Slim Jim marketer cooks up plant-based alternative
Appeared as part of the Sponsored Section Cash Crop in the March 2018 issue.
By Tim Stevens
Every time a schoolkid peels open a Lunchable meal or a guy picks up a Slim Jim at his local convenience store, he or she is enjoying some of Rody Hawkins’ best-known work.
So what’s a meathead who grew up on a Tennessee cattle farm and holds a doctorate in meat science doing leading a team of scientists developing meat’s plant-based replacement? “How else are we going to feed 9 to 10 billion people on planet Earth by the year 2050 unless we become more efficient in how we feed them?” Hawkins asks.
Garner-based Improved Nature LLC believes it has a solution to world hunger by binding plant proteins together to make products that look, taste and chew like meat. Developing the company’s chicken-free strips, beef-free filets and pork-free cutlets are some of the same scientists who created some of the country’s most famous meat products.
Hawkins was fresh out of college in 1986 and working at Oscar Mayer when he developed Lunchables, a ready-made meal designed for schoolchildren. He designed a tray and filled it with crackers, small slices of ham and turkey, cheese slices and a mint. Kraft Heinz Co. now makes 44 varieties of Lunchables.
“I didn’t know it would be as big as it is, but I did tell them that they didn’t have to pay me a salary, just give me 1% of the profits,” Hawkins says. “They laughed. It took a while for Lunchables to be profitable, but it has done quite well.”
Hawkins left Oscar Mayer for GoodMark Foods Inc. in 1988, arriving in Garner to work in the meat-snack industry. Hawkins believed GoodMark’s Slim Jims was a good product with a small market. That changed when GoodMark started promoting Slim Jims as a manly snack through associations with bull riding, NASCAR, the X Games and professional wrestling. Omaha-based ConAgra Inc. bought GoodMark for $225 million in 1999, and Hawkins stayed through 2002 before starting RDI Foods LLC, a consulting firm. He gradually added some of his GoodMark colleagues including Larry Chandler, Steve Klawiter and Sarid Shefet.
Together, the partners solved complex problems for food manufacturers. When the Department of Defense needed a tasty food that was shelf stable for years, RDI developed a sandwich that can withstand 100-degree temperatures for six months without its texture, taste or appearance being affected. If a 3-year-old sandwich sounds appetizing, you can snack on one at many outdoor equipment stores, but you won’t find Improved Nature’s products on store shelves yet.
The Los Angeles Unified School District, the largest in the country, will test Improved Nature’s products in its cafeterias this spring. Berkeley, Calif., schools are already offering them. The company considered starting a direct-order business but decided it would be a distraction from developing new products to meet a burgeoning world population with an increased appetite for a varied diet. Improved Nature’s plan is to work with other companies that will rehydrate, package and ship products to hungry customers.
A process that could bind a plant product into meatlike fibers had been developed but not implemented successfully before Improved Nature tackled the problem. Moshe Meidan, the Israeli inventor of the technology, knew RDI’s Shefet. Meidan joined the team, and the focus shifted from consulting to developing this new product. Improved Nature was born. Today, it has one principal investor whom Hawkins declines to name.
Alison Rabschnuk is director of corporate engagement at the Good Food Institute. She has some of Improved Nature’s “chicken” tenders in her freezer at home and says co-workers think they are very similar to the taste and texture of real chicken. She says the biggest challenges in global food technology are feeding more than 9 billion people worldwide by 2050 and alleviating climate change. “Plant-based [and clean] meats are the answer to both of those questions,” she says. “Improved Nature is one example of companies using innovative processes to make plant-based meat products that are vastly more sustainable than their animal meat counterparts. We know from research that many consumers are seeking out products that have a similar taste and texture to meat while also containing equivalent protein.”
Hawkins spoke in September at the Concordia Annual Summit, a conference revolving around the United Nations General Assembly week in New York. In his remarks, Hawkins said the conversation has shifted from finding more efficient food production and transportation methods to finding more efficient and sustainable food sources. As Hawkins left the conference, a woman he didn’t know came up to him and said, “I just want to give you a hug.”
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