Thai company Let’s Plant Meat has been at the forefront of the country’s burgeoning plant-based industry since its inception, producing vegan meat alternatives such as burgers, hash and katsu with locally grown ingredients.
A former winner of Future Food Asia’s Plant Protein Award, Let’s Plant Meat products can be found at multiple outlets across the country, at prices well below those of rivals’ imported alternative meats. With several multinationals now in the plant business in Thailand, the vegetarian sat down with Let’s Plant Meat CEO Smith Taweelerdniti to find out what’s next for the growing brand.
Can you briefly describe your journey in the plant world?
I am the general manager of Nithi Foods, a producer of spices and culinary seasonings in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Since 2013, we have expanded our R&D team for food flavor research and I pitched the idea of bringing a plant-based alternative to meat to the team in March 2019.
We formed the Let’s Plant Meat team and joined the food tech incubator program called Space-F to refine our ideas and accelerate the business plan with 15 cohorts of food startups. In March 2020, we first launched our Plant-Based Burger Patty at Tesco Lotus in Bangkok and now we are exporting to more than seven Asian countries in 2022.
In the two years since our last interview, how has Let’s Plant Meat evolved in terms of products and markets?
The last two years have been fun. We have appointed Jagota Brothers Trading, a leading importer of premium food products, to help distribute our plant-based Burger Patty. Early adopters like Tesco Lotus and Rim Ping Supermarket wanted to promote more locally made vegan items. Our prices compared to imports provide consumers with substantial savings and every supermarket in Thailand has started to add more space to vegan items.
“The pandemic has hit Thailand hard”
At the beginning of 2021, we wanted to launch our third product – Plant-Based Meat Katsu but the pandemic hit Thailand hard. Most people worked from home, so supermarket tastings of new foods were constantly postponed. That’s when we came up with the idea of selling our frozen products online and shipping them directly to consumers’ homes.
In which segments are you currently seeing the strongest growth?
I see retail and food service will continue to grow for healthy vegan food products. For retail, this is where customers discover new products and take them home to try. Many restaurateurs have tried our products in the supermarket and then contacted our distributor for an order.
“Vegan restaurants are trending here because consumers see vegan as a healthier food”
The big fast food chains in Thailand choose to use famous import brands, so we have partnered with smaller chains like Khiang, Ohkajhu Organic and small independent vegan restaurants. Vegan restaurants are all the rage here as consumers view vegan as a healthier food and that’s where a lot of the creativity has happened. We are happy to work with restaurants like I’m Your Vegan, Vegano Bistro and KIN Burger & Soy Milk to develop their menus using Let’s Plant Meat. However, the share of plant-based meat in the overall meat market in Thailand is still a tiny fraction.
How do you think Thai consumers have changed when it comes to plant-based meat alternatives?
The tipping point for Thai consumers to become familiar with new plant-based meat alternatives was when CPF, Thailand’s largest meat producer, entered the market with its plant-based meat brand” Meat Zero” in 2021. The brand came with a big advertising budget with celebrity TV ambassadors and launched a full set of 10 products at all major retailers, including 7-Eleven convenience stores. This is when mass market consumers discovered plant-based meat. Our marketing team used to track Google search keywords for “vegan” and “plant-based meat” and we saw a 10x increase in daily searches in Thailand from 2020 to 2021.
“Chiang Mai tops the list on Contiki.com with the most vegan restaurants in the world”
We are seeing more and more hip, independent vegan restaurants popping up in tourist towns like Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Phuket. While the price of food at some vegan restaurants tends to be a cut below fine dining prices, a segment of affluent consumers choose these dining options for health reasons. At the same time, many vegan restaurants choose to offer food on a budget consistent with their owners’ mission to help people and the planet. Bangkok was named No. 8 in HappyCow’s Top 10 Vegan Cities of 2021, while Chiang Mai topped the list on Contiki.com with the world’s most vegan restaurants, at 32.2 per 100,000 people.
Can you describe the market dynamics in Thailand?
We launched Let’s Plant Meat at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. While it was a struggle for everyone, most people weren’t going out to restaurants, so demand came mostly from supermarkets. The pandemic was also not the perfect time to launch a new brand, so we were lucky to have limited competition in 2020. But 2021 came with the arrival of Meat Zero from CPF, from OMG Meat from Thai Union, Tyson’s First Pride and Cargill’s Plantever. So in 2022, smaller brands have been pivoting their business plans in different ways, such as focusing on seafood, catering, ice cream, online sales, or even specific health claims like high in protein or fiber.
“The price gap between animal meat and vegetable meat is narrowing”
This year has also seen pork prices in Thailand rise sharply by 25% due to the African swine flu virus which has attacked a large number of farms and drastically reduced pork supply. Meanwhile, plant-based meat prices have continued to fall as big and small brands are beginning to gain traction and realize economies of scale. The price gap between animal meat and plant-based meat is narrowing, allowing more consumers to switch to plant-based meat.
What can we expect from Let’s Plant Meat over the next two years?
After our last product launch, we began to see unmet consumer needs for ready-to-cook flavored products and larger fillets of alternative meats. The strength of our business is our ability to create our own marinade and seasonings to accompany plant-based meat, so we will be focusing more on this strategy.
“The problem we see with vegan meat is that consumers have to find their own vegan sauces”
So far, we have launched four more retail items in 2022: Plant-Based Beef, Plant-Based Italian Meatballs, Plant-Based Laab Meatballs (Spicy Thai) and plant-based shrimp chops. We’ve also refined our meat forming process to create many new styles of meatballs and sausages. Our strategy is to emphasize Thai cuisine, for example, we have created a vegetable hash with a vegan Thai basil stir-fry sauce. The problem we see with vegan meat is that consumers have to come up with their own vegan sauces, so that’s where our innovation and fun continues.