Sri Artham says he would like to become a vegan, but he likes eating meat too much.
But he says he's doing his part to step back his role in promoting animal agriculture, both as a consumer and entrepreneur. He's been eating less meat, egg and dairy products. And he founded Hooray Foods, a plant-based startup focused on making plant-based bacon that looks to rival the real thing in look, taste and texture.
"I definitely feel like an outlier," he said. "...But, you know, I think I'm very much like the customers we're trying to target. I wish I could be vegan. I just need help with getting more plant-based alternatives so I can quit."
Artham, who had previously been the vice president of CPG for FairTrade USA, started the company in late 2018. He was moved by two things. One was the devastating Camp Fire in Northern California, which killed at least 85 people, destroyed two towns and burned 153,336 acres. The other was the meat substitutes he was able to get from Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, which were close enough to their animal-based counterparts that he quit eating ground beef from cows.
He said he wanted to do something about the natural disasters. He learned about the impact animal agriculture has on the environment. And then looked at the business landscape. Ground beef was being worked on, several companies were handling chicken alternatives. But there were not too many companies in the pork alternative business — specifically in the business of making a substitute for bacon.
"Naively, I was like, 'I want to see how many pigs I can displace in the food system,'" Artham said. "And it's kind of mind blowing, but there's [more than] 70 million pigs in the U.S. today on farms. ...There's just so many pigs in our food system that you raise just for food that contribute to climate change."
Changing the food system is a large task, but Artham is working toward it. Hooray Foods launched its bacon in some San Francisco restaurants last year. This month, Hooray Foods' bacon will come to shelves at about 300 Whole Foods stores nationwide. Artham says he's in talks with other retailers for even more expansions in the future.
Hooray for bacon
Most plant-based meat products come out of test kitchens where they have been designed and formulated by food scientists with a deep understanding of ingredients, nutrition and taste.
Artham, who has no food science experience, engineered the prototype of Hooray Foods' bacon in his kitchen at home. He took a class from The Good Food Institute, and then got to work, experimenting with different ingredients to make the best bacon substitute possible. He said his lack of experience and prior knowledge might actually be secrets to his success, since he didn't start out with any preconceived notions of how to make the product, nor did he have nutritional points he felt the product had to hit.
"I'm still a meat eater," he said. "I'm on the path towards stopping eating meat. But what I love about it is how fatty and savory and sumptuous it is. So I really wanted to focus on the experience of eating meat, more so than the nutritional."
Hooray's bacon is not particularly healthy, much like its animal-based counterpart. One strip has 5% of the recommended daily intake of fat, per the FDA. Artham said that about a fifth of each strip by weight is fat, similar to conventional bacon. There's not a lot of protein in Hooray Foods' bacon either. It's made from coconut oil, rice flour, tapioca starch, liquid smoke and other seasonings to give it bacon's savory, salty and umami taste.
"I'm still a meat eater. I'm on the path towards stopping eating meat. But what I love about it is how fatty and savory and sumptuous it is. So I really wanted to focus on the experience of eating meat, moreso than the nutritional."
Founder, Hooray Foods
But, Artham said, it can get crispy like animal-based bacon. It can also be fried up in a pan with no added oil needed, just like animal-based bacon. And, with allergy-friendly ingredients — no soy, gluten or nut components — anyone can eat the bacon, which Artham said was one of his goals.
Artham said he's pretty confident that Hooray's bacon is the closest alternative to animal-based in terms of look, taste, texture and smell. But he said the company is not competing against the alternatives.
"We compare against pork bacon or animal bacon, because that's really what we're trying to go after," Artham said. "...In our R&D kitchen, you'll never see another plant-based bacon, at least not any of the current ones on the market, but you will often see us with real bacon, comparing how it cooks up, how it tastes, etc."
Artham initially wanted to copy Impossible Foods' strategy to market success. The initial plan was to start out in foodservice, become well known there, and then move to retail.
He got off to a good start, getting the bacon on menus at two San Francisco restaurants last year. The company planned for a push into additional restaurants early this year. Artham said the first big production run for new restaurant businesses finished on March 9. The next week, everything shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic.
"We as a team decided we had to focus on grocery," Artham said. "It was the only way we could survive and we could continue to thrive."
But that kind of pivot, which the company had not planned for, was difficult to execute quickly. There was the challenge of breaking into retail stores — a difficult thing to do in regular times — and figuring out manufacturing and transportation.
There were also more unique issues. Because more consumers are eating breakfast while working from home because of the pandemic, they are buying more bacon. Which, in turn, created a shortage of the board in the back of bacon packages, Artham said. There are not many suppliers of this board, so Artham said the company focused on finding someone who could make it for them, which they finally did.
After Hooray's bacon, which will cost about 20% to 30% more than premium meat bacon, hits the Whole Foods stores, Artham said they may expand to other stores. And down the road, after they're firmly established in bacon, Hooray may have more coming.
"One of the things we wanted to see is if the technology we use to make our bacon, if it can be used for other meats," he said. "We have prototypes in other meat. It's probably as good as — or better than — our bacon, we think."