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Tempeh is a delicious plant-based food made by fermenting whole soybeans so they become even more nutritious and versatile – it’s beans made better. Not just another meat alternative, tempeh has been a staple in Indonesian cuisine for over 300 years, and now Better Nature Tempeh is the UK’s fastest-growing and highest-rated tempeh brand.
An award-winning B-corporation that is currently overfunding on Seedrs, Better Nature Tempeh is going from strength to strength and they have ambitious plans for the future. We sat down with its four co-founders, Elin Roberts (CMO), Christopher Kong (CEO), Driando Ahnan-Winarno (CTO) and Fabio Rinaldo (COO), to find out more.
Meat substitutes and protein-based products have had a challenging past year. How do you predict market growth will look, and how do you plan to deal with this?
The meat-free category has admittedly shrunk over the last 12 months, but not nearly as much as the media has made it seem! According to NielsenIQ data, there’s been a 1.5% YoY drop in total unit sales which is hardly the “death” of the industry as the media has been portraying. Total value sales have actually increased by 7.6% YoY (a lot of this is down to price increases, however).
The shrinkage of the meat-free category is largely due to the cost of living crisis and this drop in volume sales is not unique to the meat-free category – all branded FMCG categories are feeling the squeeze. Meat itself had a very challenging 2022, with fresh meat experiencing a 11.1% value decline. That said, given that inflation is plateauing and consumers have adapted to the new normal, there are reasons to be bullish that the meat-free category will return to growth in 2023/24.
The business opportunity for meat-free products in the UK and globally is still massive. In the UK in 2022, 7.2m people said that they followed a meat-free diet – a figure which had increased 40% in the 12 months prior. There has also been a significant rise in flexitarians which, according to YouGov, now consists of 14% of the UK population. This trend is not unique to the UK; plant-based foods are expected to make up 7.7% of the global protein market by 2030 with a value of over $162 billion, up from $29.4 billion in 2020.
More information about the performance of the meat-free category in the UK can be found here in The Grocer’s Focus On Plant-Based Meat Report which was published mid-August 2023.
With many different brands of tempeh, tofu, and other meat substitutes on the market, can you tell us why Better Nature Tempeh is, well, better?
First and foremost, we are focused on distinctiveness and differentiation, rather than crowding an already popular category. Most brands in the meat-free/plant-based space aim to replicate animal products and centre their message around being a more sustainable option.
On the other hand, our focus is creating the healthiest meat-free foods that still taste delicious, but won’t taste like meat. With a food as naturally nutritious and versatile as tempeh, we are in a strong position to establish this emerging category and not get lost in the crowd.
Compared to other tempeh businesses, our success is primarily due to 3 core factors: the strength of our team, our product range and our brand.
We’ve assembled a stellar band of tempeh fanatics joined by a mission to help people live healthier lives. Outside of the core full-time team, we have surrounded ourselves with an excellent roster of freelancers and advisors who can each boast decades of experience spanning all-things FMCG from Sales & Marketing to Leadership & Culture.
From the team stems our category-leading product range. We’re proud to have the UK’s highest-rated tempeh range judging from our Trustpilot and Amazon reviews. Our products have also won revered industry accolades: our BBQ Pieces recently won a Great Taste Award, our Curry Pieces is a Finalist in The Grocer’s New Product & Packaging Awards, and our Organic Tempeh won Silver in the Nourish Vegan Awards.
Building off the best tempeh range on the market, we’ve established the strongest brand. As mentioned, when creating our brand, we didn’t want to get lost in the ever-growing crowd of meat-free products. Instead of following many of our competitors and shouting about being meaty and sustainable, we focus on what makes tempeh unique: its incredible health credentials. Our brand is all about celebrating the joy of eating well, reflected in our tagline is “Life’s better with tempeh”. Tempeh isn’t trying to be meat – it’s a naturally nutritious and delicious food that anyone and everyone can enjoy and add protein, fibre and gut-friendly prebiotics to their diet.
It’s exciting to hear that you intend to launch a range of ready-to-eat products, such as burgers and veggie balls. Has it been difficult to strike a balance between presenting tempeh as a meat-substitute or as a source of protein in its own right?
Thank you – we’re very excited about this!
Not really. We’re very clear on what we are and what we’re not. Our number one goal is to offer our customers the most natural and nutritious products on the market. Right now, that means our products will not taste like meat. If that’s what you’re looking for, we’re not your brand. That’s been a very important lesson for us to learn: if you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one.
However, accessibility is also important and as tempeh is not an especially well-known food in the UK, we want to present it in more natural, nutritious versions of formats people are familiar with like veggie balls and burgers. So they feel more confident to cook with it, what to serve it with, and so forth.
However, we make it very clear that those nuggets and burgers will not taste like meat. Again, that may not appeal to everyone but from our research, we know a lot of people are looking for products like this – natural, healthy, convenient and delicious.
It’s all about managing customer expectations. We are also working on our “Tempeh 2.0”, a new way of making tempeh, which will create a genuinely meat or fish-like product in an all-natural, nutritious way. Once we’re happy with the quality of these products in terms of a taste and nutritional perspective, we’ll communicate in a different way. But not until then – accurately managing our customer’s expectations comes first.
Whilst tofu and tempeh differentiate massively, they are similar in that they are both made using soybeans. Do you have any plans to develop a line of tofu or alternative meat-substitutes in the future?
We don’t, for a number of reasons:
- We are all about helping people live healthier lives, and we think tempeh is uniquely and best positioned to do so, as it is the world’s most naturally nutritious plant-based protein. Tempeh has around 50% more protein than tofu, 7 times the fibre and being fermented, is also much more easily digestible and filled with prebiotics unlike tofu.
- Tempeh is an Indonesian food and we have proud Indonesian roots, with one of us (Driando) born and bred in Indonesia and all of us very passionate about giving back to Indonesia including donating 1% of our sales to an Indonesian not-for-profit fighting malnutrition.
- We are experts in tempeh, with Driando having done a PhD on tempeh and its positive impact on human health and our NPD on tempeh being world-leading.
- The potential for tempeh is almost endless, from playing around with its fermentation process to enhance its nutritional properties, to turning it into a huge range of products – it will keep us very busy!
- We don’t want to lose focus – again trying to please everyone means you don’t please anyone.
Whilst tempeh is undoubtedly better for the planet compared to animal products, do you have any policies or initiatives in place to make sure Better Nature Tempeh is the best option when it comes to a sustainably-produced protein product?
For sure! There’s loads we do to try to be as ethically and environmentally sound as possible but we’ll share the top three:
- We are a certified B CorpTM with a score of 99.7 – making us the highest-rated meat-free brand in the UK. There’s still a lot more to do but it’s a brilliant starting point and a great reflection of our commitment to doing business for good.
- Our whole tempeh range has either a very low or low carbon rating, verified by My Emissions in a farm to fork analysis.
- We donate 1% of all our sales to not-for-profit YUM, to help tackle malnutrition in Indonesia, the home of tempeh.
You’re crowdfunding for £400k+ and have already got a backing of £1 million + from angels and VCs. What do you plan to do with the money you raise?
We have several plans and ambitions for the future – two of these being expanding our distribution and our range of products. We want to expand our retail distribution in the UK and Germany, launch in the US and expand our foodservice distribution. We also want to launch our hybrid ready-to-heat and meat-free snacking ranges, whole-cut meat alternatives made using Tempeh 2.0, and our ingredients range, which ultimately works towards our goal of establishing Better Nature as Europe’s go-to tempeh brand.
What is your vision for Better Nature Tempeh in 5 years time?
We plan to be one of the UK and Europe’s leading meat-free brands, with tempeh a mainstream food and us having an extensive range to suit a wide range of occasions, from ready-to-heat, ready-to-eat to snacking. We plan to be rapidly growing in the US and considering which other markets we can expand into.
If you had to convert one person to tempeh, what Better Nature Tempeh product would you use and what meal would you make them?
Great question! We’d probably use our Organic Tempeh and make Tempe Kecap – a deliciously sweet, sticky and crispy dish from Indonesia, served with rice. It’s a surefire winner.
What has been the greatest learning on your journey?
There have been so many learnings, but the greatest one has to be: your people are everything. That’s not just your team, who are incredibly important, but also your customers, partners, network, investors, advisors etc.
This means: taking the time to nurture those relationships, giving as much if not more than you’re taking, listening to understand not to respond, receiving and giving constructive feedback gracefully, reflecting on how you can communicate better, being open, authentic and transparent and remembering that first and foremost, we are all human beings who want to feel heard and supported.
Once you can do that, everything becomes so much easier. People want to work with you, help you, connect you with others, your team works more effectively and joyfully together, you develop so much more in your role and you feel so much less alone in this bizarre experience of founding a business.
What motivates you?
Our core mission: to help people live healthier lives. Whether that’s the ingredients going into our products, donating 1% of our sales to YUM, how we protect our team’s wellbeing, the content we share on social media or how we work with our partners. People’s wellbeing always comes first for us.
As part of this, of course we have a huge love for tempeh and the role we think it can play in achieving our mission. That’s why we’ve set ourselves a very audacious (but realistic) goal of getting 500 million people eating tempeh by 2030. Our unwavering belief that tempeh will become a mainstream food and the positive impact this will have on people’s health is very motivating.
Is there one particular quality that your immediate team shares, apart from a love of tempeh?
To be “better-bound”. It’s a term we’ve coined and it’s one of our core values. It means to always strive to do things better – to promote wellbeing better, to be more ethical, effective, creative, joyful and so on. As part of this, we give ourselves and each other space to make mistakes, be vulnerable and we really try to embrace failure as a way to learn and grow. We think it’s the only way to truly find a better way and is one of the main reasons we’ve experienced the success we have.
You are all still so young, and I know that you turned down job offers or gave up your jobs to work on Better Nature Tempeh. Was there a particular moment that made you realise this was what you needed to focus on, and if so, could you share this with us?
The moment was different for all of us, however by the time we all came together we really knew this is what we wanted to focus on. And the fact that the four of us had such differing and complementary skill sets, personalities and experiences, but were bounded by a passion for wellbeing and love for tempeh, made this even clearer.
We knew we had a huge challenge ahead of us, launching a little-known food into the mainstream is no mean feat, but we knew we were the people to do it. That belief has never left us, despite the many challenges that have come our way running a business through Brexit, a pandemic, cost-of-living crisis and much more. So that really tells you something!
You can find out more about Better Nature Tempeh’s team, strategy, products and campaign here.