Satisfying the toughest customers first: A conversation with Next Gen Foods’ Andre Menezes

| Podcast

In this episode of The Venture, we share a conversation with Andre Menezes, cofounder and CEO of Singapore-based food tech start-up Next Gen Foods. The start-up’s first product, a plant-based chicken called TiNDLE, is already impacting chefs and diners across Amsterdam, Hong Kong, and Singapore, and its recent debut in the United States helped the company secure $100 million in funding. Menezes joins McKinsey’s Andrew Roth to discuss how Next Gen designed TiNDLE with three core elements in mind, its decision to prioritize restaurants before supermarkets, and why sustainability should be integral to a product and not its main selling point. At the close of the interview, McKinsey’s Tomas Laboutka weighs in.

An edited transcript of the podcast follows. For more conversations on venture building, subscribe to the series on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Podcast transcript

Andrew Roth: From Leap by McKinsey, our business-building practice, I’m Andrew Roth, and welcome to The Venture, a series featuring conversations with legendary venture builders in Asia about how to design, launch, and scale new businesses. In each episode, we cut through the noise to bring practical advice on how leaders can build successful businesses from scratch.

In this episode, I’m excited to share a conversation with Andre Menezes, cofounder and CEO of Next Gen Foods, a Singapore-based food tech start-up. His first product, TiNDLE, a plant-based chicken, is already making waves with chefs and diners in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Amsterdam. It recently debuted in the United States—and helped Next Gen secure $100 million in funding. You’ll hear Andre tell us about how Next Gen designed TiNDLE around three core elements, its decision to target restaurants before supermarkets, and why sustainability should be baked into a product rather than be the main selling point.

Welcome, Andre. Great to have you on the show. We’re fascinated by this topic of alternative protein, cultured meat, and sustainability in general. We had Josh Tetrick from Eat Just on the show recently and learned a bit about his viewpoint around cultured meat and alternative protein. There’s much media attention around sustainability and food tech, and Singapore seems to be investing a lot in the infrastructure around R&D when it comes to food tech or agritech. For our audience of corporate venture builders, one of the things that we always talk about first is the problem to solve. We’d love to hear your story, how things changed for you, and what inspired TiNDLE.

Andre Menezes: This is a topic I’m obviously very passionate about, both the macro sector and the venture building part of it. It’s not about starting with a product or a technology that you already have and finding a way to bring it to the market or trying to develop a business around the product. From our perspective, it’s the exact opposite. It’s starting from two basic elements: one macro and one micro. The macro trends we are seeing are around sustainability, resource scarcity, increased protein consumption, and increased awareness around animal welfare. On the micro side, it’s about our company developing a product that fills a customer need. And that’s how we started.

Andrew Roth: Were some of the early learnings that consumers highly value the sustainable part of it, or are people just looking for a better-tasting alternative protein, similar to what Impossible Burger did?

Andre Menezes: At the end of the day, the macro layer driving this sector globally is related to sustainability. Food production is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases after energy; that’s how big of a problem it is. For those who haven’t read Bill Gates’s book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, I highly recommend it. And that macro trend is what’s driving industry, governments, policies, attention, and investment in technology. And all this is culminating in increased education, which drives consumer interest and awareness. Thanks to our learning journey, we gave ourselves the freedom not to start with a product or technology. As a secondary step, we started understanding what consumers were looking for. We didn’t start by looking at plant-based foods. We started by looking at meat, what meat really represents, and what food really represents. And we found some very important discoveries on that journey.

The first one is realizing that food is not just something you eat at home after reading the label and saying, “I want that because it’s giving me X calories and X fats.” That’s one aspect of it, but it’s not only that. You’re also looking at it as a social experience. If I asked anyone, “What’s the best food experience you’ve ever had?,” I’ll bet it was in a restaurant prepared by a chef, with great music in the background and great friends and loved ones all around. And it might have been during a trip overseas or to another place where there was a cultural aspect to the experience. And all that makes it special. Why is that important for us? Because that’s what food really represents. And when I looked at other plant-based foods, the approach was almost the exact opposite. Some companies talk about the ingredients they’re using and how they’re more sustainable. Fantastic; that’s all true. However, what consumers really look for is that great food experience.

Our challenge was solving that problem. So we asked ourselves, “How do we design a product that not only delivers everything on the technical and nutritional aspects but also delivers at that level of experience? How do we design a go-to-market strategy that can bring our products and brand to consumers right at that moment? And how do we then raise plant-based foods as a category to the highest-level food experience?” And guess what? Meat is right at the center. Meat is never the side dish. You generally choose the meat and then the sides. That’s how deep we went to understand, historically and psychologically, how this whole journey has evolved. From there, we started to design our product using our knowledge and toolbox of technologies.

Andrew Roth: Take us into some of the first few weeks, when you were talking to your cofounders and your investors. Where did you get some of the initial proof points or some of the inspiration on understanding what food represents, and then how did that translate into your product and go-to-market strategy? Because it seems like you’re taking a slightly different lens on it. You’re trying to appeal not just to taste but also to the social aspect and experience of eating.

Andre Menezes: You’re right. And I guess it wouldn’t be fair for me to say that we started doing that when we started Next Gen Foods in April 2020. We weren’t doing it for the first time, and we carried a lot of experiences from our previous journeys. These were nothing like what we’ve done at Next Gen Foods, but we had a fundamental understanding that was extremely valuable for us to build upon. As we were trying to figure out our business model, go-to-market strategy, and what we were trying to address, we decided to study consumers to understand exactly what food they wanted to eat, as well as the entire eating experience and all the social elements. We wanted to dig deeper than just food because not a lot of people in the industry have been able to crack that element.

We started with the basic assumption that meat is the kind of food that can change the world for us and really drive trends and adoption at a very large scale. And as a country becomes more affluent, there’s almost a direct relationship between that and the consumption of meat. So as we thought about how to lift plant-based food to the same level as meat, we asked ourselves a number of questions: What are the industries that are able to create that engagement, aspiration, and inspiration? Who are the key decision makers in that journey? What are the products? What is the approach? Are we going to go with one specific category? Are we going to create a product that chefs can cook with? All those elements were part of our design principle.

Andrew Roth: You mentioned talking to chefs. I would imagine it felt quite ambitious to really understand the nuances of what a chef wants and needs, and then using that to impact and influence the design of the product. When you started this in 2020, were you meeting face to face with chefs or jumping on Zoom calls with them? How did you execute these interactions?

Andre Menezes: We were actually locked down when we started those discussions. And when things started opening up, we began doing engagements with chefs and getting their feedback. It was very ambitious, to say the least—if not a bit crazy—to think about starting a global food services business in April 2020.

Andrew Roth: Tell me a little bit more about the product itself. I’ve read that TiNDLE, as a plant-based chicken, has nine different types of ingredients, and you have some kind of secret sauce to create the fat within the product itself so that, for a chef in a restaurant, it gets that same kind of browning or sizzle in the pan. What is the core product value right now? Is it creating that experience for chefs so they can experiment, plus taste for a consumer? Or is this just your pathway through the chefs and through restaurants to then eventually get it onto shelves?

Andre Menezes: TiNDLE, at the end of the day, is basically chicken. It will evolve into being offered through different channels, like shops, supermarkets, and convenience stores, but all that is in the future.

We started by decrypting what chicken really means to chefs and to consumers, and unlocking the key attributes that define chicken. We broke it down into three elements. The first one was the texture, the fibers, and the physical aspect of chicken. We weren’t interested in ground chicken, like nuggets. That doesn’t suit our aspiration for the product being at the center of the plate.

Number two was the flavor component and the smell we crave with fried and roasted chicken, and that comes from chicken fat. So we studied exactly how chicken fat behaves at different moments, such as when you sizzle, grill, or fry it. And then we arrived at what you call our secret sauce, which we call Lipi.

And then number three, which is key for both chefs and consumers, is that chicken is expected to be versatile. If you look at beef, you know that a steak is supposed to be just a steak with a bit of salt and pepper and the right doneness. That’s it. But with chicken, it can be spicy, crispy, fried, cereal-coated, in curry, or skewered. Chicken is innovative, chicken is versatile, and chicken is global.

Andrew Roth: I love the story around how you created these design principles based not just on what the consumer wants but on how to appeal to chefs and get them excited about it. Tell us about when you felt you were on to something in terms of product-market fit. Is there a story or a moment where you were really inspired? Was it a specific chef or a moment with some friends?

Andre Menezes: There was one specific moment when we really confirmed our hypothesis. That moment involved Chef Adam from Three Buns in Singapore, one of the toughest chefs in terms of ingredients he chooses. He’s tried many products that I brought to him before—prototypes of different technologies when I was with another company—and he was always very negative about them all. So there was this moment when we got the first workable prototype of what would become TiNDLE, and we put it in a zip-top bag. It looked like dough, and when I brought it to him, I was kind of embarrassed and said, “Look, can you just give it a try? This is the concept. How do you like it?” And then less than an hour later, I was getting pictures on my phone of the prototype marinated, and not long afterwards, I was getting pictures of an incredible burger made by Chef Adam using his own recipe, and he was just raving about it. And that was the moment. There were four or five of us from the team out together in a meeting when we started getting those pictures. I remember exactly when we said, “Oh my God! Look at what Chef Adam sent!” We love his work, and when we got the pictures, it was not only a yes but the moment when we realized we were really on to something.

Andrew Roth: Chef Adam sounds like a tough customer and hard to please. You sent this initial version of TiNDLE in a zip-top bag, so it sounds like you were really trying to be authentic or bare bones about it and not trying to sway his opinion.

Andre Menezes: It was what we had at the time. Now it sounds very funny and all, but we were in the middle of the pandemic, and we couldn’t visit any sites. We also couldn’t build anything, since there was no labor available. So we created the R&D center out of a kitchen in Singapore’s central business district. All of the equipment we brought in were smaller versions of what we’d need in a factory. Sometimes we lost power on the entire floor of the building because of all the equipment, but it was all we could do. The zip-top bag was basically all we had back then. But we couldn’t wait for the product to be fully ready to get to him for feedback on the concept.

Andrew Roth: So you’re on to something; you feel like this is a signal or a leading indicator of product-market fit. Let’s shift to growth now. North America is one of your fastest-growing markets. What are the expectations now with growth? You just raised $100 million. Are your metrics now around how many menus you’re on and how many restaurants you’re in? Are you still at the stage where the aspiration is around getting chefs excited? Tell us how the trajectory is changing now that you have this latest round of funding.

Andre Menezes: That’s an excellent question. In 2020, we designed the business model and the product brand. In 2021, we tested all those hypotheses, not only with Chef Adam but with other chefs around the world. Will the price work? Will the cost work? Will the shipping, supply chain, and production at scale all work? Will consumers get as excited in Dubai as they are in Singapore or in Amsterdam? This year is the year for scale-ups, and that means not diverging from our strategy at all. It means having exactly the same fundamentals, vision, and ambitions done at scale. We will be launching and growing in the US and then the UK, followed by Germany, since they are the top three global markets for plant-based foods.

Everything we’ve done is ultimately about exciting consumers. The chef is a conduit to consumers—getting chefs excited is necessary for us to get and excite consumers. We want our product to be on the same aspirational level as meat. We’re building up a category, and there’s no one in the plant-based chicken space doing that right now. We have a job to do in that category, and then we will certainly go into other channels.

Our goal is to get people excited and to understand that plant-based food does not mean compromising taste and texture. That’s our objective, and that’s what we’ve been doing.

Andre Menezes, cofounder and CEO of Next Gen Foods

Andrew Roth: As you inspire consumers and build this category, what’s the balance in your branding or messaging between the sustainability message and the excitement or social message that you shared in the beginning? Are you going direct to consumers now with the brand or are you still going primarily through your network and community of chefs as a conduit?

Andre Menezes: I’ve yet to see consumers, at scale, choosing food for any other reason than taste, texture, and experience. Fundamentally, yes, people are looking at nutrition, how it’s produced, and sustainability. But those are all secondary trends after you get the taste right. You can even get an excitement and get them to try based on curiosity, but that’s not enough. You’ve got to get loyalty, and that can be achieved only if taste and texture are done right. So those are the number one and two aspects that we communicate. And this delicious food happens to be much more sustainable, happens to have no animals involved, happens to have no cholesterol, and happens to have the same amount of protein. Those are all secondary, very important layers, but those are not decision factors for the majority of consumers out there. Our goal is to get people excited and to understand that plant-based food does not mean compromising taste and texture. That’s our objective, and that’s what we’ve been doing.

Andrew Roth: So that’s from a consumer perspective. You’re sticking to your brand principles around the social aspect and the experience aspect of food. What about on the operational side? You’re scaling now. Does this mean you’re scaling up production centers and R&D centers? Are you keeping things somewhat centralized, or is there a lot of investment now in warehousing and manufacturing?

Andre Menezes: That’s a great benefit of not doing things for the first time and having some experience. When we designed the business in 2020, we designed it for global scale. So one of the things we’ve done is create a very short value chain. We do not do manufacturing, we do not do warehousing, and we do not do distribution, because all those things are fundamentally different businesses. There are experts out there that we can work with, and we know who they are, how they work, how to cost it, how to price it, and what their business fundamentals are, since we do have experience in those aspects of the business. That is what allows us to grow. We’re already working on developing a diversified manufacturing footprint in North America—our current factory facility. We also have the ability to scale up quite significantly in Europe. We’re also looking at a footprint in Singapore. So all of that is happening as we speak, and it’s quite decentralized.

Andrew Roth: So you were very intentional from the beginning on what parts of the value chain you would own and not own, and you stuck to what you know. How many people are on the team now? And roughly how many people are you going to grow to this year, if this is the scale-up year?

Andre Menezes: We currently have 55 people in ten countries, 52 percent of which are women and the ages range from 23 to 59 years old. At our C-level, there are no two people with the same nationality, which is pretty incredible. It’s truly a global group, a very interesting mix of people from different countries and different backgrounds. This diversity was enabled by the fact that we started during the pandemic, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise for us in that respect.

In terms of growth, we expect to reach 100 employees this year, depending on how the growth and the needs and the structures are designed. Obviously, with different go-to-market strategies, different ways of doing sales, and different ways of doing distribution, there might be more or less, but we are expecting to reach 100 by the end of the year.

Andrew Roth: I would imagine everyone is dealing with the challenge of finding talent right now. What kind of roles are a priority for you? Are you a bit more R&D focused, more operations and sales, or a bit of everything?

Andre Menezes: A bit of everything is the immediate answer. But when we cut the value chain into only a few elements, we chose three things to focus on. Number one is the product and R&D. Obviously there’s a lot of investment in people, but it’s the only place where we make capital expenditures. Number two is the brand and communications and getting consumers comfortable with our product, which is super important for the category, let alone for us as a brand and a company. And then number three is the operational backbone. We may not own factories and warehouses, but we have to manage them all around the world.

Andrew Roth: The start-up journey, as you know, has amazing highs and amazing lows on almost a daily basis. What’s giving you energy right now to make it happen?

Andre Menezes: That’s an excellent and very hard question. Most important is an awareness that it’s going to be full of ups and downs. We want the leadership team to be aware and comfortable with that, as well as everyone down to the lowest level. So number one is to be very transparent, very clear, and very aware about the ups and downs.

Number two is that I’ve always had a very entrepreneurial drive. I love building things. I love seeing things today being better than yesterday and worse than tomorrow. I love that because that keeps me going. As long as traction is happening, I feel motivated by it.

And number three is, as we become bigger and more relevant, that I think we are gaining a voice in the industry. And one thing that gives me increasing motivation is understanding the impact I and the company can have. It’s much bigger than my journey, and it’s much bigger than myself. It’s something that can literally help make the world a better place.

Finally, what we’re doing, the way we’re doing it, how we are challenging paradigms, and how we are building a global business so quickly can be inspirational as well from an entrepreneurial perspective. I’m starting to hear more and more about how all those things are a source of inspiration to other entrepreneurs, and that couldn’t make me happier. It’s a big responsibility, I must admit, but at the same time, it gives me a lot of energy.

Andrew Roth: In many ways, you’re not just building a start-up—you’re building a category that represents a shift, in the long run, in the way people consume meat. It’s an exciting journey that you’re on. Good luck and thank you for joining.

Andre Menezes: My pleasure. It’s always very satisfying to share and hopefully inspire a lot of entrepreneurs out there to start their journey and build something meaningful as well. Thank you so much, Andrew.

Andrew Roth: Now comes a segment where we invite founders and experts from McKinsey to provide more context and to draw practical insights. I am joined by Tomas Laboutka from Leap by McKinsey.

Tomas, thanks for joining. I would say a hot topic is alternative protein. We had Josh from Eat Just on the show, and now Andre. One of the first big points Andre made in the beginning was about his approach to customer research and design. And what I thought was interesting was how he designed for the chef first and basically asked the question, “Would this product matter to chefs?” Then he created a use case, testing whether chefs get the same kind of joy cooking with his ingredients and product as they do with other meats. And he was talking about optimizing taste and texture versus just pushing the sustainability message. I wanted to get your input on that because I know you’re tracking research in this area.

Tomas Laboutka: It is quite interesting. He wants to make sure the product passes the first decision maker. If the chef doesn’t pick it up, it’s not going on the table. Consumers are not going to be buying it off the shelf first, so you want to get the restaurant experience. That is a smart move. And it is a smart move to focus on taste and texture. We did some research earlier this year with consumers trying out alternative proteins from different brands, and 60 percent of customers were disappointed, saying, “If the taste or texture is wrong, I’m out.” Seventy-six percent value taste, 43 percent texture, and then 6 percent health. That drop is massive, so the focus on taste and texture makes sense. And he’s combining this with making sure it cooks well, that it has the chicken fat property for cooking. It’s a good move.

Andrew Roth: And he focuses on eating and cooking as a social experience. So that entry point through the restaurants to create the brand and get the product in front of people was interesting.

And TiNDLE is an example of an innovation from Singapore that has now moved overseas into North America, which is refreshing because often the innovation flows the other way around. When it comes to expansion, he made some moves on decentralizing the value chain and the supply chain. We got a little bit into price, but tell us what you’re tracking around alternative proteins and price, because there are still open questions around price parity.

Tomas Laboutka: The global protein market is a $2 trillion opportunity. So you want to start where you can really pull it off from a scale perspective and from a product-market-fit perspective. When you’re looking at the US market, there are a few things to take into consideration. It’s a large, cohesive market, so if you design the infrastructure close enough to the consumer, you will get economies of scale, unlike in fragmented markets. These moves make sense.

Nonetheless, if you look at plant-based proteins, they are still two times or two and a half times more expensive than traditionally produced, animal-slaughtered meat, and that is the challenge. I think he is trying to double down on his strengths. And he understands there are experts who will help him take out the price premium, which will ultimately be the third component of the holy grail. You get the taste and texture right, you get the experience right, and you get the price right, and then you’ve really won. It will be interesting to watch as he enters into the US market with $100 million under his belt.

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Andrew Roth: And there’s still a long way to go toward price parity, at least in the grocery store. Starting in restaurants allows him some buffer on pricing, being able to charge a premium to get the product in front of people. But it sounds like in the industry itself there is a question around scale and the logistics of having the right bioreactors and the right equipment to pull it off. And, forward looking, he’s focused on R&D and product, branding, building the best team, and the operational backbone. Do you have thoughts here, especially on branding?

Tomas Laboutka: Before I jump into branding, I have one remark: what you see Andre doing is playing cards he’s played before. When you compare it with the visionary and futuristic, such as bioreactors and cultivated lab-grown meat, we are five, ten, or maybe more years away. With plant-based protein, the technology is here, and Andre and his team have done it before. So they know what to do. And branding is a part of that game. When he started thinking about how to get into the market, he started by understanding the aspiration. Succeeding as a brand means matching the aspiration of the consumers. That’s the challenge. And that’s where the right brand really comes in.

Andrew Roth: A big topic we’ve heard on other shows, with companies like foodpanda, is finding the right balance between branding and acquisition when it comes to marketing. Sometimes there’s been an overcorrection toward performance marketing and acquisition, and you’ve seen a bit of a shift away from branding, but it’s so important, especially in new categories like this.

Tomas Laboutka: You’re so right. And I think this is the difference between categories that are emerging, where you have the tolerance and the risk appetite for investors to give you the runway and say, “Go and prove that you can build,” versus the categories where everybody knows the operations and the whole business inside out, and you just have to perform. I think in the alternative-protein space, you often have the investors that give you the time to go and build the category, build the education, build the awareness, and prove it. If you do that, you’re going to make something that sticks. You will build a brand and build a category where you’re going to dominate.

Andrew Roth: Tomas, as always, very interesting insights, and I appreciate your bringing some of the numbers in from the research.

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