January 18, 2020 | Abby Phillips

Plant-based meat is having quite the moment.

It seems everywhere you look — from Burger King to your local artisanal restaurant — eateries now offer burgers and sandwiches that have the same texture as meat but are actually made from plants.

A report from the bank UBS predicted that the market for plant-based protein will increase drastically in the coming years, growing from $4.6 billion in 2018 to $85 billion in 2030. Companies like Beyond Meat have seen their stock prices skyrocket and other startups in the space have raised hundreds of millions of dollars from investors.

In the Triangle, a Garner-based company started by food industry veterans is making moves to take advantage of the growing appetite for plant-based protein. Founded in 2016, the company, called Improved Nature, has raised around $10 million from investors and makes most of its money shipping plant-based products to other food packagers.

But for the first time, Improved Nature will now sell food under its own name through an online store. Previously, the only place to find the company’s product domestically was in a line of plant-based jerky called Perky Jerky. Most of their product is shipped to Europe or China, where food makers use the soy-based protein as an ingredient.

The new online store gives Improved Nature a chance to market products directly to individuals. The food comes dehydrated and unflavored, so consumers must boil the product and marinade whatever they buy. Because the product is made only using plant protein — no gluten or other compounds — it has to ship dry since long exposure to water would change its texture too much, the company said.

“I think it seems like this is the time to do it,” Improved Nature CEO Rody Hawkins said of launching the online store. “Last year is when this plant-based movement kicked into high gear. We were always talking about putting something online, but we thought marketing would take too much time. We probably should have done it sooner because that whole dynamic changed. That market is growing and is here to stay.”

The company is the brainchild of Hawkins, a food scientist who has worked in the food industry for more than 30 years. Hawkins’ past experience includes time at Oscar Mayer — where he helped invent Lunchables — and the beef jerky maker Slim Jim, which used to be made in Garner. In fact, several of the leaders at Improved Nature are former ConAgra employees, though they all left before the Slim Jim plant exploded in 2009, and subsequently closed.

“It’s the irony of all ironies,” Hawkins said of his meat-dependent past. “This was a really big departure for us.”

The makings of that departure happened several years back, when Hawkins attended a seminar at the University of Wisconsin. The talk was on the subject of how to feed a world whose population is expected to grow to 10 billion people by 2050.

Animal meat, which makes up most of the protein the average American ingests, Hawkins noted, is not efficient when it comes to resources. He believes feeding that growing population with more animal meat would put too much of a strain on the Earth’s environment. If Americans switched completely to plant-based meat, for example, there would be a reduction in cropland use, greenhouse gas emissions and harmful nitrogen fertilizer runoff, a 2019 study from Scientific Reports found. That study did find, however, that it would increase food-related water usage.

“I was thinking, ‘How are we going to attack this problem?’” Hawkins recalled. “We were thinking of soy protein … and if we could take it and turn it into something that has the texture and look and mouthfeel of meat, you would have a seamless way of feeding the population as it grows to 10 billion people. We saw it as a way to be more sustainable.”

Improved Nature has only been selling its product since 2018. But, in that time, it has seen steady growth and interest in its product.

The company doesn’t have huge expectations for the e-commerce platform, with Hawkins saying he’d “love to see it grow to several hundred thousands [of dollars] this year.”

“Our biggest business is shipping container loads overseas,” Hawkins said. “This is just a way to get our name out there.”

Hawkins added that the company expects to grow its volume by 50% this year. “But with the way this market is growing I feel like we are going to fly past that.”

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