In an exclusive interview, Andre Menezes, cofounder and COO at alt meat company Next Gen Foods, enthuses over their first product,TiNDLE – a plant-based chicken now available in Singapore, Hong Kong and Macau – and what makes it so special; his exciting career move from Brazil to Singapore; and the cultural differences between the two countries.
Andre, before we go into your experience cofounding Next Gen Foods, can you share the journey that took you from Brazil to Singapore?
I should start with two things that I have always had in my mind: being an entrepreneur as well as building a global career. It is all about calculated risk-taking, trying new things, and spending less time in the comfort zone. During high school, I had the chance to spend a month in Germany, which gave me the clarity that I did not want to be confined to one culture or one country, and I actually returned to live in Germany for seven months in 2011 while working with Siemens. In 2012, I joined a Brazilian investment fund Tarpon, which had BRF (one of the largest foods company in the world, based in Brazil) as a key portfolio company. It was significant because BRF is the largest poultry exporter in the world.
I decided to join BRF because I saw that it was the door to the global career I wanted, and I worked in Brazil, my home country, for a number of years. In 2015, I had the opportunity to leave Brazil and go to a few places (including Singapore) with BRF. I ultimately decided on Singapore because I saw it as the best combination of business opportunities and lifestyle. I was familiar with Europe and would have loved to return but the opportunities there were not as big, and while Middle East was full of opportunities, the lifestyle did not really appeal to me at that stage. On the flip side, Singapore scored very highly across every dimension I could think of, which made the decision easy.
In Singapore, BRF had formed a new joint venture. I arrived in January 2016 initially as a consultant in supply chain, before becoming promoted to director of sales two months later. I gained a lot of exposure to all other parts of the business including distribution, logistics, factory and so on, and in October 2017, the CEO retired and I was appointed to take his place. This was a significant achievement not only because I was only 29 years old and a foreigner, but also because BRF was the minority shareholder in the JV and our Singaporean partner, SATS, had the right to appoint the GM. But I have to give them a lot of credit for being open-minded and willing to accept changes. The JV saw a successful financial and operational turnaround.
At the same time, I became connected to the plant-based food sector. It became clear to me that the meat industry was not the future. Without even considering the environmental aspects, the business fundamentals for the sector have been eroding for a while. This prompted me to explore the possibility to bring Impossible Foods, a leading plant-based food brand into Singapore. My experience there really fostered a passion for this sector and the environment, and I decided to pursue my entrepreneurship dream and set up a new plant-based food company in Singapore with my partner, Timo Recker, in April 2020.
Bringing Impossible Foods – one of the global plant-based food leaders – to Singapore was a great achievement. What did you learn from this experience?
We were one of the two distributors in Singapore, and we were in charge of supplying the Quick Service Restaurant (QSR) segment of the market. The experience was an eye-opening one because I had been selling meat for so long that there was basically nothing exciting about it anymore, and all of a sudden, I had this new and powerful brand with a great product that was challenging paradigms about food consumption and contributing meaningfully to society – while tasting delicious. As a meat-lover myself, I thought the product was great. That was when I realized that plant-based foods were the future.
Incidentally, the other distributor was our competitor at that time and also my benchmark as a food services distribution company but today they are a distributor for Next Gen Foods.
Overall, I learnt so much from the launch of Impossible Foods. In 2018, there was little to no awareness of this niche in Singapore and a lot of people told us that it was impossible, that Singapore has had mock meats for a long time, and that there was nothing new about plant-based foods. But three years on, the market has evolved so much, which also makes the journey ahead a little easier for our new company.
Tell us a bit more about Next Gen Foods and your first product, a plant-based chicken called TiNDLE – what is on the agenda?
We just launched TiNDLE in Hong Kong and Macau on 24 June after a successful launch in Singapore in March, which is very exciting!
Next Gen is essentially a company that brings together an ideal combination of individuals with extensive experience in the plant-based food industry. None of us are first-timers, and our industry expertise is what has enabled us to do what we are doing, and to do it well and quickly.
Our CEO, Timo, set up his own plant-based company, Like Meat, in Germany in 2013, which was sold in 2020. He has been through the entire cycle of starting and building a company, raising funds, becoming profitable, facing challenges, growing international, and subsequently exiting. He also brought his experience working with a different business model where he had to invest in his own production facilities, which had an impact on their cashflow and capitalization, and those learnings are invaluable for Next Gen Foods.
John Seegers, our CTO, had worked at Like Meat with Timo for a number of years, developing all the technology for their products, so he is extremely well-versed in plant-based food technology.
Our CFO and Board Member, Rohit Bhattacharya, was spent the past 11 years at Temasek and has been involved in the investment and enterprise development space for a long time, including working on the plant-based food space for the past couple of years.
Our CMO, Jean Madden, spent the past decade and more working on product and brand management for global companies like Unilever and L’Oréal.
Together, we have extensive experience from upstream to downstream, across meat and plant-based foods, and in different countries, so that we can position ourselves as the best in the space globally.
How has the company grown in the past year?
We started Next Gen Foods in April 2020, and immediately had to contend with the COVID challenge because Singapore initiated its first COVID ‘circuit breaker’ (lockdown phase). But we soldiered on anyway and built the company up full-force so that we were ready to raise funds in October. Our Series A round did very well, and we closed it in early 2021 oversubscribed, with a slate of investors that were honestly better than we had originally imagined.
On 18 March this year, we launched TiNDLE in Singapore, and it has already been very successful. We started with 11 restaurant brands and we are already present in 47 outlets locally. This is significant considering that many restaurants have had to close intermittently during the pandemic as a result of government regulations.
We are now preparing for international expansion, having added Hong Kong and Macau recently, before growing further in the Asia-Pacific region. We see both Singapore and Hong Kong as global cities with highly educated and cosmopolitan consumers as well as hugely international gastronomy scenes, so they are good cities for us to launch in.
Within the next 18 months, we want to be present in both the US and Europe. After that, the two major markets will be China and Brazil, but these two markets are likely to require different business models so we will be planning for that when the time comes.
What has been driving the uptake of TiNDLE in the restaurant sector?
I can tell you that it is definitely not price because TiNDLE is not cheaper than conventional chicken. This is intentional because our target consumers are not those that are interested in our product because it is cheaper, but those that are interested in our product simply because it is a great product that challenges current paradigms and proposes a better and more environmentally friendly way of consuming ‘chicken’ without sacrificing taste.
This is part of the TiNDLE brand across the board. From the way we market ourselves to restaurants to consumers, as well as on our social media and so on, we emphasize that our product is not a ‘chicken alternative’. It is the same chicken experience that everyone loves, just made with a technology that is far more advanced than animal farming, that chefs love to cook with, that consumers will enjoy eating, and so on. It is not a ‘fake chicken’. It is not a mock meat. We are not advocating for people to give up their cravings or become vegan; we are simply offering a better experience.
TiNDLE is all about offering a genuinely fantastic product, which reflects our own passion for this space. We cannot imagine doing it any other way because we want to stay true to our own beliefs and principles.
You have mentioned in a number of other interviews that you focused on chicken because this meat had so far been rather overlooked in the plant-based food sector. What do you reckon is the reason behind this?
‘Overlooked’ may not exactly be the right word but essentially the only type of plant-based ‘chicken’ available on the market right now is nuggets. Essentially, this is because chicken is harder to replicate compared to nuggets and other ground or processed meats because of its structure, i.e. the fibres that constitute chicken meat. Chicken nuggets to real chicken is like Pringles to potato – nuggets are made of chicken, sure, but if you wanted a piece of chicken and receive a chicken nugget, you would usually be disappointed. Technically, it is quite complicated to engineer plant-based ‘chicken’.
In addition, many of the alternative meat companies come from the US, where the beef segment is huge and also higher-value. They would add, probably, that beef also has the single largest carbon footprint amongst all the meats we eat, which is true.
Given the technical complexity of creating ‘plant-based’ chicken, how has Next Gen Foods dealt with this challenge when it comes to TiNDLE?
There are a couple of key elements to focus on. The first is extrusion, which is a process used to create objects of a fixed cross-sectional profile. It is critical to understand the right sources, taste profiles, combinations and so on, to deal with this process, since extrusion is fundamental for recreating the fibroid structure that we associate with chicken. Extrusion is extremely challenging to master in any sector, and it is almost impossible to simulate accurately, so there is a lot of iteration and variation involved. It is an art as much as a science. Fortunately for us, John has been working on this for over two decades so he has understood the science and also mastered the art, which is rather unique in this space.
Another interesting component is the flavour and smell of chicken, obviously, which comes from chicken fat. Unlike, say, making plant-based beef, where you can replicate the taste and texture of fat with coconut oil, with chicken you cannot do that because chicken meat does not have layers of fat (unlike the marbling in beef, for instance) – the fat is integrated into the structure of the chicken meat. Consumers do not want to see visible chicken fat. To solve this, we developed a unique emulsion of plant-based fats and flavour that recreates the characteristics of chicken fat that we wanted. So far, I am not aware of any other company that has achieved this.
Finally, it is also important to figure out the right combinations and ratios of the components. Many of the ingredients in TiNDLE are off-the-shelf but putting them all together with the aspects we have engineered in-house is also essential to making the final product.
As a small company, we have established a mini-R&D lab in Singapore but we work with external suppliers and manufacturers as well.
Has it been challenging to find the right talent in Singapore?
In general, I would say no. There is a lot of bright young talent in Singapore we can access, though it is a little more challenging to find experienced people in this field here, compared to, for instance, the Netherlands, where the plant-based food sector is more mature.
On a more personal note, what cultural differences have you experienced between working in Brazil and Singapore?
There are so many! To start with, Singapore is a very global city while Brazil is a huge country with a very inward-looking and local business environment. Brazilians tend to focus on their country first and foremost, so in terms of language and culture, they are not as internationalized as Singaporeans.
Another interesting aspect revolves around expectations in business. In Singapore, unlike Brazil and also other countries like the US, for instance, you are expected to promise only what you know you can deliver. You do not need to promise a lot, but you have to deliver what you promise. The phrase ‘under promise but over deliver’ really applies. It is the opposite in Brazil, where you are expected to aim high and set overwhelmingly ambitious goals. As long as you genuinely try your best to deliver on them, it is not such a huge deal if you do not fulfil all your promises. People expect you to take more risks and failure – to an extent – is accepted. Of course, when both groups work together, conflict may arise because the Brazilian might think the Singaporean is not being ambitious enough while the Singaporean might think the Brazilian is unreliable. But thankfully, I learnt this quite quickly and mostly through the experiences of others, so I have been able to adapt to working across different cultures.
I also feel that, in many Western societies like the US and Latin America, people want to see energy and movement, whether or not that actually accomplishes something. In Asia, in my experience, at least, things just seem to work in the background; they do not need this constant reassurance that something is happening. If I have a project in Brazil versus Singapore, in six months I might have a lot of ‘movement’ from the Brazilian side and not much news from the Singaporean side, which can be worrying at the beginning, but in the end, it does not mean that there will be any less delivery on the Singaporean side.
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