This week, plant-based lamb from alternative protein start-up Black Sheep Foods made its debut in restaurants across San Francisco. The launch is a big milestone for the team at Black Sheep, who want to bring more variety to plant-based meat eaters.
“Our number one product is lamb because it’s both foreign and familiar in America,” company co-founder Sunny Kumar told The Spoon this week on Zoom. “Everyone knows about lamb, but no one really eats it at a high rate.”
Kumar points out a few reasons for the relatively low consumption of lamb in the United States. For one thing, the popularity of lamb and mutton plummeted when World War II GIs returned home, having lost their taste for the canned meat they had had to eat overseas. Then there was the influence of Lamb Chop, the adorable host of a 1990s PBS program for preschoolers. (“As these kids grew up, they were like, ‘I don’t want to eat lamb, that was one of my favorite characters on TV,'” Kumar says.) And of course, he there’s the general guilt factor of eating a baby animal.
Black Sheep wants to decouple the taste of lamb from some of the negative cultural connotations in the US market, both removing the actual lamb from the image and creating a great tasting product. To do this, the team had to figure out how to replicate the flavor of meat using plant-based ingredients.
Unleash the taste of the game
Kumar says he and co-founder Ismael Montanez had an “aha” moment working together at Finless Foods. “We realized that an animal’s taste really comes from what it eats and how that food is processed by the animal itself,” he says.
The team eventually found what Kumar calls the company’s secret sauce: a class of compounds called branched-chain fatty acids, which explain the gamy flavor of lamb. After that, there were the hurdles of building a reliable supply chain and getting the ingredient approved by the FDA.
“You can’t seek regulatory approval until you know the levels of the compounds you want to use, and the compound levels are directly dictated by the texturing,” says Kumar. “And so you have to understand what you’re putting in, and when you add a little more fat or a little more water, you have to understand how those changes affect each other.”
Although the regulatory process has been long and complicated, Kumar expects the team to enjoy some competitive isolation, which makes the investment in research and FDA approval worthwhile.
By unlocking the flavor of lamb, Black Sheep was able to create a product that stands out from other plant-based meat options. Moving forward, Kumar says flavor is one of the key things Black Sheep wants to focus on in-house development and production. The company is currently working with a manufacturing partner to produce the branched-chain fatty acids that create that gamey flavor, but, according to Kumar, they plan to take on more of the ingredient production in-house over time. time.
The lamb launch strategy
Black Sheep has tested its formula in consumer panels, and judging by the results, Kumar expects the restaurant launch to be a success. “So far the reviews have been very positive,” he says. “Some people have told us, ‘I don’t eat a lot of lamb, because I don’t like some of the notes in it.’ But the cool thing about building it from scratch is that we don’t have to add those negative notes, we just add the positive and playful elements.
With Mediterranean restaurant chains like Cava gaining popularity, Kumar sees plenty of room for more restaurant partnerships in the future. The team tentatively plans to introduce products to grocery stores by the end of 2022. But first, they are focusing on flavor and texture in their consumer products.
“We bought a small extruder and we’re going to learn something about it,” says Kumar, “but we’re going to be limited by the output of this machine. Hopefully with the next round of funding we will be able to unlock some more capacity.
When The Spoon interviewed Black Sheep in 2019, the company was planning to launch its products in Asia. Kumar says the team changed its strategy due to the relative ease of co-packing and domestic sourcing. After expanding into the United States, they are eyeing Europe and the United Kingdom, where North African cultural influences have boosted the popularity of lamb.
Ultimately, Kumar says the team’s dream is to create plant-based foods like burgers, nuggets and sausages — “but with crazy flavors.”
Ethics and environmental impacts are in the team’s mind. But beyond responding to these concerns by replacing common frozen foods with sufficiently similar alternatives, Black Sheep wants to delight consumers with unique tastes. They hope to appeal to flexitarians by offering them the opportunity to savor flavors they otherwise would not have tasted.
With plant space becoming increasingly competitive and crowded with similar products, the strategy makes sense. As Kumar says, “Why eat chicken nuggets when you could have duck nuggets with hoisin barbecue sauce?”
Photo credit: Nicola Parisi