The making of "The Vegan Food Wars of DC"
What 'food tech' might help us understand about the rest of the tech industry
Before we get going today, a quick note to say that we’ll have a Q&A next week with one of the country’s most compelling thinkers on political psychology, where we’ll dig into what research in that field can help us understand about the current state of Facebook, Twitter, and the rest of the Internet. We’re excited about it around here, and hope you’ll check it out.
I have a new, fairly robust feature story in this month’s issue of Washingtonian Magazine that just went online yesterday. It’s called “The Vegan Food Wars of DC,” and it looks at the fairly remarkable boom in vegan restaurants here in District as a way of understand where plant-based restaurateuring1 is headed nationally, even globally.
But this post is more than an exercise in pure self-promotion — though please read the story and share it will all your friends! — because I both came to the story from a tech angle and came away thinking new thoughts about the tech industry I’ve spent nearly two decades covering, thinking about, writing about, etc.
To back up, the idea for the story came about the way some of the good ones do: pure dumb luck. One Friday night back in late last February, we were hungry. I’d switched my diet from vegetarian to vegan around the start of the pandemic, and was aware of a place called Bubbie’s that had previously operated as a pop-up over on H Street, one of DC’s restaurant corridors. Bubbie’s was pure comfort food — it first made its name selling a fried “chicken” sandwich as a bit of a “unwelcome to the neighborhood” to a Chick-fil-A that had opened nearby.
But now Bubbie’s had opened up as its own shop over just south of Dupont Circle. They had a Nashville fried-chicken-on-a-biscuit sandwich, a concoction I’d long wanted to try. I was in.
I headed into the shop to pick up my sammie, and while I waited noticed a sign on a wall that mentioned something called the “Plant Food Lab.” I was intrigued. I like labs, and the idea of inventing and testing things in an hands-on fashion.
“WHAT IS PLANT FOOD LAB?,” the sign read. “plant food lab [sic] was created by shaun sharkey and chef margaux riccio to serve as a plant-based incubator space for developing concepts. every 6-12 months a concept will rotate. interested in one of the concepts and would like to see a deck, please email email@example.com.”
Part of what grabbed my interest was that what these local entrepreneurs were up to seemed a direct challenge to the multi-billion-dollar VC-based companies that have of late grabbed all the attention in the so-called food tech space, like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. Could this little start-up actually succeed? I took a quick snapshot on my iPhone, got my food, and left.
And like all good reporters, I promptly forgot I was interested in the idea. (As for the Nashville chicken sammie, it was so hot that I teared up a bit.)
Fortunately, I soon stumbled across that photo again on my phone, and reached out to the people behind the lab, Sharkey and Riccio. The more I learned, the more intrigued I was, and so I reached out to a terrific editor at Washingtonian, a magazine with which I’ve had great experiences writing in the past.
And that editor encouraged me to think bigger. The curious thing a few local DC food people were up to was less interesting that what it might mean generally for plant-based eating — a diet that, you may well have noticed, has been getting some traction.
A few months of reporting and eating followed, a process that raised all sorts of questions that formed the basis for this story — and that has left me thinking differently about the tech industry more broadly.
How much are we still susceptible to buying into the foundational premises of tech sectors without doing the necessary prodding? The story being told by companies like Beyond and Impossible — and one that we in the media have helped them tell — is that moving to a plant-based future is going to take gobs and gobs of investment. How else to pay for all the research and white-coated scientists it takes to make a veggie burger bleed? Those two companies alone have raised a ton of cash from investors like Google Ventures, Kleiner Perkins, and the Gates Foundation. Beyond is valued at around $6.6 billion as of today, and there’s been talk of Impossible going public at a valuation of $10 billion.
Meanwhile, Bubbie’s is making tasty plant-based meats by hand, and the Prince George’s County-based Everything Legendary is making a challenger to Beyond and Impossible that, as the company put it, was “created in a kitchen, not a lab.” These aren’t the same exact products, to be sure, but is there danger in the assumption that making delicious plant-based foods is always going to require giant sums of money?
Is the food tech space replicating the same access-to-capital failings of the rest of tech? D.C.’s vegan food scene has its roots in the city’s Black history, a backstory we made sure to include in the story. That added a bit of sharpness to what I learned when I started reporting on the coming up of Everything Legendary, that local, and Black-owned, plant-based burger company. Co-founder Duane Cheers told me that even though Legendary was proving popular at pop-ups, street festivals and the like, it struggled to get funding through traditional food-world channels. That drove the company to “Shark Tank,” and a $300,000 investment from Mark Cuban, who has been building out a vegan portfolio.
That funding from Cuban helped Legendary ramp up production, drive down its prices, and get a deal with Target that, at the time of fact-checking the story, put it in the retailer’s stores in 28 states. Legendary patties are now sold in the case in my local Safeway alongside Beyond and Impossible’s patties. Why was it so hard for Cheers to get the investment his company needed to get off the ground?
(An aside: I emailed the story to Cuban, and he responded back within 15 minutes to ask if I want to talk to any of the other plant-based companies in his portfolio. That’s why he’s Mark Cuban and we’re not.)
How key is scale at this moment in the evolution of plant-based eating? One of the chefs and restauranteurs profiled in the piece is Spike Mendelsohn, who you might remember from the Chicago season of “Top Chef.” (He was the one in the fedora.) Mendelsohn made his name in the restaurant business with Good Stuff Eatery, which opened its first location in D.C.’s Capitol Hill neighborhood that then-President Obama drew a lot of attention to by stopping by for a cheeseburger. A few years back, Mendelsohn went into business selling plant-based burgers, in partnership with the then-executive chairman of Beyond Meats. Their PLNT Burger is now housed in nearly a dozen Whole Foods across the D.C. area and Pennsylvania; they’re getting ready to open their first stand-alone shop, in New York City’s Union Square. Mendelsohn says that working with a company like Beyond and getting quickly to scale is how vegan eating can lose the elitist vibe it’s long had and drive down prices on plant-based products. His basic burger, at the moment, sells for just $6.95, which is pretty low-priced for a high-quality plant-meat meal.
As detailed in the piece, there’s the worry that companies like PLNT could drive out of the market smaller upstarts that are bringing variety to the plant-based world. What should the balance look like between food tech’s big big brands and its startup equivalents?
So that’s that. I do hope you’ll give it a read, and I promise you don’t need to have some deep-seated interest in veganism to get something out of it. If you do read it, please think about letting me you know what you think — by email, or on Twitter, or in the comments on this post.
Elsewhere in food tech
“Can food tech invent a ‘better’ bagel?,” Adele Peters, Fast Company
“World’s largest kosher certifier won’t endorse Impossible Pork,” Jacob Gurvis, The Times of Israel
“Starbucks selling plant-based items at locations in Chile,” Deena Shanker and Leslie Patton, Bloomberg
“Celebrity chef David Chang’s new Hulu series goes big on food tech,” Sally Ho, Green Queen
And is “food tech” even a thing? Check out Protocol’s fun on-going series, “Is This Tech?”