This month, vegan startup Daring plans to roll out its new breaded, plant-based chicken pieces at all 40 locations of the Just Salad fast-casual restaurant chain with outlets in New York City, Chicago and other locales. It’s a small but significant step in getting its products into the mouths of more consumers hankering for that chicken experience—without the chicken.
Flush with $8 million from a series A round in late September led by venture capital firm Maveron, the company is adding new flavors and expanding its reach into food service. That move was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, which happened to strike just as the company was launching into the U.S. market in March, CEO and cofounder Ross Mackay told me during a recent phone chat. All told, the company has raised about $20 million, including a $10 million seed round investment in late 2019 from Rastelli Foods Group.
Simply put, the new company’s idealistic goal is to remove chicken from the food system because of concerns over animal welfare and the impact of poultry farming on the environment. And to do that, the vegan cofounders, Mackay, 28, and COO Eliott Kessas, 29, reasoned that they needed something that tasted really good—with a clean ingredient list, to boot.
It’s no small task to crack the $100 billion wholesale market for chicken with a plant-based product. But the entrepreneurs are following in the footsteps of successful plant-based companies offering an alternative to traditional hamburgers.
“Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have done a fantastic job in the red meat space,” MacKay said. “We moved to challenge chicken because we felt that was the product that wasn’t done very well. I felt the products on market were lacking in taste, texture and protein.” Worse yet, he said, they were highly processed, with too many ingredients and too much sodium.
Mackay, 28, and Kessas, 29, have been friends for a decade. While they both have entrepreneurial backgrounds, neither had worked in the food business. They started the company in Scotland in 2018, after eating plant-based chicken in Paris that left them both dissatisfied and wondering if they could do better. After developing their products in the UK, they did a soft launch there last year before moving their headquarters to the U.S., so they could access a bigger market. (The Los Angeles area wasn’t a random choice. It’s also houses the headquarters of Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat.)
The company is still tiny, but the new funding is already spurring a hiring spree that should bring the head count up to 20 this autumn. While the company had to delay talks with most potential restaurant customers when the pandemic hit, it did manage to bring in a new source of revenue by supplying the meal kit company Sun Basket with its plant-based chicken. It also sells directly to consumers via its website and at several grocery chains, including Sprouts. More deals are in the works, according to Mackay.
Dan Levitan, managing partner and cofounder of Maveron, said in a statement at the time of the Series A announcement that the plant-based food business was still in its early stages. “The next wave of plant-based alternatives need to be significantly less processed with a cleaner ingredient profile to win the hearts, minds and stomachs of consumers.”
Other investors include venture firms GoodFriends (from the founders of Allbirds, Harry’s and Warby Parker), Stray Dog Capital and Palm Tree Crew Investments, as well as private investors including Mike Smith, CFO of Stitch Fix, and the former chair of Burger King, Brian Swette.
How are the products? I’ve never been a big fan of food that pretends to be meat, so I gave Daring’s offerings a try with pretty low expectations. I was very pleasantly surprised.
The frozen pieces cooked up easily and quickly in my cast iron pan. I used Daring’s cajun pieces and sautéed them with peppers and onions, to fill a tortilla. I sautéed the lemon & herb pieces with portobello mushrooms and threw in some frozen peas for good measure—and served it with leftover rice. ( I bet I could’ve fooled a few meat eaters, but alas, in these Covid times, my husband and I ate alone.) We chose to bake the breaded pieces, but they probably would’ve been crispier if I’d followed the preferred option of using the frying pan. Sadly, the breaded product is not gluten-free, but the other flavors are.
It certainly would be cheaper to eat real chicken, so this is definitely a lifestyle choice: Daring charges $29.99 on its website for a 30-ounce package of most flavors. (The pouches of breaded pieces are slightly smaller, 24 ounces, at the same price) A serving of Original Daring Pieces has 90 calories, 13 grams of protein, five grams of fiber and 315 mg of sodium. The products all rely on soy protein concentrate.
The verdict: As plant based products go, Daring’s pieces would make a nice change from tofu. They were big on flavor, with the texture and juiciness of real chicken. Daring even browned like chicken. But it remains to be seen if diehard chicken eaters will see this as a real alternative.
For his part, Mackay is betting on consumer’s increased interest in eating healthier and mitigating climate change, and he thinks there is plenty of room for innovation in plant-based poultry alternatives. The vast majority of chicken that’s consumed is in the form of boneless and skinless breast and thighs, so that’s the direction in which Daring needs to head, particularly as they go after big food service accounts, he said.
“We are innovating towards a larger scale format product, with larger pieces, and a more complete, burger-size format. That’s probably as much as I should say,” Mackay said.
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