On a recent Monday morning in a Shanghai conference room, four executives from a major Chinese food producer and distributor sat socially distanced from one another, pulled down their masks, and tried some fake eggs. In a makeshift basement office in San Francisco, 15 hours behind, Josh Tetrick, the chief executive officer of egg- substitute maker Eat Just Inc., watched via Zoom. His head chef in China presented the Shanghai execs with eight ways to serve the ersatz ovum, Just Egg, which is made primarily from mung beans. The hope was that one would be tasty enough for the Chinese company to sell online and at fast-food chains.
The eight options included Tetrick’s two favorites. The Inside-Out Egg is a faux omelette stuffed with lettuce, a hash brown patty, and spicy mayo; the Pinwheel Egg is essentially a fake-egg burrito with rice, fried onions, and pickled radishes. Both bombed. Still, the pitchees picked a winner, and while Tetrick stresses that no deal has been signed— hence the anonymity—he says Eat Just, better known as Just, is moving on to the next round of talks.
Although the negotiations have taken more than three years, things sped up over the past several months, Tetrick says. “Because of what’s happening around Covid,” the CEO says with uncharacteristic understatement, “there’s been a notable change
about how consumers are thinking about food.” Last year, Beyond Meat Inc.’s initial public offering and Impossible Foods Inc.’s bleeding beefless Whopper helped bring plant-based meat to 51% of American lips, according to research firm Piplsay. Before the pandemic, the emerging industry had set its 2020 sights on China, where plant protein has been a staple for a millennium but meat imitations are just getting started. Regional plant-protein makers have made inroads in Hong Kong, but most of China is largely unclaimed territory for mass-market fake meat. Just, however, is already there.
Tetrick’s company says it’s sold tens of thousands of bottles of its liquid formula in China over the past year, mostly via shopping sites owned by internet giants Alibaba Group and JD.com, as well as in a handful of retail stores, restaurants, and hotels. The numbers don’t exactly herald a revolution—the company says a good day on the Alibaba and JD sites means 1,300 bottles sold—but the early move into China has positioned the American company well, says Sean O’Sullivan, managing partner at venture capital firm SOSV. (The firm invests in plant-based protein makers but hasn’t invested in Just.) Tetrick’s company, valued at $1.2 billion, has raised $300 million in venture funding and says it’s sold the equivalent of about 40 million fake eggs, mostly in the U.S.
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