Steaks, chipo, merguez and other nuggets without any animal protein. This is the whole concept of imitation meat, these 100% vegetable products which try to imitate meat as closely as possible and which are less and less rare on supermarket shelves and on the restaurant menu. Among the start-ups to have launched on this market in recent years, the best known is undoubtedly the American company Beyond Meat.
But there are also French launched on this niche. This is the case of Guillaume Dubois, 32, and Cédric Meston, 28. Three years ago, they launched Les Nouveaux Fermiers, which became “Happyvore” last October. A first development which is accompanied by a second, this Tuesday, with the start of the construction of a new production plant, near Orléans, which will be operational by the end of the year. “It will be the largest production site for imitation meat in France”, assures Guillaume Dubois. The sign that the two entrepreneurs have confidence in the rise in France of these vegetable alternatives to meat. Interview.
What prompted you to get into plant-based alternatives?
Guillaume Dubois: The idea, with Happyvore, is to help the French to switch to a more plant-based diet, with greed. This is a key issue in the fight against climate change. Livestock represents nearly 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions when we manage to have a carbon footprint eleven times lower with our plant-based alternatives. These are products that imitate meat -taste, texture, smell-, while being 100% vegetable. We started with the steak, a must because it is very popular in France. Then we gradually extended the range to aiguillettes, merguez sausages, chipos, bacon bits, minced meat… In total, we produce twelve references, including the meatballs and nuggets that have just been added.
Cédric Meston: We are distributed in 3,000 points of sale in France, both in mass distribution and in catering. This last channel is very important for discovering our products. Generally, it is easier to try new dishes in restaurants. Our products are thus used in some of their recipes in 1,000 restaurants today, including chains such as Pokawa, Paris-New York, L’Artisan du burger, Le truck qui fume, etc.
It’s not so new, these vegetable alternatives…
G. D: Indeed, ten or even twenty years ago, there were already “vegetable steaks” on the shelves. But they were vegetable pancakes, usually with soy or lentils. These products do not really resemble meat and are quite divisive in taste. We know that many consumers, who have sought to vegetate their diet, have been disappointed by these vegetable pancakes. In recent years, a wave of new players in the food industry has launched with the aim of arriving at alternatives that imitate meat products much more. There has been a lot of research and development on textures, a lot of work with chefs. This movement was born in the United States. He then went to Europe via Great Britain, the Netherlands, Germany… before arriving in France, notably with us.
C. M: The problem with this new wave is that the products offered are not always very healthy, especially on the American market where there are few health issues, no nutriscore, GMOs, additives, etc. It is on this point that we want to stand out, by working to develop products that are both delicious and as healthy as possible. We work to have the shortest possible list of ingredients. On the order of ten when imitation meat can reach 30. We also do not use unnatural additives or carcinogenic additives and as little saturated fat as possible. This allows us to have our entire range of products classified Nutriscore A and green on Yuka, except the bacon, classified B, but that’s not bad for bacon.
What will this new factory in the Loiret allow?
GD: This is a former agri-food site of 19,000 m² in total, including 4,500 m² of buildings located in Chevilly (Loiret), 15 km north of Orleans. He had been inactive for four years. We have completely renovated it and are also in the process of expanding it, a project that has occupied us for a year and a half now and for which we have raised 35 million euros, in particular from BPI France. [banque publique d’investissement] as part of the national vegetable protein strategy. It will be the largest imitation meat production site in France. This new site will be in full operation towards the end of the year and should eventually employ around 100 employees. We will be able to produce more than 10,000 tons per year, compared to 2,000 today. This factory will therefore make it possible to respond to a growing demand for our plant-based alternatives, but also to lower our prices, innovate more and no doubt, in the future, further expand the range of references. The location is also very interesting. We will be at the heart of an agricultural region, specializing in important raw materials that go into our recipes. Wheat, potato, beetroot, sunflower… We are currently in discussions with the sectors to see how to work together.
So you are confident about the rise of imitation meat in France?
GD: In any case, in France we have all the quality ingredients to make good plant-based alternatives. Admittedly, this imitation meat market remains very small, around 200 million euros in turnover, if we include mass distribution and catering. This is the equivalent of 1% of the meat market. On the other hand, plant-based alternative sales are showing good growth. Around more than 10% or even 15% for certain segments. And they should progress further in the future. We can draw a parallel with plant-based alternatives to milk, which were developed earlier than imitation meat because they are a little easier to make. A few decades ago, this vegetable milk market accounted for less than 1% of the milk market. Today it is 14%. The imitation meats can experience similar growth or even do better. We estimate that they can easily represent, in the years to come, between 20 and 30% of the protein market in France.
What remains to be done to enable this growth?
C. M: We are currently in this crucial stage of trying to give everyone, even those who call themselves “meat lovers”, the opportunity to at least taste imitation meat. Many have prejudices about plants. They tell themselves that it’s not going to be good, dry, unhealthy, etc. This is without taking into account that there has been a lot of research and development work in recent years and that the taste of imitation meat has greatly improved. This is why we are very attached to offering our range of products in restaurants. We also do a lot of in-store events, we take part in as many trade fairs as possible… This summer, we are also launching, for the first time, a “Happyvore” food truck on the roads of France. He will be at the Solidays, on June 24, 25 and 26, then at the Terres du son festival, in Tours, on July 8, 9 and 10. Then he will begin a tour of the beaches of the Côte d’Azur and then the Atlantic coast before ending in Rock-en-Seine, from August 25 to 30.