Meet the entrepreneurs who are driving Oregon's latest, lucrative green rush.
In November 2014, on the 100th episode of “Shark Tank” 11 million viewers watched five high-profile investors devour vegan cheese.
Soon after, Portland-based entrepreneur Heidi Lovig closed the fastest deal in “Shark Tank’s” history — a $125,000 investment for 30% equity in her business, Heidi Ho! Organics. “That was a poignant moment,” Lovig says. “For the first time, I shifted the perception that all vegan cheese sucks.”
The confident, hyperenergetic chef is not the only one bringing plant-based food into mainstream business and culture circles.
A new crop of vegan business owners is moving out of Whole Foods and into Fred Meyer, out of gentrified neighborhoods and into convenience stores. If Lovig and others have their way, the diners, gas stations and cafeterias of the future will cater to carnivores devouring dairy-free milkshakes and meatless burgers that bleed beet juice.
Low-income and minority groups excluded from old-guard vegan offerings will bite too — if the next wave of products are priced right and marketed to diverse communities.
“How do you take these big values—organic agriculture, plant-based food—and make them accessible?” asks Joey Jaraczewski, founder of Sohr Performance + Nutrition, a Eugene company that makes a nut-based nutrition drink.
YOU START WITH THE TASTE. Two years before she appeared on live TV, Lovig presented her vegan cheese to a skeptical customer at the Portland State University farmers market. He asked probing questions about the ingredients. His young daughter spit the cheese out on the ground. Then he outed himself.
“I’m Bruce Silverman,” he said. “I’m the regional VP of Whole Foods Market, and I want to put you in our stores.” Soon thereafter, Lovig was pulling up to Whole Foods stores with a 2001 Honda Civic named Hank, dropping off coolers of alt-cheese.
As Lovig observes, the first wave of vegan cheese was less than palatable. It oozed emulsified starches, additives and chemicals; it tasted and behaved like rubber. Beyond alt- dairy — many processed vegan foods were not very healthy. The starches, gums and pectins that thickened vegan desserts contained more simple carbohydrates and calories than dairy options.
After traveling the world and training at Cordon Bleu, Lovig returned to Portland with a mission: Remake vegan cheese. Her mantra is simple: Instead of extracting and processing potato starches, “just use the fucking potato.” She uses chia seeds for viscosity; cashews for natural fat; and red peppers, parsnips and turnips as her food coloring.
And that’s about it. “I use real food,” she says. “I know that sounds crazy.”
Sohr Performance founders Andrew Ek and Joey Jaraczewski also broke into the vegan market with a homemade, whole-foods recipe. Marketed as dairy-free, Sohr Performance shakes center around hazelnut milk, spiced with turmeric, ginger and other natural sweeteners.
Ek, a law student who put himself through school by selling shoes wholesale, met Jaraczewski in a business class at the University of Oregon. “People were talking about reinventing laundry and socks,” Ek says. “Then Joey comes in with a blazer and glasses and starts talking about natural foods.”
Sohr Performance shakes are made from hazelnuts.
The 25 and 27 year-olds set up shop in the basement of Jaraczewski’s Miller Street house in Eugene. They tested protein shake recipes, hired fellow students and soon Sohr shakes hit the shelves of local health food stores The Kiva Grocery and Sundance Natural Foods. In 2017 the company netted $15,000 in revenue. Starting May 2, the shake will appear in all Portland and Eugene Market of Choice locations.
Matthew de Gruyter has already hit the big time.
In May 2013, de Gruyter resigned from his job in oil and gas private equity and moved from Denver, Colorado to Bend to open a vegan burger joint, Next Level Burger.
Raised on a “100% not plant-based diet” of roasts, steaks and pies, de Gruyter, 35, started questioning his food choices when his mom, at 56, died of heart failure. His wife, Cierra, armed with plant-based bibles like The China Study, converted him to veganism in two weeks.
“This is how me and my wife raise our children; this is what we eat,” de Gruyter says. “It was passion and purpose before market opportunity.” Buoyed by investments from Portland angel investor and vegan Alex Payne, the startup, which has six locations in Oregon, recently struck a deal with Whole Foods to open inside the chain’s Seattle and Brooklyn stores.
Perhaps the posterboy of the healthy vegan foods movement is pro surfer Laird Hamilton, whose company Laird Superfood, set up shop this fall in Sisters. Hamilton grew frustrated with the short-lived energy burst of regular coffee and creamer. He found dairy-free power in the ocean, from a calcified algae called aquamin. Now aquamin’s 72 minerals power the company’s vegan coffee creamer and juices, along with an annual growth rate of 400%.
Namesake Laird Hamilton imbibes a turmeric juice from Laird Superfood
ON THE MAIN STAGE of TechfestNW, held in Portland in April, Impossible Foods COO/CFO David Lee declared his plant-protein burger, backed by Bill Gates, was changing the world “on the meat-eaters’ terms.”
Lee himself is one of the carnivores, and one of many nonvegans starting up plant-based enterprises. Jaraczewski, for example, is vegetarian, and Ek is a carnivore. Hamilton and his business partner, Paul Hodge, follow a diet you might call vegan-when-it-works-for-us.
“We lean that way, but we’re not exclusively vegan,” Hodge says of the regime. “If we’re travelling and we need to fuel up, we’re not going to be stressed out about that.”
Low-key vegans themselves, the new entrepreneurs reflect the consumer segment vegan brands are targeting: the weekend warrior vegan, the half-vegan, the lunchtime vegan. “Whether they’re herbivores, omnivores or carnivores, they still care about the planet,” says de Gruyter of this growing population. “They have a meatless Monday or are vegan before 5.”
Broadening the definition of vegan has led to carnivore-appealing inventions like the Beyond Meat burger offered at Next Level Burger, which bleeds beet juice. One happy crossover eater is de Gruyter’s father-in-law, a meat eater who “can literally sit down at a Next Level table across from a vegan yogi” and nosh away, de Gruyter says.
The joint looks enough like McDonald’s that staff have to remind walk-ins that they won’t find meat.
Lovig anticipates an emerging market for blended foods—for example, half-beef, half-mushroom burgers. These hybrid products, once anathema to the vegan purist crowd, are another sign of the diversifying market.
Goodnuss founder Lizz Hampton pitches her nut milk startup at PitchfestNW.
Like Lovig, Lizz Hampton eschews fillers and preservatives; the Portland entrepreneur recently won PitchfestNW with Goodnuss, a company that sells prepackaged “nut sacks,” containing nut pulp and directions for “milking your nuts” (making your own nut milk) at home.
But if some champion familiar ingredients, other entrepreneurs are happily serving up processed concoctions that bear little resemblance to existing foods. “The level of innovation skews toward vegan products.” Jaraczewski says. “You’re making something nobody has seen before.”
In his old job, de Gruyter one day dropped in on a Texas convenience store and discovered, lo and behold, shelves loaded with organic vegan food.
That’s when it hit him. Plant-based foods were taking off in every demographic. Entrepreneurs just needed to level the playing field, so people at all income levels could afford to eat them.
He’ll never be able to match the price of a Burger King Whopper, de Gruyter says; the company’s resemblance to a fast food chain ends at its $12 price tag for a burger and fries. But he does hope to make his burger chain as ubiquitous as any fast food chain.
“People across all socioeconomic planes need good and great food,” he says.
Others echo the call.
“One of our key goals is to be inclusive,” says Hodge. “Your average middle class American can’t really afford to drink a six-dollar juice to get their micronutrients.” Laird’s juices clock in at 45 cents a serving. The company, Hodge says with entrepreneurial zeal, “is the Robin Hood of superfoods.”
The Sohr founders are developing a pared-down, cheaper product to market outside specialty stores. Jaraczewski says, “Our goal is to make it accessible for everyone.”
Long opposed to working with big-box chains like Walmart, Lovig now sees them as essential battlefields in the food justice fight. And in the coming months, Heidi Ho Cheeze will grace Bon Appetit cafeterias on major tech companies and college campuses.
“We’re starting to take space from categories that historically have been extremely damaging to people’s health and the planet,” Lovig says. “We’re taking them over. Hell yes, we are.”
This article is part of a feature package on the new vegan economy published in the May 2018 issue of Oregon Business. For more vegan coverage click here.