By Emily Kemme
When the 40-year old plant-based protein company, Lightlife Foods, took a swing at its competitors Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods in an open letter assailing the plant-based category newcomers about product processing methods and ingredients, as the newest kid on the block, Planterra Foods’ CEO Darcey Macken saw an opportunity in her response.
Instead of going bare-knuckled against Lightlife and the others in a soy leghemoglobin-spattered brawl over ingredients, Macken took the high road, publishing a full-page open letter in The New York Times on September 2 this year. In that letter, Macken expressed gratitude for steps taken in recent years by Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods to elevate and evolve the plant-based protein category, while acknowledging a concept path paved by companies decades old.
You might say that Darcey Macken cut her teeth encouraging consumers to try new food concepts.
Macken’s blue chip training working for Kellogg Company saw her move through the ranks for 10 years, departing Kellogg as Senior Vice President of Global Sales. Bringing her big company consumer products skillset into the micro food start-up world in Boulder, Colorado — a start-up mecca —, she spent the next three years as Noosa Yoghurt’s Chief Customer Officer, enjoying the “fun and passion of building a brand up, with a goal to sell in 3 to 5 years,” Macken said.
She stayed on with Noosa as General Manager for a year after it sold to Sovos Brands, but realized she was headed back into a big company environment. When JBS USA reached out to start a funded plant-based foods subsidiary, Macken said it felt like the best of both worlds — a chance to take 20 years of experience and make the jump to building a natural organic, plant-based company from the ground up.
“Planterra’s mission of sustainably feeding future generations is shared by JBS. Thanks to them, we have consistency and stability along with phenomenal existing relationships on both the supplier and customer side. On the consumer side, the connection has been very transparent,” Macken said. “We’re not hiding it. The goal has always been about drawing in flexitarians — people who eat a variety of meat, fish and non-meat meals — by offering another delicious protein for the entire family.” That mission incorporates community support. Planterra Foods is making a $1 million donation of fresh OZO products to food banks and non-profit restaurants across the country to help people who are experiencing food insecurity.
Opportunity comes from the most unexpected places
Planterra’s planned April launch date was sidelined by the Covid-19 lockdown. Still feeling effects from the pandemic, a June launch focused on the company’s burger and ground products.
“The Lightlife letter was a great opportunity to jump in, join the conversation, and introduce OZO to the group, using the letter as a virtual launch. In a category that has been around for a long time, including Kellogg’s Morning Star Farms, the Lightlife letter put light on the category.”
Off and running, Macken said her team over-hired in research and development, creating a showcase kitchen in Longmont complete with a sensory lab. “It was a massive focus on innovation, ingredients, and technology. We want to lead the industry in innovation.”
Branding the products OZO — and indelibly marketing with the memorable #OZOgood hashtag — primary components are a proprietary blend of textured pea and rice protein fermented by shiitake mycelia — essentially shiitake mushroom roots.
“Peas are a very gassy vegetable, pea protein causes complaints about gassiness,” Macken said. “The fermentation blend helps with digestibility while allowing an umami, truffle flavor to come through.”
As an alternative protein choice, OZO burgers, ground (regular and Mexican-Seasoned), and Italian-Style meatballs have a meaty texture achieved by hydrating the pea protein. The soy-free, 100% non-GMO, certified vegan OZO products don’t simulate bleeding — something Planterra’s competitors create with either beet extract or heme extracted from the roots of soybean plants. Instead, OZO goes for sizzle and caramelization.
Nutritionally, Macken said OZO products are far superior when comparing calories, saturated fat, protein, and sodium. According to company literature, with “no cholesterol and less calories, fat and saturated fat than 80% lean ground beef, as well as other leading plant-based protein brands currently on the market, OZO is healthiest overall in plant-based foods.”
In a taste test, an OZO burger cooked with a sizzle, some browning, and very little aroma, from raw state to cooked. The taste is mild umami, vaguely mushroomy with a chewy texture and granular similarities to beef. Topped with sriracha mayo, melted Colby Jack cheese, tomato and lettuce, the burger’s taste was subtle and not beefy in any way.
Macken said the response has been strong. “Out of the gate the Mexican seasoned ground took 45 percent market share within the first week, now it’s at 65 percent. What’s nice is consumers don’t have to figure out how to use it, or similarly, the Italian meatballs. The ground and Mexican seasoned crumbles are easy to use for Sloppy Joes, chilies, casseroles, and tacos. But if you want just the burger, it’s a delicious burger.”
Look for OZO in the fresh meat section of Safeway grocery stores. You can also have OZO delivered to your doorstep by ordering directly at shopozofoods.com. Or grab a couple of OZO sliders at Empower Field at Mile High the next time you cheer on the Denver Broncos.