COVER STORY

The Bite Stuff

Five alumni startups that are disrupting the food industry.

by Rebecca Shapiro Published Fall 2016
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He opened the first Mr Bing, a brick-and-mortar fast food restaurant in Hong Kong, while still working at the bank. The schedule was untenable — Goldberg was managing the restaurant during his lunch break and after work — but he realized that the food and the concept were resonating with customers. That gave him the confidence to leave banking and bring jianbing to New York. 

“I’ve always known that New Yorkers would love them,” he says.

Goldberg was right — in July, New York magazine named the jianbing the city’s “Cheap Eat of the Year” — and business is thriving. At present, Mr Bing is a mobile cart and caterer, appearing at street fairs and corporate functions. In the long term, Goldberg envisions a semi-permanent home at a food hall. But he hopes that the bulk of the business will be in Central Park and on city corners. He anticipates a fleet of carts on bicycles — just like the ones that grabbed his attention outside a Beijing dorm room nearly twenty years ago. 

BEYOND MEAT

Ethan Brown ’08BUS doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with eating meat every day. 

There’s just one caveat.

“It has to be plant-based meat,” he says.

Brown is aware that to most people, this sounds like the ultimate oxymoron. His company, Beyond Meat, is seeking to change that. Its goal is to make vegan meat substitutes that mimic the taste and texture of animal protein so well that they are indistinguishable from the real thing.

“There are two ways to think about meat,” says Brown. “One is that it has to come from an animal. The other is that meat is just a composition of amino acids, lipids, carbohydrates, and water. That kind of demystifies it.”

While there is a personal component to Beyond Meat’s origin story — Brown has been a vegetarian for decades — his motivations go beyond his dinner plate. Brown spent the first part of his career working for a clean-energy company, which is where he became interested in our diet’s role in climate change. 

“It became increasingly clear to me how much the meat industry is contributing to greenhouse-gas emissions. And that’s not to mention its role in other societal problems, like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer,” Brown says.

Brown knew that there was going to be no way to make sweeping change without providing a viable alternative that appealed to meat lovers.

“Black beans and quinoa aren’t going to cut it when what they really want is a juicy burger,” he says.

Brown started the research and development process shortly after business school, teaming up with a group of chemists who began to analyze the molecular structure of animal protein and to replicate it with plants. At the same time, Brown was busy raising capital.

“We had to go through several rounds of funding to even get through the product-development process. It was incredibly risky, financially, because we were raising a lot of initial capital without knowing if it was going to sell. But I wasn’t afraid to spend a lot of money to get the product right,” he says.

In 2013, Beyond Meat came out with their first offerings — a beef-like veggie crumble, a veggie-burger patty, and a chicken substitute. Since then, the company has grown to two hundred employees, including twenty PhDs. But as much as Brown owes his company’s success to science, he also knows that there’s something about the experience of eating that can’t be replicated any other way.

“I’m a vegan who eats animal meat every single day,” Brown says. “I spit it out, but if our mission is to replicate the experience of eating meat, I want to make sure firsthand that that’s what we’re doing.”

This past spring, Brown’s team created what he considers the Holy Grail of meat substitutes — a fresh plant-based burger that browns on the outside and stays pink on the inside when it cooks. And, in a feat of pure magic (and pulverized beets), it actually bleeds when you cut into it. The Beyond Burger debuted in a Colorado Whole Foods supermarket in May. It sold out in less than an hour and earned praise from Eater, Tasting Table, the New York Times, and dozens of other media outlets. It will roll out to stores nationwide this fall — but customers should be mindful not to look for it with the frozen veggie burgers.

“We’re proud to say that we’ve made a product so close to animal protein that we’re being sold right next to it in the meat aisle,” says Brown.  



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