Andrew Maternowski comes from a family of butchers.
Both of his grandfathers sold wholesale smoked sausage out of butcher shops in northern Indiana before handing over the businesses to his uncles. But Maternowski went in a slightly different direction.
He makes and sells vegan meat.
“We just started with different ingredients,” he said. “There was some stuff about nuts and so we went with it.”
Maternowski and his wife Monica Randles, both retired medical doctors, are the duo behind Nutcase Vegan Meats, based in the Grand Rapids area.
The former physicians started experimenting with plant-based meats after cutting animal meat from their diets 12 years ago and noticing health improvements. Maternowski used a small blender, which now sits like a trophy on a shelf at the Nutcase Vegan headquarters, to make his first meatless chorizo.
“I think we were just trying to make something that tasted good. So, we did nuts, brown rice, quinoa, flax seed — it all sort of came together,” he said.
Inspired by their time living in Texas, Maternowski and Randles seasoned their new plant-based chorizo with the same 23 spices as a traditional meat recipe. After several years of trial and error, they launched Nutcase Vegan Meats in 2016.
The organic-certified, whole food company now makes seven products including an award-winning nutty loaf, priced at about $10 a pound, burgers and breakfast sausage for customers who are looking for meat alternatives. They are sold at a couple dozen stores across Michigan and are inching toward national distribution.
Nutcase Vegan is one of several Michigan businesses tapping into a growing meatless meat market.
“It’s less than just a tolerance and more of an appreciation for eating well and still being conscientious — for whatever reason — of not eating an animal product,” Randles said.
As meat-mimicking products like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat were rolled out to fast food chains and grocery stores in recent years, familiarity with vegan meat grew. About two-thirds of Americans reported eating plant-based meat products last year, according to an International Food Information Council survey, up from four in 10 tallied in a 2020 Gallup poll.
“I think there’s widespread curiosity about what other ways there are to enjoy food without eating meat,” said Dominique Da’Cruz, an owner of Mushroom Angel in Detroit.
Da’Cruz and his wife Wendy started testing out mushrooms as a meat alternative after doing a spiritual fast and going vegan full-time two years ago. They played around with different recipes during the spring 2020 pandemic shutdown, and the Cruz Burger was born.
(Although, their youngest of three children is known as the “original Cruz Burger” because Wendy Ekua Da’Cruz says “she was in my belly when we were cooking this whole thing up.”)
That summer, about a thousand people tried the plant-based burger “perfected” by the Da’Cruz family. It’s a mushroom patty that they say bites like meat but tastes like a vegetable. It is sold in stores in and around Detroit and in Lansing and Grand Rapids for about $9 for two 4-ounce packages.
“We say it’s an old school veggie burger with a new school flavor,” Wendy Ekua Da’Cruz said. “We’re not looking to duplicate or replicate meat. We’re just looking to give you a better veggie burger experience where it doesn’t follow a pattern or feel slimy. And that’s where we’ve been winning with consumers who may be meat lovers or plant-based.”
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Plant-based foods are a $7.4 billion market in the United States.
Sales of all plant-based foods rose last year at a rate three times faster than total food retail sales, the Global Food Institute reported. Meanwhile, U.S. plant-based meat sales have increased 74% in three years to $1.4 billion with Michigan-based Morningstar Farms, formerly a Kellogg brand, holding the biggest chunk of the market.
Driven by consumer demand, the Global Food Institute says food companies have launched hundreds of new plant-based products in recent years.
One of those is Detroit Jerky.
Even though Scott Eatmon stopped eating meat eight years ago, he still missed the salty taste of beef jerky.
“I tried a couple of other plant-based jerkies from other manufacturers here in the United States and was never really that impressed,” he said. “So, I just decided to make my own at home.”
Using soy protein for the jerky, Eatmon spent time crafting the right flavor mix. He then launched Detroit Jerky with four products — Michigan Cherry Bomb, Mojito Inferno, Hickory Cracked Pepper and Buffalo Burn — in September 2020.
Sales took off.
Detroit Jerky is now sold in roughly three dozen stores across southeast Michigan and northern Ohio. On his website, the cost is about $7 for a 3-ounce package.
Most of Eatmon’s returning customers are meat eaters.
“Having something as far as texture and flavors that similar to what you’re used to makes transitioning to something a little healthier much easier and a less daunting experience,” he said.
Health is one of the top reasons why people are cutting back on meat.
A 2020 Gallup poll found 23% of Americans are eating less meat with nine in 10 reporting health concerns as a factor.
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Research shows vegetarians eat less fat, weigh less and have a lower risk of heart disease than those who eat meat. But Mayo Clinic experts say even cutting back on meat has a “has a protective effect” with those who eat red meat facing a higher risk of heart disease, stroke or diabetes.
For Nutcase Vegan, health is a part of the mission.
“When we started this thing, there was very little out there, and there’s still not medical curriculum. The healthiest diet, proven, is a whole food, plant-based diet,” Maternowski said. “The people who live the longest and have the fewest chronic medical problems are those who eat that diet.”
The environment is another big reason why some are turning to meat alternatives.
Animal agriculture accounts for nearly 15% of the global emissions with dairy and beef cattle leading the pack. If all meat and dairy production was phased out over the next 15 years, a recent PLOS Climate study found, it would offset two-thirds of the carbon dioxide emissions from this century.
Eatmon thinks more people realizing the impact meat has on climate change led to the rise of the plant-based food industry.
“A lot of people care about that part of it,” he said. “A lot of people just want something a little healthier. And with those two things combined, the plant-based products are just perfect for it.”
Although meat alternatives boomed in recent years, there are some early signs of slowing demand.
Sales of refrigerated plant-based meat slumped late last year being 4.3% lower than in December 2020. Despite the slowdown, overall sales are still up nearly 90% from three years ago, according to market research firm IRI.
But Michigan business owners are optimistic about the market.
Eatmon believes there’s a thriving vegan scene in Detroit, where people are “very passionate” and creative with food. And the Da’Cruz family agrees.
“We like to say if we can manufacture cars in Detroit, we can also manufacture healthy foods,” Dominique Da’Cruz said.
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