Interest in meat alternatives has surged in Asia in the wake of Covid-19 after meat markets were identified as the source of the virus. Asia-Pacific now accounts for 22 percent of global plant-based meat sales. According to the taste and nutrition company Kerry, plant-based meat alternatives are expected to be the world’s largest market by 2025.
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In the competitive market of meat alternatives, Singapore-based startup Karana is making a name for itself with a pork-like product made from jackfruit, an efficient crop with high yields and low water usage. Creating products for the food service market, its mince and meat shreds are vegan, free from GMO, soy and cholesterol as well as artificial colours and flavours. Following successful partnerships with restaurants in Hong Kong, Singapore and the Bay Area in California, the startup will make its retail debut later this year.
Karana was established in 2018 by Blair Crichton and Dan Reigler, with its products first appearing in Singaporean restaurants including Butcherboy and Candlenut. In Hong Kong, its partners include Beef & Liberty and Elephant Grounds. This month, it launched in the US and has plans to launch in other markets worldwide.
Retail in Asia caught up with brand co-founder Blair Crichton to discuss the challenges of the plant-based meat market, its retail launch and Karana’s global expansion.
RiA : Your products are currently available in Singapore, Hong Kong and the US. Where else will you launch?
Karana: There are plans afoot to launch in Malaysia, Taiwan and Japan. As for the US, right now we’re just in the Bay Area, but we’ll soon be launching into LA and looking at New York. Beyond that, we want to keep on expanding. We don’t want to just be focused on Asia and are looking at Europe later down the line.
RiA: Tell us about your strategy for launching in the US market and what was different about launching there compared to Asian markets.
Karana: Our strategy there was quite similar to Hong Kong and Singapore – we found innovative, creative chefs and launched with restaurants first. The biggest difference between the US and Asia is that there are more relationships to navigate and build – there are so many more layers in the chain. There’s also a lot more plant-based meat choices in the US, but more consumers looking for that choice.
RiA: What advantages does Karana have over the competition?
Karana: We have a short ingredient list and a great taste – it gets rave reviews from chefs. Our meat is made from jackfruit and there’s just eight ingredients in the mince. Our shredded meat has just four ingredients and is similar to pulled pork.
Jackfruit is one of the most sustainable crops in the world and promotes soil diversity and is high yielding. By commercialising it, we’re giving smallholders additional income stream. We want to bring the market a product that’s better for the planet.
RiA: Does plant-based meat appeal to a particular demographic, or are you seeing interest from all types of consumers right now?
Karana: Gen Z and millennials are driving growth in the plant-based meat market. Our customers tend to be urban, well-educated audience and their number 1 reason for eating plant-based meat is health reasons. In the past couple of years, people have become more focused on health and wellness, while the younger demographic are also concerned about sustainability and animal welfare.
RiA: What are the barriers to consumers trying plant-based meat?
Karana: One of the most common is the taste: you have to convince them to try it. There’s also this element of tradition that you can’t have dishes without meat. Food is very personal and it’s part of culture. In addition, there’s this misguided nutritional understanding that you can only get protein by eating meat, so, it’s about educating consumers. We are actually eating too much protein and not enough fibre, which is important for gut health. Then there’s the price – plant-based meat is generally more expensive so it’s difficult to scale. We’re working hard to bring costs down and scale up. Part of our mission is to make our products as accessible as possible.
RiA: Given that you have recently launched in the US, what would you say are the challenges for plant-based meat brands in building a global presence?
Karana: Perhaps the logistical challenges of moving products around, plus setting up a local manufacturer in the US took time. Establishing a brand presence, too, as no-one had really heard of us.
RiA: You founded Karana in 2018. What have been some of the biggest obstacles to your success and how did you overcome them?
Karana: Initially, it was how to make our money last and survive being unpaid. One of the biggest obstacles was the pandemic as just as we were ready to launch, covid hit. We employed a food service first strategy, but that was all shut off. Then when a new variant emerged, the restaurants would all shut down again.
Our passion and determination kept us going, and we used that time to double down on R&D and product development.
Another challenge was building brand credibility. The product is manufactured in Singapore and the US, and we had to build trust with factories. They are giving you line time and want to know there will be a business and that they won’t just be a doing a couple of runs with you, as they need to train up staff.
RiA: Your ready to cook range of products is coming soon to retailers in Hong Kong and Singapore. Tell us about that.
Karana: We’ve initially developed a product range with an Asian focus – dim sum, dumplings and baos – as consumers want products that are familiar, easy and accessible. Being lower in calories and fat, we expect them to appeal to health-conscious consumers. We’ll launch those into retail towards end of this year, first in Singapore, then Hong Kong. We’ve developed a highly versatile product and expect to move beyond dim sum into developing other Asian products like rice balls, then into Western and Middle Eastern formats.
RiA: Your mince and meat shreds feature on restaurant menus across Hong Kong, Singapore and the US. To what extent is that helping raise your brand profile and aiding international expansion?
Karana: Our approach has been to work with well-known chefs, as this lends credibility and helps with press. If a renowned chef is cooking with us, people want to turn up and try it. We are a very chef-forward brand: our culinary director was our first-ever client. But to really build the business, we need to move beyond the high-end accounts and get into more locations. We’re currently building relationships with universities and hope to partner with Singapore’s Salad Stop group, which will open its first net zero restaurant this year.
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RiA: What are your plans for the rest of 2022 and beyond in terms of new product lines and further global expansion?
Karana: From a product perspective, we’re thinking of launching flavoured meats, plus chorizo or an Italian-style product for chefs. We already have the capability to do it from a manufacturing point of view, so we’re speaking to our restaurant partners to gauge where the interest is. We’re very open to partnerships, too, be that launching co-branded or even private label products.