If you were looking for someone to launch a new food brand, Jade Gray is your man. He’s managed a farm. He has managed a supermarket butchery. He ran a meat processing plant in China, and he launched (and sold) a chain of pizza stores in Beijing called Gungho.
Now Jade and his family are back in New Zealand and have launched Off-Piste Provisions, a plant-based food startup dedicated to making New Zealand as famous for its plant protein as it is for its lamb. His first product is a plant-based beef jerky. He chewed the fat with Vincent.
Vincent: Actually, can you chew the fat with plant jerky? Is there any fat in it to chew?
Jade: There is! We’ve got plant-based fats in there but I don’t think we’re chewing it. I do know there are a lot of people offshore working on some chewable plant-based fats right now. So it won’t be long until it’s part of our product.
VH: Why jerky? I know you have a bigger vision for plant-based proteins, but why did you start with this?
JG: We needed a product to cut our chops. And I’ve always been into adventure, I love the outdoors and love chewing on jerky as a snack. The other thing is that we wanted to launch a product which had nothing to hide. You know, it wasn’t a mince, a patty or a sausage where you create a mix of ingredients including some plant-based meats. We really wanted a piece of meat that you measured against meat. It really pushed us and got us to a point we’ve developed the IP that we can take across a raft of different products.
VH: You’ve got a bold vision. I’m quoting you here. You say, “this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, to move up the value chain by optimizing crops for the coming wave of protein formats. What, what do you mean by that?
JG: Well, I think the whole challenge of the New Zealand primary sector has been about value over volume. And how do we move up that value chain? We’ve done it successfully in some areas and struggled in others. I’ve seen up in China and other markets what’s happening with this wave of alternative proteins and the big question in my mind is what’s New Zealand’s point of difference, because we don’t have the prairies of Russia or Canada. That scale piece is not an option for us in the arable space. So, we need an alternative that suits our strengths.
VH: Such as?
JD: Well, if we’re looking at the value in terms of the technology, as I’ve done, it’s become apparent that a lot of the ingredients that are currently being used in plant-based foods were never designed for the purposes that they’re now being put towards.
VH: So you mean we could grow more specialist crops?
JG: Yeah, New Zealand has an incredible history of ag-tech right? Think of seed cultivation and genetics. So my vision with that sector is to ask how do we optimize the breeding of the seeds of the crops towards the end format, whether that’s vertical farming, extrusion, fermentation, cellular agriculture, whatever the end product, they’re going to take more and more refined ingredients to get better and better products. How do we take that knowledge that we already have and move it towards a really high value-end play, rather than just smashing out tons of peas or legumes to create really high-end crops that are optimized for the end process?
VH: So that’s a much more vertically integrated approach to farming and it’s less of a commodity approach.
JG: Absolutely. I mean, you look at some of the the best success stories, Merino wool, you know, a really optimized breed of sheep for a very specific purpose, whether that was Italian suits or sportswear. More recently, you’ve got A2 milk. I’ve seen first-hand up in China, the, the value that’s created across not just New Zealand brands. So how do we do that store in the plant-based sector? I think it’s back to that idea of bringing our technology along with great farmers and great practices at the farm and combined with the innovation. Um, that’s where we find that sweet spot.
VH: There’s some precedent for this, as you’ve mentioned A2 milk, but I think about how many apple and kiwifruit varieties have been developed here in New Zealand by the likes of Plant and Food for distributors like T&G or Zespri.
JG: Oh, totally. Zespri is a great example. We need to think about the end use and work with everyone in the value chain to deliver that product.
VH: I feel like we have been hearing the plant-based story for a while now. Is there a danger that the hype outruns the reality?
JG: I think there is. When you’re starting to look at things like investment, capex dropping down on some pretty intensive capital intensive infrastructure, you’ve got to look at it saying: hey is this real? So I think the answer is partly to look at youth trends, they’re obviously very vocal element of society. I think there’s a loud voice there, um, above the actual probably, uh, you know, the consumption of those products.
But more importantly what are the larger forces at play? And if you look at agriculture, you really need to look at a geopolitical, sector and macroeconomic level. I’ll give you a good example. In 2016 when I was living up in China, a mandate came through from the government that the government wanted to reduce the population’s meat consumption by 50% by 2030. That’s a mind-boggling number. When I dug a little deeper, I discovered that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton both developed an anti-China stance. China realized that its Achilles Heel is the reliance on animal feed comes from North American and South America soy. They also realized they have insufficient land and water to feed their population on animal products. I mean, plants are 15 times more efficient in terms of climate impact and eight times protein yield compared to animal products.
Singapore too has just announced they want to have 30% of their food producedx inside Singapore by 2030, they currently have about 5%. So they’re looking at alternative proteins bio-reactors, cellular meats, plant-based foods and they’re the first country in the world to actually allow the sale of cellular meats in the country. So, yeah, you’ve got a lot of these forces at play that are really leading towards plant-based meat. It’s not about, you know, a vocal, group of vegans on Facebook.
VH: How did you end up running a pizza chain in China?
JG: That was in 2003. We started a fitness center in 2000 in Beijing and it was going gangbusters. And then SARS came and we up down for six months. We didn’t have the cashflow to survive. You know, gyms are all about money upfront investing in premises and fitouts. We couldn’t hack it. Rather than leaving, I decided to stay on and opened up a very small cafe in Beijing. What I saw was that everybody was leaving Beijing and all these properties came up which were never available in Beijing. So I decided to stay and scrape together some cash. And we opened up a very small cafe a corner opposite a really busy subway station. Once SARS finished and everybody came back to Beijing we just smashed it and turned the whole thing around. So that was
the start of 17-year journey, building out that food and beverage group.
VH: That was the start of Gungho Pizza?
JG: Yeah, it was the seed. We created about three or four brands, different concepts. The first was Lush, which was a kind of a cafe bar based on my favorite cafe down in Wanaka and then we moved into pizza and burgers as there was a massive Korean, American and Japanese expat community there. And then I realized there was a great play for New Zealand products, because pizza mozzarella is from Fonterra, so we worked really close with Fonterra on that and New Zealand beef from Silver Fern Farms, Moa on tap and Villa Maria by the glass. By the end of it, you know it became a bit of a beachhead for a lot of New Zealand brands.
VH: Did you sell the business?
JG: We did a management buyout, so the employees bought the business. They’d been there from anywhere from 10 years to 20 years so they pitched in and we cut a deal and it was great outcome. I’m still, you know, on calls them during the week.
To hear a full version of this interview, including how Jade moved to China from Otago, listen to the podcast (may not be loaded on all players yet!)