Angel investing couple Alex Payne and Nicole Brodeur talk about why they fund vegan businesses.
It is TechFestNW this week, and David Lee, the chief operating officer of Impossible Foods, the California plant-based burger start-up backed by Bill Gates, took the stage today to talk about market opportunities in the vegan food sector.
Oregon boasts its own leading vegan entrepreneur: Alex Payne, a former Twitter employee and co-founder of Simple, a banking startup that sold several years ago. Payne has since become one of the state's leading investors in vegan businesses, such as Next Level Burger, a Bend-based vegan fast food restaurant.
In the following Q&A, Payne and his wife, Nicole Brodeur, also an angel investor, talk about why they became vegan, their vegan car (a Tesla) and the business opportunities they see in this fast-growing market.
OB: Why did you become a vegan?
Payne: It was initially for health reasons. I feel healthier and am able to maintain more of an active lifestyle on a vegan diet. Over time it has become an ethical issue, as well as an environmental and public health issue for both of us. Becoming educated about the impact of animal agriculture and the impact of animal products on human health has definitely been a sustaining factor on what would otherwise have been a temporary lifestyle change.
Brodeur: I was a fairly long-time vegetarian. Alex went vegan out of the blue from my perspective. But not long after he did that, we visited a farm sanctuary together and it made me realize how much I didn’t know about egg and dairy production. We took a tour of a farm sanctuary (Woodstock Farm Sanctuary in Woodstock, New York) and I realized egg and diary production are more cruel than meat production because those animals are kept alive in horrible circumstances before they are eventually killed. I had never thought about that. At the end of the tour that was it for me. I decided, I am vegan from now on.
OB: What are the downsides to being vegan?
Payne: The only major downside is that it can be difficult when traveling, particularly if the local cuisine is very based in animal products. That requires about as much advanced planning as it would if you wanted to pick out a few nice restaurants when you are traveling. If you spend a few minutes on Google you can figure it out. It is not a big deal.
Brodeur: I wouldn’t call that a downside. One of the fun things about traveling is doing that planning. It has taken us to places we would never have discovered if we hadn’t been vegans. I think at the beginning, if this is not well known in your family or community there can be a hurdle in getting folks to understand what you are doing. Since I have become vegan, my sister has become vegan. My parents have become almost vegan too. They eat some fish. We have had several friends that have become vegan. If you work on how you are communicating these choices to folks it can have a positive impact on the community.
OB: What is in your fridge?
Brodeur: Too much Alex would say! Our fridge is pretty stuffed to bursting. I love to cook and Alex likes to bake. Right now, we have some leftover beans and rice that I made for dinner the other night. There are a large amount of nuts and all different types of sauces and misos – all fun ingredients that I never really used in cooking before becoming vegan. Half of our fridge is stocked full of vegetables. We are members of a couple of CSAs so we have tons of winter vegetables in the fridge.
OB: Where do you shop for groceries?
Payne: Mostly at People’s Food Co-op in southeast Portland. There is an all-vegan grocery store, Food Fight. We loaned them money to open a store in a second location. Food Fight! is really great. They stock a lot of vegan specialty products. It would be a challenging place to do your entire weekly shopping there because their produce selection is a little limited. People’s Food Co-op is vegetarian – they have some eggs and dairy, but they have everything you need. We also appreciate that it is a member-owned business.
OB: What is your favorite vegan dish?
Payne: Nicole makes a vegan piccata that I really love. It is basically like a veal piccata but it is made with wheat gluten instead of a baby lamb. It is really delicious. I grew up eating the carnivorous version of that. The vegan version is just as good, if not better.
Brodeur: I am a macaroni and cheese fan. Any version of homemade macaroni and cheese is a winner for me. But I also live off soups in the winter so it a toss-up between soups and mac and cheese.
OB: What is your favorite vegan restaurant?
Payne: There are so many in Portland. We are also biased. For fast casual dining we love Next Level Burger; but we invest in it so that sounds promotional. We invested in it because we love the food. We are often at Aviv in southeast Portland. It is all-vegan Israeli food. We haven’t invested in them; we have loaned them money to build that space out. We have taken omnivore friends there and everyone seems to really enjoy it.
Brodeur: I have to give a shout out to Papa G’s, which is one of the old school vegan places. I eat there every week. It is a great place if you are looking for somewhere local and organic.
OB: What is your best vegan experience?
Payne: Our wedding. A couple of years after visiting the farm sanctuary in Woodstock, New York, we got married there. They moved to a larger location down the road. We ended up holding our wedding there. Our guests after the ceremony got to get a tour of the sanctuary and meet the animals. We have great pictures of friends and family with chickens jumping on them and petting llamas, all kinds of cool stuff.
Brodeur: Mine too. I have to say also that last spring I got to take a trip with seven other vegan women to Italy. My friend is a vegan chef and has been running retreats in Italy for a long time. We did a trip to the coast of Italy together. I have never eaten so much in my entire life.
OB: What is your worst vegan experience?
Brodeur: The times when it is hardest is when going to events where there is something you don’t agree with going on and being confronted with that: Going on a farm tour and seeing goats that are being bred and milked; or going to a wedding and they are having a pig roast. Those are difficult because they are very emotional.
Payne: I grew up being a carnivore and didn’t think twice about it. But then I spent time on farm sanctuaries getting to know animals like pigs. Growing up in the city you have no idea how pigs behave, how intelligent they are. If you get to know one at your sanctuary you start to feel like they are a friend, a family pet. To see a pig carved up in front of you becomes almost as traumatic as seeing the family dog served up for dinner. Neither of us is going to hide away from a world of omnivores and pretend that doesn’t exist. But it does become upsetting over time.
OB: Are you vegan beyond food?
Brodeur: My understanding of being vegan is making a full lifestyle choice. We don’t buy leather, wool, silk – anything that has animal products. We do our best. I am sure we purchase products that we don’t know are owned by companies that test on animals. We try really hard to support ethical companies.
Payne: Our car is vegan. There are relatively few car makers that produce vehicles that don’t at least have some leather. But Tesla a couple of years ago started doing that by default. Now their whole line up is vegan. You can’t get a leather interior from them even if you wanted to, which is great because it is so unnecessary.
OB: What potential is there for vegan markets outside of food?
Payne: We have already made investments in businesses that are not directly food related; things like alternative materials. We have invested in a company that is growing gelatin for use in cosmetics and medical products and anything else. You don’t need to be grinding up horse hooves anymore. They will have a clean alternative to that. There is a ton of potential out there. There is a very active international vegan investing community.