There's an old saying: Never trust a skinny chef. But with Dave Zilko's newest venture, he hopes consumers everywhere will be trusting — and tasting — Skinny Butcher.
The former vice chairman of Garden Fresh Gourmet has spent several years preparing his next act: a plant-based meat company that is launching this spring simultaneously at retail and in foodservice. In months, he hopes, Skinny Butcher is going to quickly go from a brand nobody has heard of to a preferred plant-based meat selection.
"We have specifically designed Skinny Butcher to have a longer-lasting message three, five, seven years from now, when this is really going to be accepted in the American vernacular and in the American culture," Zilko, Skinny Butcher's CEO, said in a mid-March interview. "We personally think that Skinny Butcher is just going to have longer legs [than other plant-based meat brands]. ...We want to win on branding, we want to win on flavor profile. I'm thrilled by the response. We're literally going to market right now."
It sounds like a crazy plan, but Zilko is well prepared. He's known for his work building Garden Fresh Gourmet into a $100 million fresh dips brand with business partner Jack Aronson, and then selling it to Campbell Soup for $231 million in 2015. Zilko built the Skinny Butcher brand with Aronson until his death last August. He called on both his savvy and connections in an effort to make Skinny Butcher, which is hitting the market with its plant-based Crazy Crispy Chick'n nuggets and patties, a stealth behemoth.
"We personally think that Skinny Butcher is just going to have longer legs [than other plant-based meat brands]. ...We want to win on branding, we want to win flavor profile. I'm thrilled by the response. We're literally going to market right now."
CEO, Skinny Butcher
Manufacturer Golden West Food Group is an equity partner in the company. Venture capital firm Valor Equity Partners' food and retail tech arm, Valor Siren Ventures, invested $10 million in Skinny Butcher. Zilko plans to use these funds as the brand's starting marketing budget.
Valor also introduced Zilko to Geoff Alexander, CEO of ghost kitchen chain Wow Bao, which has 650 takeout-only locations nationwide and was originated by restaurant group Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises. Wow Bao worked with the restaurant group to devise a menu for Skinny Butcher, Alexander said, and then partnered with ghost kitchen provider Reef to launch Skinny Butcher's Crazy Crispy Chick'n as a virtual restaurant.
On top of all of this, Zilko has many deep connections with retailers and distributors, all of which pave the way for him to get meetings with the right people who can help him get his brand on store shelves.
"We're trying to go national right off the bat," Zilko said. "We think we've got an instantly iconic brand. We think we're winning on flavor profile. We've got a national sales and distribution force in place, thanks to our partnership with Golden West. And then we're strategically differentiating with our Crazy Crispy format. In addition to that, we've got a fully funded multimillion-dollar trade social digital marketing campaign."
Breaking into a crowded category in a big way
After selling Garden Fresh Gourmet to Campbell Soup, Zilko kept a toe in food and beverage. Since 2015, he wrote a book about how he built the Garden Fresh business, and has worked with both private equity firm Huron Capital and Fuel Leadership LLC, a leadership skills training entity.
But Zilko said he and Aronson were both looking to get back into the business. They were both interested in using food to promote sustainability, and they also wanted to use products to push a more humane approach to animals. And plant-based has been gaining quite a bit of steam.
"[We were attracted to] the enterprise value creation potential here because of how big this category has the potential to be," Zilko said. "About 15% of milk right now is plant based in this country. Experts believe that between now and maybe 10, 15, 20 years, about 25% of U.S. meat consumption will switch to plant based, so it's a big opportunity in a big space."
Although plant-based meat as a category seems to have lost quite a bit of its momentum and sales during the past six months, Zilko said he is not worried about getting into this area right now. For sustainability reasons, he said, consumers truly need to change their food choices to be more plant-based. But deeper than that, there are plant-based meat brands that aren't really that good, Zilko said. A consumer trying one of those products — which he said may have been rushed to the market in order to capitalize on the trend — may be turned off on the entire segment. Skinny Butcher has been working hard to create products that have a top-quality flavor profile, one that Zilko thinks can easily win the category.
Zilko said he's been here before. Garden Fresh Gourmet was essentially born out of a thrown-together salsa recipe from a couple of guys in Detroit — not exactly something that sounds like a market winner based on outward appearances. And as Garden Fresh Gourmet expanded into other products, including hummus, people didn't think the brand would be successful. History shows otherwise.
"I'm not afraid to jump into a crowded arena with the best product, and we think we've done that — winning on branding, winning on flavor profile," Zilko said. "And I do think the wind, long-term, is at our backs in this category. You've just got to get in the arena. You've got to compete."
Skinny Butcher will eventually have a suite of chicken, turkey and seafood analogs on the market. At the heart of the company's products is a premium pea protein from Italy, Zilko said — something he doesn't think any other U.S. plant-based brand uses. All of the products are also soy-free.
"I'm not afraid to jump into a crowded arena with the best product, and we think we've done that — winning on branding, winning on flavor profile. And I do think the wind, long-term, is at our backs in this category."
CEO, Skinny Butcher
The line is starting out with its plant-based chicken, and Zilko said the brand needed something that would set it apart from other nuggets out there — both animal-based chicken nuggets and others in the plant-based arena. He worked with Golden West to create a breading and seasoning the brand calls Crazy Crispy. This seasoning blend, he said, is closer to some of the premium breadings on QSR chicken offerings.
Zilko said that the products that are launching now are well differentiated from others on shelves and menus. A warehouse chain buyer, he said, remarked that there wasn't even a product like Skinny Butcher's Crazy Crispy breading available on actual chicken. The brand has won several internal taste tests at retailers, Zilko said, and he's confident that consumers will also see the difference.
In terms of the foodservice launch, Zilko said that there's a slate of different kinds of menu items that Skinny Butcher is making available — but it doesn't need a wide array of products. They include plant-based chicken sandwiches — which can be spicy or prepared in different ways — and nuggets and tenders that also have a variety of preparations.
Trusted branding and leaning into sustainability
Zilko, who specializes in marketing, said that he wanted his new plant-based items to have fun and retro branding, as well as something consumers will believe. That's why he chose a butcher: A mainstay of food shopping, it is among the most trusted figures to consumers, he said.
The winking pop-art style butcher on Skinny Butcher's branding, Zilko said, quickly communicates that this plant-based food is so good, even the butcher likes it. And the butcher can easily be modified for different products — wearing a captain's hat for the company's seafood line, with a red, sweaty and sizzling face for spicy products, and donning a pilgrim-style hat for turkey-style products.
"We're speaking of flavor profile in a fun way that's designed to put a smile on their face, all part of the brand personality," Zilko said.
The plant-based branding for Skinny Butcher is not "hitting people over the head with a two-by-four," like Zilko said some other plant-based meat brands do nowadays. More fun branding — that still indicates the products are plant-based — will help Skinny Butcher gain more acceptance among consumers, especially those who are flexitarians and interested in helping the environment through their diets.
While Skinny Butcher's plant-based message is more subtle, the back of the package talks about the sustainability aspects of the products. Zilko sees Skinny Butcher's primary competitors as other plant-based meat companies, but the sustainability factor makes the choice of meat alternatives over traditional animal products more of a no-brainer. Skinny Butcher's products are at a price point similar to others in the plant-based sector — a bit more expensive than meat, but still affordable — and Zilko feels that the whole message on-pack and the taste premium will make the products more desirable to all consumers.
"If you take a Crazy Crispy Chick'n nugget and you compare it against a real chicken nugget — an animal protein nugget — there is the same amount of fat, same amount of calories, same amount of cholesterol, same protein, same sodium," Zilko said. "In terms of the product attributes, they're virtually similar, but in terms of the flavor profile, which really matters, you really have to be concentrating to tell which is which. There is no trade off in flavor, and we're really proud of that."