Seven years in the meat industry meant Andre Menezes didn’t eat animals – most of the time.

Working for a poultry exporter in Singapore, Menezes remembers standing in a supermarket looking at chicken imported from Brazil and a block of ice cut from a river in Malaysia just 20 or 30 miles away. They cost the same. Menezes remembers thinking that mass production of meat was ecologically unsustainable.

“If you stretch your view across decades instead of quarters, this industry doesn’t make sense,” he said.

Menezes is now the CEO of Next Gen Foods, a plant-based food technology startup founded in Singapore in 2020 with bold American ambitions. The company announced Wednesday that it has selected Chicago, where Menezes currently resides, as its US headquarters, becoming the newest participant in the growing field of alternative protein producers.

For now, Next Gen Foods is producing one alternative meat product, plant-based chicken, which it calls Tindle, after John Tyndall, a 19th-century Irish physicist who proved the relationship between atmospheric carbon dioxide and the greenhouse effect. Alt-Chicken is on the menu of about 1,000 restaurants worldwide, 15 of which are located in the Chicago area, including the local fast-casual vegan chain Can’t Believe It’s Not Meat and definitely non-vegan Parson’s Chicken and Fish.

For Menezes, meat is now reserved for “essentially special occasions.” It no longer feels like it because of the way it is produced, but still enjoys its taste and texture. Next Gen Foods plants on percentages and dollars of people like him.

Tindle is made of nine ingredients, including soybeans, wheat, coconut and sunflower oil, and water. Menezes says the alternative chicken is nutritionally similar to real chicken, with roughly the same amount of protein, calories and fat as skinless chicken. Tindle, however, has no cholesterol.

One September day at their new research and development facility in Hatchery, a food incubator in East Garfield Park, Tindle vice president of product development Julie Ip handed two samples of Tindle: a super crispy batter and a fried non-chicken sandwich sprinkled with pickles and a slice. tomato and lettuce. Tindle is not a real chicken, but it tastes good.

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Menezes said it chose Chicago as the US headquarters for Next Gen because of its central geographic location and the city’s proximity to international food companies, suppliers and distributors. His talent pool was also a draw. Ip, for example, was raised in McKinley Park and previously worked for Griffith Foods based in Alsip. The company employs approximately 70 people, of which approximately eight are based in Chicago. Tindle production takes place in the Netherlands.

According to research firm Mintel, retail sales of plant-based meat proteins have more than doubled over the past few years from 2017 to 2021 and totaled $ 1.48 billion in 2021. But sales are expected to decline slightly in 2022, said Caleb Bryant, the company’s deputy chief food and drink reporting officer. Mintel forecasts a 2% drop in sales this year.

“I really think it was too quick a case,” said Bryant. Too many products flooded the market, he said, and they did not always live up to consumer expectations.

Taste is the most important factor when it comes to meat alternatives, and 55% of people polled by food research company Datassential say they would be motivated to try alternative meat if it tasted better than the real thing. A similar percentage found health and affordability to be important factors. Only 29% said reducing their environmental impact would lead them to choose alternatives to meat, although this has risen to almost 40% of Gen Z respondents.

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Mintel continues to anticipate positive long-term prospects for the plant-based meat industry, resulting from increased interest in eco-friendly foods and the development of better products that cost less. In the short term, however, especially when consumers face soaring supermarket prices – plant-based proteins tend to carry a premium compared to their real meat counterparts – the outlook is less optimistic.

“It’s a very difficult time for many smaller companies right now, so product differentiation is key,” said Bryant. Many companies make meatless chicken nuggets; The question for every company, said Bryant, is how to make your product stand out.

Next Gen Foods joins the shortlist of alternative protein companies in Chicago, including Aqua Cultured Foods and Nature’s Fynd, which produces meatless breakfast patties and dairy-free cream cheese. All three focus on non-meat foods other than meatless burgers, which are the most well-established protein products of plant origin, and all three argue that they are not promoting their products only or even primarily to vegans and vegetarians.

It makes business sense from a business point of view, said Mark Brandau, Group Manager at Datassential.

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“The market for purely raw vegetarians or vegans is incredibly small,” he said. “You’re not going to do a giant business with it.” According to Mintel, only one-fifth of consumers follow any reduced-meat diet.

Anne Palermo, CEO of River North’s Aqua Cultured Foods, sometimes eats animal proteins herself, and said the company is focused on luring traditional seafood eaters.

“Vegans are amazing,” said Palermo. “They are very eager to try out new and exciting alternatives. But they have not tried and tried seafood in a long time. Therefore, a one-to-one comparison is not as difficult as it is for a consumer who still eats seafood. ‘

At its River North R&D facility, Aqua Cultured Foods developed fish-free seafood using a process called microbial fermentation. The company has the ability to create a wide variety of seafood, from squid to whitefish, shrimp, ahi tuna and salmon, Palermo said. It plans to market its products in restaurants and universities in the fall or winter; his first fish with no fish on the plates will be a tuna sushi roll.

The company is also in the process of signing a lease for a pilot production facility in Back of the Yards, Palermo said.

Nature’s Fynd, based in River North, runs a 36,000-square-meter production facility. It’s a relationship that Karuna Rawal, marketing director, describes as “poetic.” The company is bringing “new protein into the old protein house,” she said.

Nature’s Fynd sells its products at approximately 250 grocery stores across the country, including Mariano’s in Chicago and Whole Foods on the coast. It plans to expand to another domestic retailer soon, which Rawal believes will be rolling out the products to nearly 600 stores in the next month. The company has approximately 200 employees, most of whom are located in the Chicago area. In 2021, he received a $ 134,000 Small Business Improvement Fund grant from the city for the Stockyards facility, Rawal said.

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Nature’s Fynd plans to add a much larger 200 square meter facility to the rear of the courtyards. The company originally planned to open the facility by Q2 this year, but supply chain and construction delays now point to opening by the end of the year, said CEO Thomas Jonas.

Bryant said legacy food brands still hold the largest market share for plant-based proteins. Kellogg’s MorningStar Farms brand, which produces plant-based chicken nuggets, tenderloins and patties, is an industry leader; the company announced in June plans to split into three companies, one of which will focus on plant-based foods.

MorningStar sales fell by just over 10% in the first half of the year due to a co-producer’s supply chain disruption, as reported in the second-quarter earnings report. “This is a short-term issue and we are working on it,” said CEO Steve Cahillane during the August call to results.

In May, Chicago-based Conagra’s Gardein announced several new plant options, including chicken wings and sausages. In February, Chicago-based Kraft Heinz announced a partnership with food tech startup TheNotCompany, which will focus on developing plant-based products under the company’s brands. Chicago agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland said in April it would invest $ 300 million in the expansion of an alternative protein production facility at Decatur. He said he would also open an innovation center there in the summer of 2023.

Beyond Meat, which is publicly traded unlike its competitor Impossible Foods, saw a 1.6% drop in net revenues in the second quarter as consumers traded their proteins for cheaper options amid high inflation.

In August’s financial performance announcement, Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown said the company realizes that “it is taking longer than expected for us and the sector to progress.” He said the company is taking steps to reduce cash consumption – including by cutting 4% of the workforce.

Chicago-based McDonald’s recently completed an American trial of McPlant, a burger it developed with Beyond Meat. “We put what sells on the menu,” said McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski, referring to the change at an event held for the Chicago Economic Club last week.

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When it comes to Tindle, Menezes is optimistic. Next Gen raised $ 100 million in Series A funding, and Menezes says the company is in talks with larger restaurant chains about using alternative chicken in their stores. Next Gen Foods plans to put products in the grocery store in the first half of 2023. And the formable texture of raw Tindle means chefs can literally customize it to their liking.

“Anything that is popular with chicken can be effectively done,” said Menezes. – Except for the bones, that is.

tasoglin@chicagotribune.com

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