For Al Percival, the journey into the alternative protein business all began with an egg sandwich. Or rather the lack of one. Fleur Michell writes.
In 2016, IT executive Al Percival and his wife Tanya were travelling through Alice Springs. The vegetarian couple stopped at a café for breakfast and requested two egg sandwiches. A simple request, except the café was out of eggs and there were no other suitable vegetarian options on the menu
“That experience got me thinking about creating a company to provide tasty, easy vegan options for retailers, cafés and restaurants. The non-meat-eating market is growing rapidly in Australia, so there’s no reason why these consumers should be ignored when there are great alternatives.” Percival says.
Fast forward six years, and the hunger and disappointment of an eggless Alice Springs led to a career change and the creation of Big Owl Foods.
Based in Byron Bay, Big Owl Foods’ signature product is its Byron Bay Burger – a plant-based meat patty made from a combination of plant proteins designed to replicate the taste and texture of ground beef.
The business, which also produces vegan ready meals, is one of numerous alternative protein exhibitors showcasing to distributors for the first time at this year’s Naturally Good Expo, on at Sydney’s ICC from 6-7 June.
Product manager for the annual B2B event Sinead Kavanagh says she expects more than 3000 industry visitors to attend this year, with plant-based and alternative proteins making their presence known.
“Over the last seven years of the expo, we’ve seen this area really grow,” says Kavanagh.
“While traditionally these options were limited to the strictly meat-free community, now more and more consumers want to eat less animal protein and offerings are expanding.
“We’ve had plant-based options such as fungi, chickpea, soy, seeds and nuts at the show, but now it’s going a step beyond that. Cultivated lab-grown meats are actually popping up on restaurant menus and insect proteins are not as confronting as they once were,” Kavanagh says.
While Percival is supplying patties and mince to cafés in the NSW Northern Rivers region, which is known to have a high vegan population, feedback is positive across the board, he says.
But Percival is determined to educate the hospitality industry in particular.
“We want cafés and restaurants all over Australia to be educated about meat alternatives,” says Percival. “We’re already seeing meat-free alternatives in supermarkets, but there also needs to be a shift towards seeing alternatives when dining out.”
He is now working directly with chefs and planning training workshops to educate the industry.
“We want to say to chefs, ‘here’s how you can work with these products so you can extend your menu without just offering the same tired vegan or vegetarian options such as spinach and ricotta.
For example, if you are offering lasagne, burritos or meatballs, you can provide the same dish with options for beef mince or plant-based mince’.
“Unfortunately, there’s little awareness from chefs at the moment; yet if they were to cook meat-free alternatives, most people wouldn’t even know the difference taste-wise. As well as accommodating plant-based eaters we need to encourage meat eaters to try something different and expand their horizons,” he says.
Kavanagh says the efforts of businesses like Big Owl Foods are greatly encouraging, however, the ‘mindset’ taste obstacle for retailers still exists.
“Most consumers are familiar with the taste of beef, chicken and so on, which means plant-based alternatives are already up against a comparison hurdle.
“Secondly, the cost of buying protein alternatives regularly is prohibitive. However, we’re starting to see major traditional players enter the alternative protein market and that will lead to more cost-effective choices.
“This space has always been popular with attendees as some of the most exciting developments happen in alternative protein research and development.
“For example, the pea-based protein options from both Australian made company Greens and Goodness, and Green Monday from Hong Kong with their OmniFoods range.
“Now that people are looking for more diverse ranges at a sustainable cost, it will only be a good thing for the growth of the industry,” Kavanagh adds.
Naturally Good 2022 registration is currently open for attendees, exhibitors and retailers. Visit naturallygood.com.au for more details.
This article first appeared in the April 2022 edition of Food & Drink Business.