Chef David Lee started Seattle-based Field Roast in 1996 by creating vegetarian meats from grains with bold spices and healthy fats. More than 20 years later, Field Roast has become a national brand reaching millions of people with plant-based meat and cheese alternatives. Field Roast’s wildly popular sausages, Chao slices, and other offerings have become staples for consumers looking for healthier, unique tasting, more sustainable, humane, and delicious food.
David recently announced the sale of his company to Maple Leaf Foods. The sale raised eyebrows among some loyal vegan customers who worry the company’s values will be comprised. David agreed to join Kirschner’s Korner for a phone interview to discuss the company’s evolution, success, sale, and the future of plant-based food.
Kirschner’s Korner: Thank you for creating Field Roast. The sausages are amazing and so much healthier. The taste, texture, and packaging of your products is second to none on the market. The Chao slices melt and taste delicious. I’ve used them to make grilled cheese and vegetable lasagna for meat and dairy eaters and they really enjoyed it. I’m deeply grateful for all the lives you’ve changed and saved. You’ve shown the masses that it’s possible to eat good food without harming others. What inspired you to start Field Roast?
David Lee: Passion for farmed animals. Like many people, I had the realization that the way we were treating animals was callous and unethical. I still think today for every pound of Field Roast sold, it’s a pound less of animals being sold. My goal was to create something that was different from what was on the market–something less processed. My background is in food as a chef so I thought let’s make something that’s real food–something with succulence and dimension. That led me to create something that embraces the plant kingdom. Some recent brands do it from a clear imitation point of view whereas I did it trying to create an entirely new product as an artisan food. I was working with a friend developing a wrap and then added a protein. That’s how it started.
I agree. Your products are definitely original and don’t seem to aim to mimic meat from animals or alternatives on the market. I’m amazed at how healthy your ingredients are in comparison. What are some of the company’s accomplishments that make you most proud?
Creating a place that people like to work is one of my biggest accomplishments. Our company culture. We’ve grown so quickly the past two years from approximately 50 to 200 employees. It has been such a pleasure to work with my sons. Of course, there have been certain times when our business has gotten a leg up. When we learned how to make our sausages right, it was an especially rewarding moment because we knew what it meant. It was a major milestone in the history of our company. We knew carnivores would enjoy it and eat it. Food is such a cultural thing. People are used to putting protein between two pieces of bread–something our slices, sausages, and burgers allow them to do. That’s what Field Roast does–we provide an option for people in that category.
What advice would you give to people thinking about starting their own vegan food company?
Take a good look at the market. Differentiate yourself from what’s out there. Learn from the industry. Don’t give up.
Some vegan customers have expressed disappointment that you decided to sell the company. Why did you decide to sell Field Roast?
It wasn’t a planned decision. We have 38 shareholders. Most of them made an investment in Field Roast 18 years ago. I felt I owed them something–some kind of return on their investment. President Obama’s JOBS Act opened up capital markets to regular Americans. Before the JOBS Act, to invest in private company, individuals needed to have a large network. We spent a significant amount of money working with attorneys and the SEC to go that route and then we received an unsolicited call from a major company. Their offer, which is now public, was significant so I owed it to my shareholders to consider. I could go with the A+ offering or I could work with a meat company. I had met with Hormel 18 years ago. They were interested so selling to a meat company is something I’ve held in my range of possibilities for a long time because I know it could have a much greater impact with their reach. Accepting the Maple Leaf offer was a much easier option and the right thing to do. I met the people at Maple Leaf and think they will do a terrific job with quality assurance, communication, and other important issues. I was very impressed with their CEO Michael McCain and feel very good about the transition.
Why was it important for Maple Leaf Foods to agree to the Field Roast vegan policy affirmation?
These are things we take for granted at a vegan company. We don’t have all vegan employees–maybe it’s 10%. But we want to get on the same page and educate Maple Leaf and make sure they understand our values. We had a meeting with our employees and one of the employees who isn’t a vegan said that since he has been working at Field Roast he has been eating less animal meat. It’s like every family who has a vegan in it; there’s an influence there when people know you’ve made that commitment. Maple Leaf readily embraced the policy. They understand our brand and expressed no interest in changing it.
That’s terrific news David. Will Field Roast employees continue to work at Maple Leaf?
All of our employees will become Maple Leaf employees of their plant-based division when the deal closes. They will stay in Seattle.
What do you want customers to know about the Field Roast sale?
I want them to know the products will still be delivered to their stores. Stores will get more Field Roast, the brand will not change, and they’ll see new products. Maple Leaf will use their expertise to grow our brand. They will be able to influence the techniques and skills we have which will be a plus for customers as they will have better distribution, more products on the shelf, and they will do so more quickly. I understand we’ve been a beloved, independent company. Maple Leaf is a very well run company that has fully embraced our social purpose on community equity, treading lightly on the earth, and our vegan affirmation. Michael McCain is a real visionary. I want our customers to know this is an unprecedented investment. It’s historic. No meat company has ever invested this much money to buy a plant-based meat company. Maple Leaf spent $260 million to purchase Lightlife and Field Roast within months. That’s such promising news. And they’ll be investing millions more in marketing and production. It’s a win for them, for us, and for the issues we care about. We’ve also received tremendous support in the community from people like you–people who understand the industry, what this means, and they’re excited about it.
Well said David. These are exciting times. Our focus should be on getting Field Roast into as many stores as possible so people who currently eat animals have a better option. I trust that will be Maple Leaf’s goal as it was yours–and that they will leverage their tremendous influence and experience in the food industry. What’s next for you?
To support this project as long as I can. I’m going to figure out how to best use the money I get from this sale for the greatest benefit. People who know me know I’m not really into money for its own sake. I’m thinking about my next new project. I also hope to be involved with Maple Leaf in some capacity for many years to come.
Maple Leaf has all the means to grow Field Roast. Their business model is the exact same with the exception that they start with animals. They use so much of the same equipment as us. They’re using grinders, sausage makers, and they’re using ovens, cooling down equipment, and packaging machines. Once you have the product, it’s cold, frozen distribution, selling into restaurants, grocery stores, clubs like Costco. It’s all the same. They will do a terrific job.
I’m asking our long time friends and customers to give this new paradigm a chance. We’re making history–let’s make it work. I’ve done my best. I care very much about the company’s success. We hope to have everyone’s support. If we want animal-focused industries to transition from animal-based food to plant-based food, let’s support this effort and help to make it successful and it will happen more and more. We’re heading in a better direction. I’m very optimistic.
Thank you for your decades of services to the cause of providing sustainable, humane, and healthier food for millions of people. And thanks for taking the time to shed light on the sale and the future of food. You’re an amazing chef, a true visionary, a historic difference maker, and a compassionate leader. You’ve made a huge difference in the lives of animals, people, and the planet. We wish you, your family, your employees, and the plant-based division at Maple Leaf unprecedented success.