NEW YORK — When Kelly and Brian Swette started working on what is known as the Awesome Burger three years ago, the vegetarians turned to a protein they had long since abandoned: meat.
In an hour-long interview with Food Dive ahead of the Awesome Burger's formal launch announcement on Wednesday, the couple said they would routinely test their prototype burger with a traditional meat version right next to it in an attempt to mirror its taste, texture and juiciness. They sampled several hundred prototypes before they found the right one.
"It was essential on these products that we really test for what consumers consider the gold standard," Kelly, who is Sweet Earth's CEO, said. "If you're developing products, you've got to try them."
Her husband Brian laughed.
"We were kind of worried. Is someone going to see us? No one could see us eat the burger, right?" he said.
"It was essential on these products that we really test for what consumers consider the gold standard. If you're developing products you've got to try (real meat burgers)."
CEO, Sweet Earth
Nestlé is rolling out the Awesome Burger and Awesome Grounds — the equivalent of ground beef — to retailers including Hy-Vee, Stop & Shop, some Safeway stores and Fred Meyer. Distribution will be expanded nationwide in the coming weeks.
It's the latest entrant into the crowded plant-based meat space that has seen CPG giants such as Hormel Foods, Tyson Foods, Conagra Brands and Kellogg announce new products or improve existing ones to make them more meat-like in order to remain competitive with hot upstarts Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods.
'A strong point of view'
The Swettes started working on what is now the Awesome Burger just months before the maker of plant-based burritos, pizzas and veggie burgers was purchased by Nestlé in September 2017 for an undisclosed amount. Nestlé, they said, has been instrumental in quickening the development of the burger by helping find natural fruit and vegetable juices to give it its meat-like color, while at the same time helping in the manufacturing and procurement of ingredients.
But in developing the burger, the Swettes were adamant that they wanted to work with pea protein as a way to diversify the types of the essential nutrient that were being used in their products. Yellow peas, in particular, also were more sustainable, could be sourced locally rather than having to be imported, and are high in protein and fiber — a mainstay of Sweet Earth products.
In addition to taste, the Swettes said the Awesome Burger will separate itself from others on the market through a better nutritional profile, which includes 26 grams of protein and 6 grams of fiber. Beyond Meat has 20 grams of protein and 2 grams of fiber, while the Impossible Burger contains 19 grams of protein and 3 grams of fiber.
"There were some things that (Nestlé) did that we liked, and there were certain things that we had a strong point of view on: How it should taste and the ingredient profile," Brian said.
The Swettes, who worked at large corporations including PepsiCo, eBay and Burger King before starting Sweet Earth, had positive things to say about Nestlé. Brian estimated he was previously involved in 30 to 40 deals in his career at big companies, giving him insight into what to look for when a large firm wants to purchase a smaller one. Other food companies expressed an interest in buying Sweet Earth, he said, but the commitment of Nestlé's CEO Mark Schneider to sustainability and plant-based products were instrumental in their deal with the Swiss food giant.
This is Nestlé's second launch of a plant-based burger this year. It has sold the Incredible Burger in Europe under the Garden Gourmet label for much of 2019. The company announced in August that it would revamp the product following stiff competition for meat substitutes. Nestlé is reformulating the soy-based recipe to be juicier and have a greater meat-like texture and grilled beef flavor, Bloomberg reported.
"It's a lot easier to take a one size fits all," Kelly said. "But that's not (Nestlé's) approach. They understand that it needs to be tailored to the U.S. market (rather) than other markets."
Chicken, deli meat next on the menu
The couple said that iterations of plant-based meats a few years back improved upon earlier versions by including vegetables like black beans or edamame and whole grains such as quinoa. Fast forward to today, and they are going a step further by creating a product similar to what people expect to see in meat that comes from an animal — a necessary step in convincing carnivores to switch at least some of their meat consumption to plant-based options.
"What the Awesome Burger and other meat-like burgers bring is something that is familiar: taste, texture," Kelly said. "It broadens the marketplace" of consumers who will purchase the product.
A major reason for that advancement, she said, is new ingredients being sourced globally. There's also an increase in the number of suppliers offering them. In addition, there are improvements in popular ingredients like peas, which have enabled researchers to uncover more textures and flavors.
Kelly said earlier pea proteins were bitter, requiring manufacturers to find ways to offset them when creating a product. Recent options are more mild, easier to work with and have a better texture.
Sweet Earth also makes a line of veggie burgers including a Santa Fe variety made with black beans, chili peppers and flaxseed, and a Teriyaki version with sweet potato, carrots and quinoa. The company plans to keep its veggie burgers on the market, noting the product might be attractive to a different audience than the Awesome Burger. Baby boomers who have eaten this kind of burger for decades might continue preferring those whole grains and other ingredients they are familiar with, while millennials and Gen Zers could gravitate toward a more meat-like product, the Swettes said.
Sweet Earth also will debut Mindful Chik'n strips made from ingredients including soy protein concentrate and canola oil in October.
While the plant-based food company was creating the Awesome Burger, it also was working on a deli line called Vegan Butcher. Sweet Earth hasn't officially announced when the offerings — which include turkey, ham, pepperoni, roast beef and salami — will hit the market. The meat alternatives will be sold to retailers in large chunks in the deli case, much like conventional meat is today, the Swettes said. Consumers can then get them sliced for use in sandwiches or other prepared foods.
Kelly said consumers now have a variety of good plant-based options to chose from — a far cry from when the duo started their business in 2012 and "everything on the market looked like hospital food if it was vegetarian."
"We're trying to take on meat, but in the end, the fact that they're all good is a super positive thing for getting more people into plant-based," she said.