In a market of “me too” products, differentiation is more crucial than ever for plant-based meat brands. An up-and-comer trying to stand out is US startup High Time Foods, which currently supplies restaurant chefs with a shelf-stable meat alternative that can be adapted to many different types of cuisines.
High Time Foods’ current roster of restaurant clients underscores that versatility: a burger joint, an Egyptian fine dining restaurant and a taqueria, to name a few.
But it’s not just to get into fine dining spots that High Time Foods’ founders Aakash Shah and Damian Felchlin developed their plant-based meat product.
“From the start, we wanted to be solving a global protein need,” Shah tells AFN. That means catering to restaurants that may not have reliable refrigeration or those working with water shortages, for example.
Keep reading for more on how Shah’s [AS] entrepreneurial path got him from India to Boston and how his company is trying to build truly global appeal into their plant-based meat product.
AFN: What led you to plant-based meat?
AS: Throughout my career, I’ve been in the food space. I grew up in the southern part of India in a city called Chennai. Post that, I did my engineering [degree] out there and thought I would get into production and manufacturing.
But I realized that food was something I was always drawn to, so I started working with an early-stage food tech company in India. That company went on to become a unicorn. I was able to work a lot with the founders and interact a lot with with other stakeholders in the food and foodtech space. Especially on the restaurant side of things. That’s when I started understanding that there was this trend called cloud kitchens all over the world.
I did my first startup in 2017, in the cloud kitchen space. We had multiple kitchens that I used to run, multiple brands. I was able to scale that up. Then in 2019, I sold that company.
Throughout this experience, I worked very, very closely with meat and a lot of different types of food sold at our restaurants. I started reading about the impact of meat on water and on the amount of energy that it takes [to produce]. That is when I started feeling strongly about it.
Chennai is a city that is always very, very hot, and there is a huge water crisis in the city all the time. It’s sad when you see people really struggling for a basic amount of drinking water. When I saw firsthand the amount of water we used, and the amount of water meat requires, it became a very strong feeling for me.
That was around the same time I came to the US to do my MBA, at Babson College in Boston.
It’s very well known for entrepreneurship, and a lot of food companies have come out of there. I was able to speak with a lot of stakeholders in the alternative protein space. I then started working with the Good Food Institute. I was able to interview a lot of restaurants and a lot of chefs. And primarily the intention was to understand [if they] would they accept plant based meat.
AFN: Is being shelf stable your product’s biggest differentiator?
AS: Absolutely. It’s going back to my time with the Good Food Institute. While I was interviewing restaurants, we realized two things. One is that chefs don’t want to buy products they can only use for one menu item. They want to buy ingredients that can be used across menu items just like [they do with] conventional chicken or like any other meat.
Second was that frozen space is premium for chefs. On top of that, for a country like India, if the frozen [food storage] infrastructure exists, it is not at all perfect. Meat isn’t stored in the exact way that it’s supposed to be, there is no refrigerated truck that is delivering it. And we don’t have a refrigerated room that is receiving the product.
We were also reading more about how many people in the world actually have access to refrigeration and found out that it’s not a very huge number.
We realized if we want to be a company that is going to be a leader in delivering protein, having a product that is refrigerated might not be able to solve that purpose. So that’s how the entire concept of developing a shelf stable product came up.
AFN: Has this global level of thinking always been a part of your plans for alt protein?
AS: Absolutely. From the start, we wanted to be solving a global protein need. As we all know, meat production is not going to be able to survive the global demand for protein. How can we be someone who fixes that gap? If a product is shelf stable, it can actually be used on a global scale.
I think the shelf stable aspect of the product is another differentiator. And we’ve started having good amount of demand from from places like food banks. There are also importers from countries like Nigeria and Mexico and India, and that’s exciting for us.
AFN: Are you mainly in restaurants right now?
AS: Yes. We wanted to show that this works with different restaurants. So right now we have a Mexican restaurant chain that uses our product. In Boston we work with an Egyptian fine-dining restaurant. We’re working with a dive bar. And we’re working with a burger chain.
What we’re really trying to do is show that how this can be used for different cuisines and settings.
AFN: What excites you most about plant-based meat right now?
I love the fact that it’s not just about burgers and nuggets anymore. It’s not just something that a few vegans are consuming. And it’s everywhere. I I’ve seen people’s plates where they’re actually consuming meat and plant-based meat on the same plate.
AFN: As an entrepreneur have you faced any challenges that stand out?
AS: There’s a million. I think obviously, the entire current state of the supply chain in the world is not helpful at all. But I think the biggest challenge for us currently at High Time Foods was figuring out the production piece. We had to learn a way of speaking with manufacturers. That wasn’t something business school teaches you, to be honest. It took us a lot of time to be able to actually understand and fix our supply chain and get good ingredient providers, good manufacturers to work with us. We had to sell them the concept that this is mainstream and this is this has huge potential and this is not just a small business.
AFN: Any advice for other startups and entrepreneurs?
AS: Hire people better than you.
I’m not the best salesperson that’s out there. I’m not the best food scientist. I’m not the best product person. I do believe I am the best person to be able to sell this company to other people.
So just hire people who are better than you, and do it earlier than when you thought you should. I have amazing people on our team right now. I really wish I had them much, much earlier on. We would have reached where we are today faster. So I cannot stress that fact more.