Kimberlie Le knew that producing meat alternatives that taste, look and feel similar to the real thing while having a price point like the animal-based products they would replace would be a challenge.
And while her company Prime Roots — formerly known as Terramino Foods — was started with the ambition to give consumers a range of sustainable alternatives to animal protein made out of the superprotein koji, she first set out to create a salmon burger.
"Seafood is much harder than meat, I would say, to replicate," Le told Food Dive. "And so we started with something that's harder to really prove that we could do it."
About two years after Le — the company's co-founder and CEO — and co-founder Joshua Nixon — who serves as the chief technology officer — spent four months on their salmon burger prototype through the IndieBio startup accelerator, they have developed a full menu of diverse meat alternative products. In addition to the salmon burger, they've created meat-free shrimp, crab cakes, ground beef, tuna and lobster chunks, chicken tenders, bacon and sausages, as well as savory dip, protein bars and crackers.
Now, the company is getting ready to bring these products to the masses. Prime Roots recently moved into a 12,000-square-foot facility in Berkeley, California. They're currently running an online poll to ask consumers which items they would like to see available first. The products that do the best in this poll should become available for consumers to purchase from the company online by the end of the first quarter of 2020, Le said.
Prime Roots currently has about 10,000 members in its online community who are clamoring for a tasty, healthy meat alternative. They're also interested in a company that listens to them and offers ultimate transparency. Through the company's use of koji — a fermented fungus well known for creating an umami taste in Asian food — Le said they are able to do that.
"The fact that our protein is a whole food source of protein is probably the biggest selling point that people really gravitate toward," she said. "It's not pea isolate or soy isolate. There is no gluten in the products. It really covers all the bases in terms of things that people want."
Umami mania: Koji protein in a starring role
Koji, Prime Roots' starring "superprotein," as the company calls it on its website, has been used in Asian cuisine for thousands of years. It's used to create umami flavor, and is vital to fermenting soy sauce, sake and miso.
Le, whose family is Asian, has been familiar with koji since she was little. As a student working on meat alternatives at UC Berkeley, she wanted to try using it for that function.
Koji has several attributes that make it an enticing option. As a protein base, koji works well for meat substitutes, Le said. It's a complete protein, meaning not much needs to be added to it for nutritive purposes. It can easily be fermented in Prime Roots' facility. And when compared to other meat substitutes, koji-based foods are relatively less processed and more clean label. Not many other procedures are needed to make the protein, a process Le said is done at the same place the rest of the food is made.
Koji itself also has a good taste for emulating meat, she said. While pea and soy protein compounds tend to have strong tastes and smells reminiscent of the crop they come from, koji has a more benign umami taste.
"We have the blank palette to begin with, and it's just a matter of finding the best natural flavors to layer on top," Le said. "We aren't really faced with the challenges of how do we map all of these off-notes and off-flavors."
"The fact that our protein is a whole food source of protein is probably the biggest selling point that people really gravitate toward. It's not pea isolate or soy isolate. There is no gluten in the products. It really covers all the bases in terms of things that people want."
Co-founder and CEO, Prime Roots
In addition, Koji can achieve many different textures, which is key for a product line with a diverse range of offerings including bacon, seafood and chicken. Le said koji fibers are about the same size as animal muscle fibers, so it's treated the same as meat. Prime Roots has meat grinders and bacon slicers much like a traditional meat processing plant, she said.
"The bacon is made into a block, and it's literally sliced just like you would slice bacon," Le said. "We're taking a lot from just generally the food industry and the meat industry."
Emphasis on community
About half of the people who have joined Prime Roots' online community say they are flexitarians. Le finds this interesting because they can also identify themselves as omnivores when they join. The two eating styles are extremely similar; flexitarians say they consciously look for animal-free food.
"We think that that's one of the largest reasons why the [meat alternative] industry is still met with a lot of criticism: because the product experience isn't prioritized," she said. "There's not a sense of community built around the product, besides being just vegan or not vegan. ... So we want to be there to help ... people make more sustainable food choices without compromising on the foods that they know and love."
The community aspect is especially important to Prime Roots because it's the primary way consumers have had the opportunity to try their products. Le said Prime Roots has hosted several events featuring its products. To date, she estimated the company has fed 20,000 people — and taken their feedback to heart.
"We think that that's one of the largest reasons why the [meat alternative] industry is still met with a lot of criticism: because the product experience isn't prioritized. There's not a sense of community built around the product, besides being just vegan or not vegan."
Co-founder and CEO, Prime Roots
This goes back to why the first products to reach the market will be decided by a poll. Le said she wants Prime Roots to feel like a real part of the non-meat community — not just another faceless brand on the shelf. She said all of the products are equally ready to launch. The strategy comes from the company's founding ideal to do a better job of providing consumers with meat substitutes.
"We started the company really looking at the problem and trying to find better solutions using culinology, ... a combination of food science, but [also] technology and culinary," Le said. "It's hard to develop in a microcosm, and so we found the need to talk to consumers to see what they wanted. ... Building the community was really part of the genesis of finding what was the right thing to start with, what was the best product attributes to have, what products to make."
And keeping with the community spirit, Prime Roots will start selling its products online and direct-to-consumer. Le said she isn't overly concerned right now about the inherent challenges of launching a new brand — especially one with perishable merchandise — online. Invoking the theory of six degrees of separation, she said the company's community of 10,000 fans stretches much further.
Prime Roots' long-term plans are for the company's products to be found in grocery stores nationwide, but Le said that isn't their focus just yet.
"We're really focused on scaling right now," she said. "We have a lot of orders for the capacity that we can meet in the next few months, so we're just trying to kind of get everything up to speed and then kind of evaluate all the different channels we can go through. We have buyers knocking on our door, we have lots of options, but I think we're really hyper-focused on making sure that we're getting products directly to consumers."