Gourmet Vegetarian gets real about fake meat

Company looks to celebrate veggie-filled burgers rather than hide them

As Canada’s vegan and vegetarian populations steadily grow, retailers are making more room in their frozen sections for meatless options.

Many vegan burgers try to act a meat alternative and, therefore, try to imitate the flavour and texture of the real thing. After speaking with people in vegetarian and vegan communities, Emmanuel Castiel and Chantal Bekhor, took the opposite approach. Their burgers aren’t pretending to be meat.

Instead, they’re celebrating veggies. Consumers can see chickpeas, beans and carrots in the burgers, and that makes this husband and wife team proud.

VG Gourmet Vegetarian has three SKUs in their line of artisan vegan burgers: quinoa and chickpea, lentil and walnut and Mexican 3 bean.

We chatted with founder Chantal about the business::

Tell us how VG Gourmet Vegetarian Foods started.

I’m vegetarian with a passion for cooking. Becoming vegetarian decades ago was very challenging; resources and prepared meals weren’t readily available. I couldn’t ask my mother, a physician with a demanding career, to cook a separate meal for me. So I took it upon myself to cook for the family. After years of experimenting with vegetarian foods, I developed an impressive repertoire of gourmet recipes.

What pushed me to start the business was my experience on the Food Network Canada’s reality TV series “Recipe to Riches”. I was a finalist on Season 2 thanks to my Middle Eastern mahbooz date cookies. The panel of judges loved my creation, and I finished in second place. From that moment I knew that I wanted a line of products in stores.

My partner Emmanuel is a lawyer with an MBA from McGill University. He has 15 years of experience in sales and marketing of packaged consumer goods for companies such as Johnson & Johnson and Beiersdorf. Managing a sales team and preparing strategic plans with retailers has prepared Emmanuel for life as an entrepreneur.

Who is your key audience?

Our product is aimed primarily at vegetarian and vegans who are looking for quality options. We found that our reach wasn't limited to this market. Many of our consumers are omnivores looking for healthy, high quality and convenient foods to take to work, school or have as a snack after the gym.

This product is unique because …

We position our product as a gourmet burger. We use en vogue, gourmet ingredients such as walnuts, wild mushrooms, quinoa, jalapenos and apple cider vinegar. All of our burgers contain loads of fresh herbs (such as parsley and dill) as well as fresh vegetables that are peeled and chopped while we're making the burgers (including fresh carrots and onions). We cook the burgers then freeze them. So we don’t need preservatives.

The consumer experience emphasizes our gourmet positioning. Packaging is well thought-out. In a box of four burgers, consumers get two vacuum-sealed packets of two burgers each side-by-side instead of on top of each other. This makes the experience much better as consumers can take one burger out at a time without them being stuck to each other. This avoids the unpleasantness of patties breaking apart when you try to defrost just one.

It’s more versatile than your typical veggie burger as consumers tell us they like eating them on salads, in wraps and tacos, besides the obvious way of eating them in a bun.

Our burgers are each 100 grams, which is larger and, therefore, more satisfying than the average veggie burger. We wanted people to feel like they are getting a full meal. Each patty provides between 13g and 15g of protein, between 7g and 9g of fibre and  20% to 25% of daily iron depending on the variety.

Why is this the right time for your product?

Vegan and vegetarian segments of the population are growing steadily. End users are looking for convenient and tasty meal options. Many of our “omnivore” consumers tell us they have started eating less meat for different reasons - health concerns, cost increases, environmental impact - and are looking to integrate more plant-based meals into their diet. However, the options on the market aren’t good enough to entice them to buy prepared foods.

Environics conducted a new poll that surveyed 1507 Canadian adults commissioned by the Vancouver Humane Society.

  • 33% of Canadians, or almost 12 million, are either already vegetarian or are eating less meat. 8% identify as vegetarian or mostly vegetarian and 25% state they are trying to eat less meat.

  • British Columbia is the most vegetarian-friendly province, with 13% of respondents identifying as vegetarian or mostly vegetarian and a further 26% trying to eat less meat.

  • Quebec, 7% identify as vegetarian or mostly vegetarian while a further 30% are trying to eat less meat.

  • Ontario, 8% are vegetarian or mostly vegetarian, and 23% are trying to eat less meat.

  • Younger Canadians are more likely to identify as vegetarian or mostly vegetarian while older Canadians are more likely to say they’re eating less meat.

  • 18 to 34-year-olds across the country, 12% are vegetarian or mostly vegetarian.

  • For those 55 and up, 33% are trying to eat less meat, in addition to the 5% who identify as vegetarian or mostly vegetarian.

What does your current distribution look like?                                         

Our line of artisan vegan burgers launched in September 2015 in Quebec retail. They’re now available in over 100 stores in Quebec. Metro has just confirmed it will list the line this spring, potentially doubling our reach. We just secured a distributor for western Canada, which should rapidly grow distribution.

How are you marketing the products?

Our primary marketing tool right now is in store demos. We feel that with a new product as high quality as this one, the consumer needs to taste it to understand how amazing it is. We are averaging around three to four demos per week to get the product moving. We also do in store promos such as flyers and store rebates.

We do a lot of social media marketing with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and our website has over 400 recipes.