Will we ever reach a day when fast food restaurant serve nothing but plant-based or cultured meat? Many hope so, including Josh Tetrick, founder and CEO of Eat Just. But Tetrick’s ambitions for alternative protein stretch far beyond the QSR sector.
As of this writing, Eat Just is selling its cultured meat product at a restaurant in Singapore (where it got regulatory approval late last year). Stateside, the company has sold enough of its plant-based egg product to equal 100 million chicken eggs, and has been rapidly expanding throughout the restaurant industry.
As to wether we’ll ever see a day where the plant-based restarant is the norm, there are a lot of steps needed to get there. Tetrick and I chatted recently about these along with many other topics on the alt-protein front. Always a wealth of information when it comes to this subject, Tetrick explains what exactly it will take for cultured meat to reach parity with traditional meat, how experience matters when introducing it to consumers, and why he hops we reach a day when cultured meat becomes boring.
You can listen to the interview read the transcript of our conversation below. Note that the transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Jenn Marston: You’ve had a few different announcements in the last few months around JUST getting into more restaurants. Do you ever see a point where we’re going to have restaurants, and I mean, big restaurants, McDonald’s, or, you know, Starbucks or something, only offering alternative proteins on their menus?
Josh Tetrick: I think that one, if we don’t get to that point — similarly if we don’t get to a point where every car dealership only sells an electric car — that our planet will not be in a good state 30 years, 50 years, 100 years from now. So before I tell you what I think it should happen, I’ll say I think it’s a necessity that it does happen, given the urgency that we have around oceans, rain forests or [the danger of] another zoonotic disease outbreak.
I don’t think it will only be plant based. I see a world in which restaurants remove conventional meat from their menu. So they remove fried chicken, they remove hamburgers, they remove steaks or remove fish, they replace it with cultivated cultured meat. And some restaurants end up having plant based on the menu. That’s what the restaurant menu in the next 10, 20, 30 years will look like. I don’t think there’ll be a need for conventional meats.
When you have actual meat cultivated, it doesn’t require slaughtering animals. So we’ve done a lot of really important research around this particular topic. [We did a lot of work] in Singapore, looking at restaurant operators and surveys and I’ll give you one finding from that: About 80 percent of restaurants said that they would put cultivated cultured meat on their menu. And about 70 percent of people said that if [cultured meat] meets the tastes and the cost demands, there would be no reason to have conventional meat on the menu at all. So I think that’s what you’ll see. And I think there will always be people that want plant. My girlfriend Shelley is a good example. I gave her some my chicken and she almost spit it out. She said, ‘I don’t want something that tastes like an animal.’ And I think there’ll be a lot of people like that. And that’s okay.
Jenn Marston: I definitely know some people who, if it tastes too much like the real thing, they don’t want anything to do with it. So that’s definitely a good point.
Josh Tetrick: I think it was a combination of [the product] literally being an animal, not a plant. It tastes very much like an animal. But it literally being an animal, combined with it tasting just like an animal was too much for her to take.
Jenn Marston: On the subject of cultured meat, there have been a ton of developments since we last spoke, including Eat Just serving customers in Singapore.
Josh Tetrick: You know, we’ve served almost 300 people, but 80 percent of the people said they feel good about eating it, about 70 percent of the people who paid for it say they’d be open to substituting [cultured meat] for not only conventional meat, but even plant based. So we’re going to be expanding to more restaurants and building a larger manufacturing facility in Singapore to make sure that we’re able to meet all the [demand].
Jenn Marston: Why did you choose Singapore? Was it just that Singapore was most realistic to get regulatory approval first? Or is there something about that specific market you were interested in?
Josh Tetrick: There’s a few reasons. Their regulatory approach is often very evidence-based. The more science- and evidence-based you are, the less politics are involved. Second reason is that Singapore is a global melting pot. You have people from all over the world there. So when you’re wanting to learn how consumers think about this, why they like it, why they don’t like it, what is causing them to hesitate, you get lots of different cultures. Within those 300 people, we got people from all over the world, young, old everywhere in between. That’s another important reason. And then the third reason is, you know, more people consume meat in Asia than anywhere else in the world. So that was, that was another important reason why we chose Singapore.
Jenn Marston: Is it is the plan that get into more restaurants next?
Josh Tetrick: It is.
Jenn Marston: It seems like there is a lot of hype happening right now around cultured meat. And it seems like a lot of folks are very confident that cultured meat is gonna just explode very, very quickly. What do you think of some of these comments about it’s going to reach price parity quickly, it’s going to scale up very quickly.
Josh Tetrick: Well, there are a lot of factors involved. So I guess I’ll just start with the things that I think are certain, then I’ll go to things that are higher and lower probabilities.
What is certain is that cultured meat will eventually get to the price and then below the price of conventional animal protein. I do feel certain about that.
The next [issue] is when we’ll get there [to parity] — a year or five or 15 years. This is where there is not 100 percent probability. But I would say more likely than not, that in the next 10 years, this production process will get below the cost of chicken. Now, in order for that to happen, other things need to happen. And those other things include more countries allowing for the sale of [cultured meat]. If you can only sell in Singapore, your market is restricted to the million plus people on the island. You’re not going to be producing tens of billions of pounds, which is what is ultimately required to get to the kind of efficiencies necessary to get below the cost of chicken.
And then the third thing has to do with where we are in the US. I can’t tell you whether we are going to get regulatory approval this year or not, or whether [regulators are] going to approve it ’22. I think it’s more likely than not that we’ll see clearance sometime in the next two years. I hope it’s this year — we’re going to be ready if it is. But it’s hard to tell. A lot of companies will go out of business trying to get there. [Making cultured meat] is incredibly capital intensive, it is not easy. It is not straightforward. It requires hundreds and millions of dollars, if not a billion-plus dollars in investment, ultimately, to get there. It’s not for the faint of heart. And much like electric car production, you’re not going to have tens of thousands of companies making electric cars. You might have tens of thousands of companies making different sub components of electric cars, you know, the engine, the battery, the software. But we only get to have a handful of companies doing the whole thing. I think that is very analogous to the cultured meat industry.
The final thing I’ll say is, it is one of the real bright spots for us of what’s happening in Singapore. It’s one thing to talk about where production costs are going if you’re only making stuff for your friends and family and boyfriend and girlfriend and your fancy investors. That was the case for us up until we got clearance, and it’s the case for every other company. It’s another thing when you need to scale up to meet the demands of hundreds and thousands, then 10,000, then a million people. You learn a lot about producing more when you actually can produce more. So there’s going to be a ton of learnings that happen. As that scale up process happens, some things might be surprising on the downside, and some might be surprising on on the positive side, but we’ll learn as we make that happen.
Jenn Marston: How challenging is that? Part of getting consumers on board with this is obviously not just price parity, but also parity around taste and texture and the actual product. So how difficult has has that been for you all?
Josh Tetrick: Certainly at some point, whether it’s 5, 10 years (I sure hope it’s not 30 years), cultured meat will be below the cost of traditional meat. The second thing that I am certain about is we’ll eventually get to the point where not a single person can tell the difference because there’s literally no difference at all. Today, in the work that we’ve done, about 70 percent of the people think it tastes as good or better than traditional meat. There’s still a lot of work we want to do on texture. We’re going to be rolling out a chicken breast, which is a more advanced structural product.
But even if we solve for taste and texture, there’s also consumer perception: the feelings, the ideas that make people want to buy the product. It’s a confusing process, making cultured meat. It’s an unnatural process. I’m not saying these things are right, I’m just saying this is what a consumer feels. And I think ultimately, you could get your costs right, you get the taste and texture just perfect. But you’re still left with the most important thing: Do the consumers want to buy your product. The process of lab-grown meat might be holding them back. So it’s really important that we address that stuff. Now. We built a brand around addressing that stuff head on. We know many consumers will think it’s unnatural. That’s okay, let’s deal with it. And we want to deal with it by explaining our process, contrasting it to the conventional meat-making process. Eventually, having a digital platform allows consumers to really interact with stuff a little bit more, so they can get familiar with it. We need to normalize this method of production, so it’s not so opaque to consumers. When it’s confusing, their brains will naturally jump. In the case of cultured meat, many brains will naturally jump to, ‘This just isn’t natural.’ And we have found quite a stark difference between consumers over the age of 20 and consumers under the age of 20.
Jenn Marston: Yeah, I get a lot of a lot of folks who just look at me like I’m crazy when I asked them if would you eat meat grown in a lab, but I think it’s, you know, what more do we do to sort of educate consumers? How do you start talking to everybody in a way that’s going to make it have the same appeal, as, say, Doritos?
Josh Tetrick: A big component is allowing people to experience it. So I’ll use a car analogy. Imagine I was in Birmingham [Alabama, where he grew up] and I was talking to some of my friends and I said, ‘Would you would you want to drive a pickup truck doesn’t have an internal combustion engine? Would you be down with buying that?’ I’m almost certain my friends would say, ‘Hell no.’ But then Tesla comes out with that pickup truck that I saw them demoing. If my friends could go to a Tesla store in Alabama, get into that truck, and take it on the back country roads, then there’s an experience of something and there’s a perception change.
The most important thing we think you can do to change perception is allow people to experience in a concrete way, not in a theoretical abstract way. We need to get out in front of more people, right, more restaurants and more retailers and allow people to have the ability to actually access their other meat analogues.
The second thing is, I think you need to talk about this in a way that is not so technical that you lose people, but is concrete enough where you’re not hiding things from people. And that’s the hard balance. Because the more you unpack, the more you’re being open about it. But the more you unpack, sometimes people can just get lost in the science. It’s about finding the right balance of not getting so technical that people’s eyes just glaze over, but concrete and technical enough that people don’t walk away from that interaction thinking something has been hidden from them. That balance applies whether it’s a label interaction or commercial interaction or menu interaction, or a one to one interaction. One thing that we’ve actually found to be effective is to say, ‘Yes, it is true, the meat is made in a large stainless steel [container], that true statement.’ That statement can be both a little off-putting to people and a little liberating to people. But when you contrast that to how conventional meat is produced, people tend to feel a little bit better. So I think, experience number one, people just got to experience that. And then two, I think talking about in a way that is a little bit more relatable.
Jenn Marston: Something that I think there’s a huge need for more of translating the science into something that isn’t gonna insult folks intelligence or lied to them, but it is also going to, you know, the average person needs to be able to understand it.
Josh Tetrick: Especially if some of our folks are over the age of 20, if you describe the process of culturing meat, the vast majority will say it is strange. And I think the first step to effectively communicating is to acknowledge that is true. To most people, it sounds bizarre, it sounds strange. That’s okay. Let’s now let’s deal with it. Right?
Jenn Marston: Yeah, exactly.
Josh Tetrick: The more we effectively address it, the more we move [the industry] forward. For example, I understand why my mom would think it’s strange. In her mind, meat has been made her entire life (and the history of humanity) by slaughtering an animal and then cutting up their flesh. Cultured meat is different. Let’s just acknowledge that.
And what we’ve seen in other industries and with other products is that something that can be strange can also at some point in time be normalized, and can end up being pretty boring. And eventually, I want [cultured meat] to get to the point where people are sitting down at restaurants or go into grocery stores, and they don’t even have conversations about it anymore. They’re just like, yeah, I want some chicken. Sounds good. Do you have any chicken left in the freezer? Right? Yeah. There doesn’t need to be this philosophical engagement.
I think I think the truth is that whether it’s [about] not slaughtering an animal or an environmental reason, or a zoonotic disease reason, I guess all these things kind of are wound up in, “How does it make a person feel?” All of them — sometimes individually, sometimes in combination — I think, for most people, make them feel better about eating it. But I do think you have to talk about things like health, not using antibiotics, to some extent food safety. Often those things can be a bigger driver than sustainability or animal welfare. With that said, and this was a surprising result from the research that we did, the primary purchase driver, both for US consumers, and consumers in Singapore, was the fact that they could consume this meat without slaughtering an animal. Now, they might have correlated that with lots of other things like food safety and environment. So it might not have been looked at like it’s just like a purely independent variable. But I did find that to be interesting. But yeah, I mean, you have to talk about in a way that people can relate to. If I’m talking to my mom about this (my mom is not vegan or vegetarian), I would focus on you know, ‘Mom, you know, the fried chicken used to make me so it tastes like that. And it’s gonna have less antibiotics, that stuff you want and you’ll probably feel a little bit better by the day.’ That’s probably what I would say to my mom. That’s what I actually have said to my mom.