves to larger-scale production, Lagally thinks the company’s nuggets will become cheaper than meat versions.
Lagally’s engineering background has helped the company rethink the machines that make the food as well as the food itself. “We actually designed new production equipment and automated production in our facility so that we could make plant-based chicken products, faster, better and less expensive for our customers,” Lagally said. The company is also working on new ways of emulsifying flavors, water and oil, as well as frying methods that involve less oil.
The startup’s target customers are cafeterias where you’d typically find chicken nuggets, such as hospitals and schools. One of its first clients was Swedish Medical Center in Seattle.
“As a healthcare facility, it’s our responsibility to serve our guests health-promoting meals that are also lighter on the planet, and of course it’s our desire to also serve food that tastes delicious,” Woody Rose, nutrition services manager of Swedish Medical Center, Cherry Hill, said in a statement. “Rebellyous nuggets allow us to do just that.”
Even in nugget form, Rebellyous’ chicken products have roughly 40 percent less saturated fat and sodium and three times as much fiber than the meat version. They’re also cholesterol-free. The ingredient list for the startup’s nuggets lists a blend of wheat and soy proteins, breading, canola oil, cornstarch and seasoning.
But Lagally, who left a dream job designing Boeing 777 airplanes to start Rebellyous, wanted to solve meat’s even bigger problem. “We need to address chicken as a climate change issue,” she said.
The environmental toll of raising, slaughtering and serving 9 billion chickens in the U.S. each year is stomach-turning — from the water pollution resulting from the disposal of large numbers of chicken carcasses to a long chain of carbon emissions that starts with feed and continues to refrigeration at the grocery store.
Lagally’s plant-based meat venture was “something that I felt like I had to do, quite simply because the generation before me didn’t,” she said.
The company has 10 employees and currently makes its food in South Seattle, with plans to expand to a larger facility. Kristie Middleton, vice president of business development at Rebellyous, formerly helped foodservice providers serve more plant-based food while working at the Humane Society.