Hema Reddy thought that she’d created Crafty Counter to solve a pervasive dietary problem: the lack of vegetables in children’s diets.
Wundernuggets, Crafty Counter’s first launch in 2018, were made with 50% chicken, 50% chickpeas and vegetables. Reddy said she thought this was filling a gap in the market.
And then she learned firsthand about the poultry industry and how it suffered during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Workers from throughout the industry were sent home, which resulted in birds being culled, not being adequately cared for, and living in much worse conditions. It changed her outlook.
“I just could not be in this space anymore,” she said.
Reddy and her family switched to a completely plant-based diet. She found some areas in the plant-based space that needed some innovation. Eggs were big one, she said. Existing companies can replicate cooked beaten eggs, but there are so many other ways to use and enjoy the chicken-produced staple.
Reddy and Crafty Counter came up with another option. WunderEgg is a plant-based version of hard boiled eggs. They’re primarily made from nuts and legumes, and they look and taste similar to their chicken-produced counterparts. They’re currently on shelves at several Whole Foods Markets nationwide.
After spending years creating WunderEgg, both through self-experimentation and working with several food scientists, Reddy said that she offered samples to grocery buyers, food connoisseurs and critics. Their reactions were incredulous, not believing that the egg halves with smooth whites and somewhat powdery yolks were actually plant-based.
“That's the whole purpose of WunderEgg,” she said. “It’s just to create something fun for the population that wants to go plant-based that’s looking for excitement, variety, choice. And to just wow them.”
Challenges from countertop to CPG
Reddy, who is educated as a computer engineer and spent 15 years working at IBM, has no problem building things.
Food has always been a passion of hers, and so when she decided to make blended chicken nuggets, she made prototypes on her kitchen counter — hence the company’s name, Crafty Counter.
WunderEgg also started on her kitchen counter, to some extent. She said she’s always been interested in cooking and culinary techniques, taking and giving cooking lessons for years. She also comes from an Indian family, so she said she grew up eating all kinds of legumes, nuts and lentils used for different purposes in native cuisine.
When it came to creating eggs, she found herself doing a lot of trials, finding the right kinds of lentils, plant starches, nuts and coconut oil to mimic the experience and texture of both the yolk and the white of a hard boiled egg.
“That took a lot of experimentation and a lot of egg making on the kitchen counter,” she said.
After she had some kitchen counter ideas, Reddy went to food scientists to help come up with more exact formulations, as well as figuring out ways to make a feasible product.
Reddy said that she is happy with the current product and formulation, but it is relatively expensive. The WunderEgg yolk uses a lot of cashews, which drives up the total cost of the product. Inflation and supply chain issues are making the ingredients more expensive on the supply chain end, she said. But she also understands trying to make a food budget stretch. She’s also a working mom with a family to feed.
She hopes to eventually reformulate to get the tree nuts out of the product and bring the total cost down, but she needs more of an R&D budget in order to do that kind of work. The product quality needs to be the same, which makes it more of a challenge.
Devising a way to manufacture the product was also a tricky task. WunderEggs has a custom developed manufacturing line that really can only be used for this product, Reddy said. The process is extremely sensitive, and a batch could be ruined if all of the parameters aren’t correctly set. The crew making WunderEggs is extremely highly trained, she said, and they have internal targets that need to be met.
“We have a minimum volume for every single time we make them,” she said. “We have a certain amount we have to make to make the numbers work.”
Right now, they are making 20,000 trays of six WunderEggs per week, Reddy said, though they currently produce in smaller batches in order to ship the freshest batches to stores and other sales channels.
‘Shut the front door’
WunderEggs are targeted to flexitarian consumers, who eat both vegetarian and animal-based items. These are the consumers who are looking for egg substitutes to eat sometimes, as well as the consumers who may live with a vegan and want to buy one set of groceries.
Consumers who are consciously flexitarian also are likely to pay attention to the nutritional content of what they eat, and may be looking for the eggs they love but with less cholesterol.
“They're probably still getting those pasture-raised eggs, but they still want to mix it up a little bit with plant based options,” Reddy said. “We’re giving them options to reduce their animal protein on a weekly basis.”
Reaction to WunderEggs has been “mind-blowing,” Reddy said. So far, a lot of the company’s business has been driven by word-of-mouth and social media. In-person taste tests have gone well, but out in the wilds of social media, it’s been unexpectedly better, she said.
In WunderEgg’s early days on Instagram, there were no negative comments on the brand’s posts, Reddy said.
“There were comments like, ‘Shut the front door.’ ‘I'm gonna go get it.’ ‘This is wild.’ ‘This is crazy.’ ‘What?’ ‘I didn't think this day would come,’ “ Reddy said.
Crafty Counter has other products planned for the future, Reddy said. The company is zeroing in on where there are white spaces that she said are hungry for innovation. Some of them are egg-related — an egg white patty — and some are not, like a veggie patty. Reddy said the company is working on other innovations that aren’t quite ready yet, but she expects they might be launched in 2024.
One thing that Reddy is paying very close attention to is the cost of WunderEggs. Retail prices are $7.99 to $8.29 for a package of six egg halves, depending on geographic location. Reddy said she knows this is a high cost, and that’s due to ingredient prices and manufacturing processes.
Some of the early fans of WunderEggs say the new and innovative product is worth it. As the company becomes more successful and can expand to a larger scale, costs could be cheaper, according to Reddy.
WIth inflation raging, everything is more expensive and prices are volatile, Reddy said. Shipping costs, she said, have more than doubled. Making products more affordable so they are more widely accessible to consumers is a priority, Reddy said.
However, if there was a good time for a slightly more expensive plant-based egg product to launch, it’s now, she said.
“Ironically, right now the climate for the egg industry is kind of tricky. So I could go for a high price and get away with it,” Reddy said with a laugh.
“But no, that's not the game I'm playing,” she continued. “The idea is to save those chicks from getting culled, reduce the impact, the footprint of poultry.