Gastronomy-Driven Distribution is the subject of this Talk Session with Classic Fine Foods Singapore General Manager, Karen Tay, Karana Co-Founder, Dan Riegler, and Chef Oliver Truesdale-Jutras with Open Farm Community. Illuminating each role as we follow the journey of jackfruit from the rainforests of Sri Lanka to consumer plates in Hong Kong and Singapore.
Nicole Astra: Welcome to Talk Session, where Talking Plant Protein invites experts with diverse perspectives to one conversation. Today we're talking gastronomy-driven distribution. I'm pleased to welcome Classic Fine Foods general manager Karen Tay, Karana co-founder Dan Riegler, and Chef Oliver Truesdale Justras with Open Farm Community. Dan, Karana has such a beautiful origin story and I really would like to start there and tell us about your motto of making sustainable taste amazing.
Dan Riegler: What we're really trying to do is make eating sustainable, whole plant-based food that is good for the people who grow it, good for the environment and good for the health of the people consuming it as accessible and as delicious as possible.
Nicole Astra: And tell me about jackfruit and how that partnership came about.
Dan Riegler: Well when we were first looking at the ingredients we were wanting to use, jackfruit stood for its sourcing story, it's a very high yielding, very low maintenance fruit so it's very farmer-friendly. It's very friendly to smallholder farmers who grow about 80% of the food that we consume especially in Southeast Asia and it's very good from an environmental standpoint but there's a lot of waste in the supply chain, so upwards of 60, 70% of jackfruit in places we resource from like Sri Lanka is just going to waste is not income that's getting into the hands of farmers, it's not really great, sustainable produce that is getting onto consumers' plates. So there's just a huge opportunity and on the other side jackfruit is really a black canvas, it has this really interesting textural basis that you can do a lot with. It's got quite an interesting nutritional profile and you can take it in a lot of different directions, it has this natural meat-like, especially pork-like fibrous texture that gives a lot of opportunities from a culinary standpoint.
Nicole Astra: What about the nutritional value?
Dan Riegler: So jackfruit, a lot of times when you think about plant-based meats, plant proteins, you think very much on the protein side and jackfruit is a fruit, it's not inherently high in protein but it does have a very nice sort of holistic macro and micronutrient profile, it has things like potassium, magnesium, but again, the nature of the fruit allows you to use it in its whole plant form. So whereas a lot of the products you're seeing are very stripped down forms of plant protein isolates and concentrates, we focus on a whole plant ingredient at our core. So we really get the benefit of eating a fruit and by using the jackfruit in its unripe or young state as we do, the sugars haven't formed so it's a very friendly fruit for people with diabetes, it has very low sugar, it's very high in fiber. So it has a lot of good things going for it that I think that consumers are looking for more.
Nicole Astra: And tell me about the products that you have gotten to market.
Dan Riegler: So we've launched products in both Singapore and Hong Kong working with Classic Fine Foods' distributor. So we have our two main skews are a shredded pork that's made from a jackfruit and then a ground or minced pork that can be used in a variety of applications, just like you would the meat. But again, based primarily off jackfruit as the core ingredient.
Nicole Astra: Why Classic Fine Foods? How did that partnership come up for you?
Dan Riegler: We originally started talking to Classic I think quite early on. We were connected through one of our investors Big Idea Ventures and I think from quite early it was a pretty good fit. I mean Classic has an incredible network across Asia and is very, very well-respected in the chef and culinary communities, so that was very much the direction we were looking to start with and target really interesting chefs and restaurants and yeah. It's been a very good partnership so far.
Nicole Astra: Karen, it has to be a startup's dream to have the power of Classic Fine Foods behind them, but I have to ask, what was it about Karana that made you think they could be successful?
Karen Tay: Well, Nicole, I think Karana ticks many of the boxes, first being taste and texture. It is very close to conventional meat it is trying to replace and this is really the litmus test for our team, and probably also the most important box to tick for both chefs and consumers alike. Some of the other [inaudible 00:04:30] were really touched on by Dan earlier in terms of the product. Karana has wide application possibilities in terms of cuisine types and cooking methods. It comes in a convenient format with both the shredded and minced options and it's easy to use. Jackfruit is a great product, but it's not the easiest to handle. Quite some tools and skills and I think Karana takes all that hassle away without compromising on any of the quality and we love the fact that the product, it's minimally processed. It has an extremely short ingredients list of only four items. This is great as people generally don't like items that they don't recognize or can't pronounce on the ingredients list. Of course the product is very sustainable, hence very relevant as chefs and their customers increasingly look for sustainable ingredients.
Karen Tay: We're fortunate to have a growing number of chefs like Oliver championing this. We find also major hotel chains looking to meet various sustainability targets in sourcing, and finally we have more and more discerning consumers, especially in a city-state like Singapore, where the government also has a 30 by 30 target. Simply means meeting 30% of our food needs locally by the year 2030, and it's actively building an ecosystem to have companies like Karana.
Karen Tay: Last but not least I think the founders are very passionate. They have a great story to share and this narrative, it's very compelling. First, with chefs, who understand farm to table, and the culinary experts who will present the product in the best way possible. I think this guests are first approach really paves the way for success with consumers.
Nicole Astra: I knew that you would mention that Karen because every time Classic Fine Foods comes up, they talk about the team behind their products and they are everything that you just mentioned, but you really do look for teams that are cohesive and passionate and I love that. I think it really translates through the success stories that you've been able to share with us.
Nicole Astra: Let me ask about the farmer partners as well. Because Classic Fine Foods has also been quoted by saying, "Oh, we even know when the tomato was picked." So tell me about how do you get deep into those companies to know this much about them?
Karen Tay: Yeah, I think it really boils down to the legacy of the company and how we started. It's always about going straight to the source. Knowing the farmers, the producers, and I would say the company is now 20 years old and it's probably not possible at this point in time but when we first started out, we knew every single producer that we were working with. We would have visited them, [inaudible 00:07:44] artisanal farmer we would have met them, gone to see the production or their families, and of course as the company expanded we started to work also with more multinational companies and of course we still visit them and continue to have a very professional relationship. But I think this is really how it started. And of course, we hire people who are passionate about gastronomy and I think that shows. Because for us, we feel proud to represent people like Dan because we are an extension of them in the market. So it's important that we represent them well and that's why also in the selection of partners we work with, that is so important, that we find a mutual fit so that it could be a mutually beneficial partnership.
Nicole Astra: And this is why the consumers trust you. Chef Oliver, I want to talk to you because chefs are the influencers. They are the trendsetters, arguably you know the consumer the best, and I want to know what role does the chef play in the gastronomy first approach?
Chef Oliver Truesdale Jutras: Yeah, I mean I think with the sort of advent of the influencer chef, it just made chefs more responsible for offering up a palate of items and decisions for customers to make that are more sustainable. Maybe even I would extend that to more healthy. Sustainability isn't always environmental but like just giving people more of a chance and encouraging people to learn more about food that's not only good for them but good for the planet and good for the local economy. Things like that. So Karana kind of ticks all those boxes, at least in terms of Singapore. Like they're founded here, shooting stuff out from South Asia. It's a good product, it's healthy. It's pretty easy for me to see the future of food and the future of the chef-customer relationship as very like chefs bringing to the table things that customers don't necessarily know exist, but fulfill a gap in their diet. That's usually sustainability or health-based, so yeah.
Nicole Astra: Has it changed your approach or how you innovate with food?
Chef Oliver Truesdale Jutras: Karana specifically?
Nicole Astra: I guess just getting these products that we don't know a lot about yet and getting to play with them so they are their very best moving forward in front of the customer.
Chef Oliver Truesdale Jutras: Right. I think in terms of how we innovate or how we're cooking, green jackfruit is not like a super new product to me. We grow some at Open Farm and we've used it in a few ways before. I think Karana did open my eyes a little bit towards more of the meat alternatives market in a general sense in how thoroughly processed the foods are. So I'm a pretty progressive individual in terms of like how I cook and what I'm willing to use and I think I was pretty gung-ho about meat alternatives when they first sort of started appearing on the scene in a major way. I still think they play a really important place, but I started to realize with the advent of products like Karana that a lot of them are really heavily processed foods and you end up having this discussion, when you're on sort of the frontier of healthy food or sustainable food, natural food is a subject that you probably care deeply about. A lot of the foods that are coming up as sustainable are no longer natural and so there's like a dichotomy of sorts there and I think Karana solves that in a way. It's pretty much very low processing, very low ingredient list, it's lovely. So it's a nice meat alternative that doesn't have ... Like 25 items that you don't know what they are on the label or [inaudible 00:11:54].
Nicole Astra: So specifically Karana products. What are your favorite dishes you've plated up?
Chef Oliver Truesdale Jutras: I think in pure like gustatory pleasure we made almost like a sloppy joe roll with just using Karana in place of sort of like a pulled pork mix which is sort of the classic what you would do with green jackfruit as well. We stayed true to the roots a little bit with like Sri Lankan spicing and everything. We work with an organic spice producer from Sri Lanka. So tying up ingredients from the single island is a nice harmonious story to the dish as well. So it's like polos, which is the Sri Lankan curry made with green jackfruit made with Karana, and then we do it as a sloppy joe on a brioche roll. That's just like pure pleasure eating and we have a little more sophisticated one on our dinner menu which is an eggplant dish. We have a farm as well, we've started growing our own eggplants. But the eggplant stuff [inaudible 00:12:51] with green jackfruit mix. So yeah, another fun approach and it's very like visually appealing. It has a bunch of garden ingredients and one of the first dishes that we got on with something from our farm which is relatively young as well. So yeah, nice harmony there as well.
Nicole Astra: Before we move on Oliver, I want to ask more about the restaurant. You keep mentioning the farm and so just expand on that for us. You are both fine and casual dining?
Chef Oliver Truesdale Jutras: So yeah. I'd say that during the week we tend towards ... There's basically like a lunch crowd and then let's say ... I don't like the word fine dining, but like nicer food in the evenings. I would put us at like nice casual, I don't know if someone else has a better definition here. Dan, what do you think we are?
Dan Riegler: I think it's relaxed but elegant.
Nicole Astra: It's just good food, right? It's just good food.
Dan Riegler: It's a very nice restaurant.
Chef Oliver Truesdale Jutras: Yeah.
Dan Riegler: They strike a great balance of being ... It really pushes the boundaries from a culinary standpoint but it's a very comfortable environment and pleasant environment to eat in.
Chef Oliver Truesdale Jutras: That's what we're aiming to do, so that's good. But yeah, and then on the weekends we have a brunchier sort of vibe. So we do the variants between the two. And then yeah I guess -
Nicole Astra: How much of your own food are you growing?
Chef Oliver Truesdale Jutras: The farm's still relatively young so it's a pretty low percentage right now. We only got the farm really going, like built out and properly ... There's a lot of soil issues in Singapore, there's a myriad of things we had to deal with that we weren't really expecting, which was in part naivete and in part just the nature of the beast I think for around six months and in farm time that's really nothing. Tropical products tend to grow on a pretty fast cycle, but yeah. We're still very much working towards ... We want to get it to 30%. That would be like really, really fantastic. It's a pretty big space, we definitely have the plot to do it on. It's just about figuring out the rotational planting, soil quality, health of plants. We're trying to be totally organic, so having no pesticides is really difficult here where like the temperatures and humidity are basically built to breed all sorts of bugs and stuff, so yeah. We're figuring stuff out but we'd like to get to 30%. That's where we're at.
Nicole Astra: Okay. Dan, how about on your end, has it changed your product development at all knowing the product is going to land in the hands of a professional chef before it gets to the consumer?
Dan Riegler: Absolutely and that's really by design. I mean at the core of what we do as a company and who we are, we're a very food-loving, culinary-centric team and where we've come with the products and where we're going, I mean we've been through so many durations already. Much of that is based on the feedback we've gotten from an early period with chefs taking the earliest, most basic produce types we had, even just taking the fresh jackfruit into the kitchen, understanding how they work with it, how you can make this a better, more functional ingredient for them to use, for them to turn into delicious dishes to give to their customers. I mean that's been at the core of what we've been doing and then that has allowed us to understand better how we can work with the products and look at a whole range of flavors and products that we can bring to market in various formats.
Nicole Astra: Invaluable feedback, and Karen, let's talk about the distribution power behind Classic Fine Foods.
Karen Tay: Sure Nicole. So we are a 20-year-old multinational fine food distributor and we're present in 18 cities across 10 countries throughout Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Unfortunately we're not in the U.S. yet. When you're in a city center of Hong Kong, Dubai, London or Singapore, there is a high chance that you will see one of our trucks on its way to make a delivery to a hotel, a restaurant or a supermarket chain. So to sum up, our distribution power lies in first our wide geographical footprint and secondly I would say our links with Metro, our parent company, and finally our extensive customer networks.
Karen Tay: Because we have a multi-market mega-city focus as well as a group approach, this really helps companies who want to scale quickly across various regions. We have myself and a group category manager for alternative protein, I believe you've met Mickael, to ensure that we act as one group and this central coordination allows best practices and learnings to be promptly shared so that the startups and companies who partner with us can enjoy [inaudible 00:17:55] market. Then of course with Metro, they also have a very strong market presence, especially in Europe. So our partners, partners like Dan, can potentially have access to those European markets as well.
Karen Tay: Of course there is NX-Food, a subsidiary of Metro, with networks that we can tap into. This session is a great example. They were the ones who first connected us with you.
Nicole Astra: Yes.
Karen Tay: Finally I think we have access to the most relevant food service and retail customers. Our customer relationships are built over a long period of time and our objective is to be more than a supplier but a trusted partner. To that effect we have an in-house executive chef, a R&D kitchen facility where we help customers to develop menus, overcome technical issues with new ingredients, or simply co-create and exchange.
Nicole Astra: So Karana, you are just a few years old, correct?
Dan Riegler: Yeah.
Nicole Astra: So Karen, what are some of the other success stories that have benefited from your network and this approach?
Karen Tay: Some of our key partners in this space include Impossible Foods. So we helped them launch in Hong Kong, Macao, and Singapore. Karana of course in now Singapore and Hong Kong and more to come hopefully, and most recently TiNDLE in Singapore, Hong Kong, Macao, and it's also planned for [inaudible 00:19:34], Dubai, and several other markets. So we certainly hope to strengthen our existing partnerships and build new ones where we can bring value to the library of market access, as well as bring value to our customers with more innovative and relevant plant-based protein options.
Nicole Astra: Well, what does Dan have to do in order to get this to the U.S.?
Dan Riegler: I'm here. I'm here getting it started.
Nicole Astra: That's right. Dan, I want to ask about the growth of your business in the last 18 months or so and pandemic aside which was difficult for everyone but really what have these partnerships done for Karana?
Dan Riegler: Well it's been incredible. I mean having Classic as a partner and having chef partners like Chef Oliver and Open Farm. It's been really amazing to just see how it's developed and see the excitement and reaction to the products and that's been ... Part of what we were talking about before, giving us the ability to get back in the lab, especially last year when we've been stuck at home a lot and continue to look at how can we make this better or where can we take things next and with ingredients like jackfruit and some of the other ones that we're looking at in the future, there's so much you can do on a culinary basis to make these ingredients really delicious, really tasty, really exciting product formats. So we have big plans to continue expanding both in Asia as well as launch in new markets. We will be looking at the U.S., we are here now, we're getting things up and running. We have some new product formats we're working on including our ready to cook line, so turnkey products starting with dumplings and dim sum that will be available both for food service and as retail products eventually also, and then a whole range of again making whole plant-based really good quality ingredients as accessible and as delicious as possible.
Nicole Astra: This would be a question for each of you. What advice do you have? We talked to a lot of startups. They want to be exactly where you guys are. What advice do you have for them?
Dan Riegler: Well it's a constant battle. I mean we still have a long way to go. We're very proud of what we've achieved so far but you've got to keep fighting and keep hustling. But I think most important is to be passionate and love what you're doing. If you come at this from a place where you're passionate about, especially in the food space or anything you're doing, that will show in the products you're making and the relationships you build and yeah, you've got to just keep hustling.
Nicole Astra: Oliver, how about you?
Chef Oliver Truesdale Jutras: My startup, yeah, I was ... When you immediately asked the question I was going to say something similar to what Dan just said which is just like really caring about what you do, like in a fundamental way. I think a lot of people go into projects because they think it's economically viable and that's important. You shouldn't enter a product if you don't think it's a smart business option. But at the same time, like no one wants to work with somebody who doesn't care. Like really care fundamentally about what they're doing. Especially in an industry like food and bev, and especially from sort of the chef side of affairs. Like when someone comes in with a product that they're just trying to sell because that's their job and they don't really like have any fundamental knowledge about it, that's a big one. Like if I ask where something's from and the supplier can't tell me, like pretty much goodbye. I want to know about your food chains, I want to know about where things are fundamentally from. If I'm [inaudible 00:23:37] what sort of food has become globally, and I think that especially in food we need to know as much as we can behind the products. So yeah, that would be my advice. Just like arm yourself with knowledge and passion and you'll be all right.
Nicole Astra: And Karen?
Karen Tay: I think I agree with the two gentlemen in terms of passion. I think it's just like us in gastronomy. I think if you're not passionate about it, there is no point. Because the road ahead is not going to be easy. But I think first and foremost, focus on the product. I mention about taste and texture, make sure that it's a really good product. From there, you can [inaudible 00:24:26] the value proposition, whether it's branding, you can acquire the knowledge or build the right teams to help you ... Work with the right partners to help you scale and to market. But I think some of the fundamentals need to be there. So the passion, yeah, as well as get the product right.
Nicole Astra: Again, this is such a beautiful story and I appreciate the collaboration and how much work it really does take to do it ethically and sustainably which you have done. So from the rainforests of Sri Lanka to plates around the globe, congratulations to all three of you and thank you so much for joining us on Talk Session.
Chef Oliver Truesdale Jutras: Thank you.
Karen Tay: Thank you.
Dan Riegler: Thank you so much.