After success selling cleaning products, Simeon Van der Molen (SVDM) turned to meat-free burgers and hot dogs, launching UK firm Moving Mountains in 2016. He talks to Dean Best (DB) about building a brand in foodservice, consumer attitudes to plant-based and why press scrutiny of meat-alternative products is over-cooked.

DB: “As we start 2020, what are your priorities for Moving Mountains?”

SVDM: “Growth in sales, launching into new territories and also reinventing our products consistently to improve them, which is what our main competitors are constantly doing.

“There are a lot of other me-too companies jumping in now. A lot of these are owned by meat companies just to show that they’ve got something to offer the people and the quality is not very good.

“Looking at the UK, we’re in about 3,000 [foodservice] locations just in the UK that include places like Cafe Rouge, the Hard Rock Cafe, the whole of Stonegate’s pubs, Marston’s pubs, Harvester.”

DB: “Have you managed to get the Moving Mountains brand flagged on menus?”

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SVDM: “We won’t accept it any [other] way. It was a struggle in the early days. There have been chains that have refused to do that, they ridiculously called it a vegan burger and then we withdraw supply.

“Because we spend so much money on PR, there is literally no point if a restaurant want to white label the product. Naming is very important. We don’t use the words ‘meatless’, ‘meat free’, ‘vegan’, or ‘vegetarian’. We want our product described with what is most beneficial about the product. Therefore we talk about the provenance of the product, the flavouring.”

DB: “What are the principal ingredients in your burger and hot dog?”

SVDM: “The largest part of the burger is actually mushroom, an oyster mushroom base. Mushrooms have a very meaty texture but we combine it with other ingredients such as a very unique pea-wheat texture, which clings to the mushrooms. In the hot dog are sunflower seeds, which grind down to a paste to make the hot dog paste. It’s very clean-label, it’s gluten-free, so it’s suitable for everyone. It’s ridiculously like a hot dog because we have it smoked in a real, genuine smoke-house.

“On the burger, it’s very much more about the ingredients and how they work together. With the hot dog, it’s very much more about the cooking process: how we heat it to the right temperatures and mould it just like a real pork hot dog. Even though hot dogs are one of the cheapest products in the world, they’re not the easiest product to make.

“With our burger, which is made from at least 20% mushroom, we like to believe we’ve probably got the least-processed plant-based burger out there at the moment. There’s a lot of talk about the processing of these products, which is interesting because hot dogs, burgers, spam and ham are all processed. There’s all sorts of colourants that go into these types of products. A beef burger is also processed, textured, goes through different forming plates, flavours are added, sugars are added, salt is also added. Customers need to think ‘Well, all these products are processed’ and decide what type of processing they prefer: the meat processing, or the plant processing. The choice is theirs really.”

DB: “There is increasing scrutiny about the health attributes of plant-based products. Do you foresee plant-based suppliers having to continually review their product portfolio to stay ahead of these concerns?”

SVDM: “Yes, that’s what we’re doing. If we look at the history of food, one day soy is good, one day it’s bad. Pea at the moment is good; soon it’s going to be bad. It’s constantly changing. If you look at where all these questions are arising from on processing, there could be some underlying interest from some potentially very large meat companies, trying to undermine the growth of these products. I don’t know if there is but I think there probably could be. We need to take that into account.

“We are constantly looking at new versions to reformulate but I want to make it clear that these products are not designed to be eaten every day. This is where I think the market that is scrutinising this is going wrong. We say that our burger should be eaten as a treat and not for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And it should be eaten in conjunction with a whole food, healthy, plant-based diet. Hot dogs and burgers are treats.

“The market is just getting a fair bit carried away by saying this food is all processed. There’s a lot of people that eat nothing but processed ham for lunch every single day. We are aware of [the scrutiny] and we’ve just got to look at the nutritional profiling of our burger and hot dog and make changes.

“I think [the press] are just looking for stories. They need something to write about after the success of Beyond Meat on the stock market. They think ‘Okay, well, maybe we can write some bad stuff about that burger now or tear them apart in another way.’ Ultimately, the market’s growing and burgers and hot dogs are bought as treats, not as something you have every day. Everyone should have a healthy diet and enjoy food when they can. That’s why I started it because I missed burgers and hot dogs.”

DB: “When you started Moving Mountains, you focused on foodservice. Is that channel still the majority of the firm’s revenue?”

SVDM: “It probably represents about 75% of our actual trade. Retail’s tricky. I’ve always said you go to retail when you’ve got 20 products, you’ve got a really great brand already established in foodservice and other categories and then you launch it in the supermarket because then you would have more money in the bank and you’ve got it ready to give to the supermarket.”

DB: “What were Moving Mountains’ sales at the end of 2019?”

SVDM: “We go by the financial year but, by the end of the financial year, we’re looking at GBP10m (US$13.1m).”

DB: “What growth rate is that on the previous year?”

SVDM: “The previous year it was GBP2m.”

DB: “What’s driving that growth?”

SVDM: “We did a really big deal with the meat trader Jan Zandbergen in the Netherlands, one of Europe’s largest meat distributors. We didn’t know much about the European market other than we wanted to conquer Germany, Spain, France and the Netherlands. It was very important for us to partner with a meat-trading company because, if you want to get in all the top restaurants and the restaurant chains, you need to partner with someone who’s already got contacts. All these restaurants across Europe don’t buy all their products from a vegetarian distributor. They buy all their products from meat distributors. We also did a deal with a similar meat distributor in Dubai to supply the Middle East. Growth has also come from introducing our second product, the hot dog – and we’ve got even more new products launching next year under wraps.”

DB: “Is the strategy to continue to have foodservice represent three-quarters of your sales?”

SVDM: “As we go into new markets such as North America, our strategy is to do fifty-fifty. We’re probably going to see a much more even split going forward of fifty-fifty for the next three to five years.”

DB: “What’s on the horizon in terms of new countries or new channels?”

SVDM: “The USA is going to be very important for us. We’ve just gone with a distributor for the USA and we’re working very hard to get them learning about the product. We have a lot of leads coming from the US.

“The launching of new products is also important. NPD is the lifeblood of any company, so we’ve got to come up with new products, constantly improve flavours, textures, improve nutritionals.

“Cash-and-carry is very important for us. We’re in cash-and-carry across the whole of Europe, so maybe looking at cash-and-carry in Australia, now that we’ve gone into [local retailer] Woolworths.

“I like to look at the company like a tree. When a seedling grows, you notice that the root grows down first before the trunk starts growing and it starts to grow deep and it spreads out its roots. Once it’s got a strong roots, the trunk starts forming, the branches and the leaves form. If you want to build a company, you’ve got to build a really strong root for that company and you can do that by being in foodservice. Once you’ve got the product in there, and you’re on the actual restaurants’ menus, they’re not exactly going to discontinue you – and you’re building a stronger root for the company than launching your product in a supermarket [who] after even 12 weeks decides it’s not selling well enough and kicks you out.

“Once you’ve built the strong root in foodservice around the world, you can build a strong trunk for the company. Then you can start to bring on supermarkets and then the branches grow and you can go into supermarkets all over the world. Then you can then start picking the fruit.”

DB: “To help fuel your growth plans, would you be interested in taking on investment? Do you need it?”

SVDM: “I do get contacted by loads of VCs and investors quite often. I’ve met with a few but, you know, all they’re interested in is themselves: how much money they can make – of course – and they want to put in as little money as possible for the largest stake. I stopped talking to them, basically.

“What would be really interesting as part of the story is to say, unlike all these other plant-based food companies that have given away huge stakes to venture capitalists, what’s unique about Moving Mountains is it is still 100%-owned by by the founder and he’s able to keep the company very true to its values and steer it in the direction he wants. That would be a refreshing story than to say I’ve taken investment from Bill Gates or someone – well, if he offered, I probably would.”