“The first wave of vegan foods were oftentimes patronizing. They would say, “This is healthier, you’re killing the planet if you don’t eat this,” and people just don’t respond to that.”
Alicia talks to Aidan Altman and Andrew McClure, the founders of Fora Foods and makers of Faba Butter — made principally with coconut oil and aquafaba, or chickpea brine. Retail isn’t Fora’s focus: they’re targeting chefs at many non-vegan restaurants, hoping to become a pastry staple. They talk about how working on this project inspired them to go vegan, why corporate agriculture is everyone’s enemy, and why aquafaba has gone mainstream.
ALICIA KENNEDY: This is Meatless, a podcast about eating. I’m Alicia Kennedy, a food and drink writer. I’ll be having conversations with chefs, writers, and more about how their personal and political beliefs determine whether or not they eat meat. The show will ask the question, “How do identity culture, economics, and history affect a diet?”
To break from the script a bit, I have a programming note. I’ve strived to make this podcast not about selling anything, which becomes difficult when I want to talk to people who make certain things, like nut milks, for example, or the butter in today’s episode, that they also sell. I hope it still makes for interesting episodes because I do want to continue talking to people on the show who make the new vegan products that people are going to be curious about. So in this episode I talked to Aidan Altman and Andrew McClure, the founders of Fora Foods and makers of Faba Butter, made principally with coconut oil and aquafaba, or chickpea brine. It’s available at Eataly, but retail isn’t Fora’s focus. They’re targeting chefs at many non-vegan restaurants, hoping to become a pastry staple. We talked about how working on this project inspired them to go vegan. Why corporate agriculture is everyone’s enemy, and why aquafaba has gone mainstream.
[INTRO THEME ENDS]
ALICIA KENNEDY: Hi, Aidan and Andrew, thanks so much for being on Meatless with me.
AIDAN ALTMAN: Thanks for having us.
ANDREW MCCLURE: Sup.
ALICIA KENNEDY: So, can you each tell me about your backgrounds in food?
AIDAN ALTMAN: Yeah, definitely. So out of college, Andrew and I moved to Chicago together. I started my first food company, so I had like a snack food, CPG brand and then Andrew…
ANDREW MCCLURE: Yeah, I was working in investment banking, so mergers and acquisitions. Company A in the food and bev space wants to make lots of money, so they try to find company B, and then my bank was the intermediary between the two, and so I did that for two years.
ALICIA KENNEDY: When did you guys meet each other?
AIDAN ALTMAN: Well we knew each other in college, but we joined forces to start Fora about a year and a half ago, while still living in Chicago. Then we moved out to New York in order to, to launch this thing.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Are either of you vegan or have you been vegan?
AIDAN ALTMAN: Yes, we’re both vegan.
ALICIA KENNEDY: And when did you start being vegan?
AIDAN ALTMAN: Probably about a year ago. I would say a year and a half.
ALICIA KENNEDY: So did you kind of go vegan while you started the company?
AIDAN ALTMAN: Well, we went vegan right beforehand and then it, you know, became even more pressing once we started the company, and really started to delve into the deep statistics on why factory farm products are so bad for the planet and for ourselves and every stakeholder involved.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Was that mostly your motivation for going vegan, was kind of ecological or…?
AIDAN ALTMAN: Yeah, I would say the environmental factors are really important to me but I’m sure that most people our age, 25 to 30, understand like when you grew up eating freaking pizza rolls and hot pockets for every meal of the day, and like that shit is not good for you. And when you actually start to look at where it comes from, it just, it’s not real and it’s not nutritious, and as we get older we’re like, “OK, well we don’t feel like in good conscious we can still eat this stuff anymore.” But, quite frankly, a lot of the alternative products in the market are not good, and they’re kinda that vegan 1.0 product, right? Especially when it comes to butter, which is obviously an industrialized factory farm-produced product, you have the alternatives which are buttery spreads and margarines and they’re, they don’t taste good, they don’t function well, and they’re just made up basically of a bunch of oils, so we said let’s go and recreate butter. Let’s like reimagine what butter can be, but still while offering like the exact same experience that we had, these indulgent foods that we grew up on.
ANDREW MCCLURE: Yeah, and I would say when you start digging into it, the plant kingdom is very vast, and someone that hasn’t dug into any of these topics thinks that when someone says vegetables or vegan or vegetarian, it’s just salad, and that was probably my interpretation up until this thing started, and you talk to some people who have already been on the plan and they know way more than you. You listen to some podcasts. You watch some documentaries, you read some books and essays, and it becomes very clear that you have a lot of options, and there’s, there are millions of different ways to make delicious food where you aren’t really compromising on taste or nutrition or experience by making the switch.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Was there something that was specifically very inspiring to you? A book, an essay, a movie?
ALICIA KENNEDY: I think Food Inc. was probably the first one that kicked it off. That seems to be similar for a lot of people because it was like Oscar-nominated and it really had a platform that most of these other resources have not gotten, and I think it’s merited too. We’ve seen some stuff in the wider vegan vegetarian discourse that is kind of a cherry-picking of facts to convince someone, and I think that that documentary was pretty fair and I think everyone should dig it.
ANDREW MCCLURE: That plus the fact that my girlfriend is like a super great vegan cook, so you know, just the quality of food that you’re eating. It’s like, wow, you can actually eat like this all the time and get that really great experience what you want, and you’re full and you’re satisfied and it tastes great.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Any specific dish that was kind of, changed your consciousness on veganism?
ANDREW MCCLURE: I mean she makes a really good risotto, like super good, yeah.
ALICIA KENNEDY: What does she use?
ANDREW MCCLURE: You know what, ask her. She served it to me. It’s very nice.
ALICIA KENNEDY: So you decided to launch Fora Foods with a butter, and it is made with coconut oil and aquafaba from what I can tell.
AIDAN ALTMAN: Yeah, yeah, coconut oil, coconut cream, aquafaba, some nooch, for all you noochers out there.
ALICIA KENNEDY: And so what was the process of developing the butter like?
ANDREW MCCLURE: Yeah, it was pretty DIY. We were living in Chicago at the time, still had our old jobs and we basically started going to Whole Foods and just picking out a bunch of different ingredients. We knew that we needed a fat, butter is mostly fat, so what are our options from the plant kingdom? And coconut oil and coconut cream ended up being the best options, but this took a while, six to eight months, for us to get both the taste and the functionality down, so it was not an overnight success. A lot of, you know, late night struggles but eventually got something that worked.
AIDAN ALTMAN: Right. We went through probably like 80 different iterations of this, but all the while, while we were figuring out which ingredients we’re going to use, we’re thinking ourselves, “OK, well how does each single one of these ingredients scale up on an industrial level? How do we fit this to a co-packer or a co-manufacturers industrial machinery?” So the goal obviously is not just to have an artisanal dairy-free butter, but to actually compete with commodity factory-farmed butter so that we can have an actual global impact. So yes, we were thinking large scale even while we were doing this in our kitchens.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right. What ingredient do you think was kind of the, the link that really made it all come together?
AIDAN ALTMAN: I don’t know if it’s one ingredient. I think it’s kind of the blend of everything, because we have the good fats, you know, they give it the body, the aquafaba is the emulsifier, it’s clean label and it’s upcycled from hummus manufacturing facilities. The nutritional yeast adds a really great umami profile, but all of it is necessary together. If you take one out, it doesn’t work.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right. So aquafaba is one ingredient that has had a lot of mainstream appeals. Like Sir Kensington’s makes a mayo with it. It’s in a lot of cocktails. Why do you think something that’s seemingly gross, like chickpea brine, has been a real crossover for vegan foods?
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yes, I mean it’s a pretty cool ingredient. It acts just like an egg white would, so you can basically whip it up and the water, basically, what it is, it’s just water that’s absorbs from the starches and proteins from the chickpea. So the fact that you can get it as a “waste product”, quote unquote, from, you know, hummus manufacturers when they boil or chickpeas, that’s pretty cool, because you get to use it when it would usually be poured down the drain and two, I mean just the functionality is great. So I think people are drawn to this and that’s why it’s become so popular. And I know that the word “aquafaba” just became an actual word in the dictionary, which is pretty exciting. So yeah.
ANDREW MCCLURE: Yeah. And agreed. It is kind of gross. It’s snotty, viscous liquid. Why would you ever want to use this? I agree with Aidan. I think the other point that we should make is that I think this really gets at people’s curiosity about food, and how food can come from really odd and unexpected places, and this is going to continue, I think, going forward, just people lifting up the rock that they’ve never lifted before and seeing something really strange and throwing it in a pan and seeing like what the hell this thing does, so it’s pretty cool.
AIDAN ALTMAN: Yeah. That’s a great point. I think all good foods in the world came from, you know, stuff that nobody else wanted to eat, that someone found out how to make tasty and it was nutritious, and that’s how everything is. You know, aquafaba is just another product in that continuum and there’s going to be more after this.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Totally. We talked a little bit before we started recording about maybe an old, a more old school approach to food that’s happened more than in the vegan and vegetarian world, and how do you differ, do you think, from like what’s come before? Like the Earth Balance or the, the soy milk or something like that. Where does your approach differ?
AIDAN ALTMAN: I mean, I wonder, I think it’s just one of those things where the food world, in general, has become more sophisticated in terms of how the products are made and how they’re marketed and branded, where a lot of the early vegan products just kind of missed the boat on that. More for a niche community. We kind of have learned from our predecessors and from ourselves and what we want, and are giving people a product that we think communicates to an audience really well, to a wide audience really well, and it tastes really good and functions really well, so we’re really offering no compromises at all.
ANDREW MCCLURE: The first wave of vegan foods were oftentimes patronizing. They would say, “This is healthier, you’re killing the planet if you don’t eat this,” and people just don’t respond to that. You have to communicate with them emotionally with a brand and a purpose, but also kind of seem like you’re friends with them. Not like you’re some authority figure, because we’re millennials. We’re rebels, so we don’t want to be told what to do, which is kind of true. So finding that right brand voice with your audiences is very key.
ALICIA KENNEDY: I had mentioned also that I’ve been in a fight with a farmer all weekend on Twitter about how vegan foods are taking livelihoods away from dairy farmers, especially in upstate New York. Have you had any backlash like that? What do you say to those people?
AIDAN ALTMAN: I mean, it’s interesting argument to me because quite frankly, like, industrialized factory dairy farms are taking business away from local dairy farmers too. So I mean it’s just big ag in general. I mean our fight truly is with the factory farms. I don’t really want to put a lot of families out of business. You know, I don’t want to be the evil one here, but the evil one really, which we should all be fighting are the industrial animal ag that really are causing major problems for sustainability in our food supply chain, and are just causing huge detriments to our planet.
ANDREW MCCLURE: Yeah. And I forget what it is in particular percentage-wise, but the factory farms, at least with dairy foods, they are in the nineties, mid-90 percentage of all the food produced, so that’s the entire pie right there. It’s not just a significant chunk. So we know that brands like ours and the family farms in Vermont that had been around for generations, can coexist and everyone can thrive.
ALICIA KENNEDY: So you in your marketing, do you have a lot of focus on Michelin Stars, and you’re in Eataly for retail right now, so is your customer the person who has a country crock tub in their fridge, or, or, who are you trying to appeal to? Who is your customer?
AIDAN ALTMAN: Yes, that’s a great question. We’re trying to appeal to everybody who has an Earth Balance or Country Crock tub in their fridge for sure, but first the reason we’re working with chefs is because these guys are at the forefront of progressive food trends. And we think that by aligning with chefs, a lot of other people will understand the value of this product and catch on, because they’re somewhat of an early adopter community and their testimonial for a plant-based butter will mean a lot for the retail consumer. Right? Because retail consumers now, they look at dairy free butter and they think about Country Crock and they think it’s shit. It doesn’t taste good. It doesn’t function. So when the chef says, no, this stuff actually works and you can come and get it in my restaurant, then that’s the best testimony that you can ever get it.
ANDREW MCCLURE: Yeah. Chefs are definitely having a moment right now, although I hesitate to use that word because I think it’s going to continue, so maybe it’s just like chefs are going to be very important to the both the pop culture and just the culinary landscape going forward. They’re usually no bullshit people, a lot of them, while we’re on this topic are very like dairy butter purists, so if you can convince one of these people to take an alternative and then not want to throw up, that’s an accomplishment.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Absolutely. So I mean, and you were coming kind of on the heels of this massive success for Oatly, which keeps coming to mind when I think of your product.
ANDREW MCCLURE: Love them.
ALICIA KENNEDY: I’ve talked about this all the time, like I’ve heard people order Oatly in a latte and then also order a bacon, egg, and cheese and so that’s profitable for Oatly, but how does that really moves the needle for broader change and like, people actually eating less meat for sustainability reasons? So how do you plan to convince those people who are repulsed by the concept, the very concept of veganism, to try this butter and also make broader dietary changes?
AIDAN ALTMAN: Yeah, that’s a good question. I’m glad to see people going down this route of you know, quote unquote “flexitarian,” and people are starting to understand the value of plant-based products, and are making small decisions in their usual diets and lifestyle choices to promote that. I mean people are eventually are going to understand that our butter is just butter and that’s the most important thing. Like, food, you need it to taste good first and foremost, beyond anything else, with all the great environmental benefits that we’re proposing with our butter, the fact is that it just tastes good and it functions well and it costs the same as butter. So it’s kind of hard to argue with it, right? When you have our stuff in a blind test at tasting next to butter and you don’t know the difference, you’re going to probably, I would imagine, choose the one that is better for the planet and better for you, right? Because why wouldn’t you?
ANDREW MCCLURE: Yeah. And consumer preferences are changing too. I mean to step outside of the food world, just for a second. You look at Away suitcases or Glossier with skincare or Warby Parker with glasses, like, these guys don’t make the best products, like, product first and product only was kind of the old way of how you killed it in capitalism, at least in this country, and now you need a kick-ass product, but you also need an experience and a purpose, and I think people will recognize that going forward.
ALICIA KENNEDY: So what is your experience that you offer?
ANDREW MCCLURE: The taste. The taste and the functionality. We don’t, people don’t have to step outside of the alternative aisle anymore to get what they got from dairy butter.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Like, our butter will remind you of the great buttery cookies that your grandma baked for you. Like that’s the goal right there.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So how much are you producing right now and would you say, I know you’re using aquafaba that would go to waste, but what kind of sustainability efforts, other sustainability efforts, do you have going on in your production?
AIDAN ALTMAN: Well, I mean, we are a new company, so we are, we just launched nationally with our food service distributor. So we have been getting some great traction. We can produce at any scale. So obviously the more butter we make, the more you know, butter products we’re going to put out of business, and the more aquafaba we’re going to use. So from a metrics perspective, I would say it’s nothing all that shocking yet, but we aim for it to be, yes.
ALICIA KENNEDY: And so what else do you have planned? I know your company is named Fora Foods and not just Butter.
AIDAN ALTMAN: Yeah, yeah, no, we, we want to make Forait’s a platform for dairy alternatives. So we will have a few other butters SKUs, so some other really cool flavors that we’re going to roll out around our retail launch in the spring, but we want to go into a host of other dairy products from whipped cream to frosting to dressings and so on.
ALICIA KENNEDY: And so what, what were the recipes you guys were testing? You want it to taste like grandma’s cookies. When you were in your R&D phase, what were you making at home?
AIDAN ALTMAN: Yeah, I mean we, we worked with chefs for everything that you would use for a buttery treat. I mean, I think the biggest, the biggest thing we have is that it actually works in croissants, which are obviously quite a technical baked good, and the fact that ours works just like butter, that was kind of the jaw drop moment for us, because obviously you can sauté with it in a pan and you can like make pasta and whatever, but our smoke point is higher than dairy butter is, so technically its functionality is even more versatile, and we’ve used it to make hollandaise and beurre blancs and beurre monté and it browns in the pan and you know, every chef we’ve worked with has been super impressed and that’s the biggest endorsement we could ever get obviously.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Which chefs are you working with, that you can name right now?
ANDREW MCCLURE: I don’t think we want to name anybody just yet. Yeah no, we have some really cool menu placements coming up. So we’ll let everybody know soon. You can follow us on our website for updates at forafoods.com.
AIDAN ALTMAN: Stay tuned.
ALICIA KENNEDY: So what is the price point for the retail size?
AIDAN ALTMAN: Right now we’re selling for $7.49, for, that’s our one pound tub. And we’re nationally in Eataly right now, and obviously when we have our full retail rollout in spring, we’re gonna have a few more really cool flavors and products as well. But $7.49 right now. It should not break your bank. It should be right in the middle of the entire butter, butter alternative set at the grocery store.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Totally. And how long does it last if you keep it in your fridge?
ANDREW MCCLURE: We have a six-month shelf life.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Six months. OK. Cool. Cool. So where are you eating now that you’re vegan? Have you found any cool places in your travels?
ANDREW MCCLURE: Yeah, we were just in Portland for some biz couple of weeks ago and we went to this unbelievable like Szechuan Chinese spot, a little bit south west of downtown. The name escapes me, but Yelp it, it’s the one that has like 10 million perfect reviews on Yelp or TripAdvisor. That’s a highlight for me as of late. And then in Brooklyn, when we first got here, we moved to Bushwick and Bunna Cafe over on, is that Flushing? Over on Flushing is just to die for, Ethiopian, just unbelievable. Go.
AIDAN ALTMAN: Yeah. I think quite frankly like, fully, fully vegan restaurants have somewhat of a ways to go in terms of like meat alternatives, and you know, it depends what you’re trying to do, obviously. There are some really great plant-based restaurant is out there, but our favorite restaurants in the city, like go to Mogador, go to Mogador all the time. Go to Kiki’s, places like that, you know. Screamer’s Pizza is really good though for vegan pizza.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Have you tried Paulie Gee’s slice shop yet?
AIDAN ALTMAN: We haven’t tried Paulie Gee’s yet, have you?
ANDREW MCCLURE: I know Grub Street and Eater are freaking out.
ALICIA KENNEDY: I think it’s so much better than Screamer’s.
ANDREW MCCLURE: Oh Damn. All right. We’ll get that today?
ALICIA KENNEDY: But it’s still not, I mean, I grew up on Long Island and I, there is no New York slice that’s vegan, that’s good. That’s, so Paulie Gee’s, they’re using Numu vegan cheese.
ANDREW MCCLURE: Yeah, Numu is great.
ALICIA KENNEDY: It’s good, but yeah, it’s still not hitting all the right notes. So yeah, but there’s a lot of good Neapolitan pizza that’s vegan still, so that’s good. You just came from a noodle place, so apparently, you guys really do like noodles.
ANDREW MCCLURE: Oh, love noodles. There is a tasty hand-pulled noodles in Chinatown. That was a lot of food to eat before this interview and my eyes are just slowly closing.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Awesome. Anywhere else? Like Chicago, you guys are from Chicago. What would you recommend there?
AIDAN ALTMAN: Ooh. Well actually when I was just in Chicago, I had like Lou Malnati’s with cheese and it’s still really freaking good. Chicago Diner’s a vegan spot there. It’s delicious. I don’t know. I mean, I wasn’t vegan in Chicago so I’m trying to wrack my brain for place that I would eat right now, but I don’t know, I’m sure there’s a good list online somewhere if you’re travelling in Chicago soon.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Totally. So, you know, you’re running a business, but you do have a mission. Do you think that food is political and that cooking is a political act?
AIDAN ALTMAN: Yes. Well, it doesn’t have to be, but it definitely can be. I think food is one of the most powerful tools in conveying some sort of mission, right? It’s visceral. Everyone understands it. It’s kind of like this intuitive thing that’s for, baked in, you know what I’m saying? Specifically, in our case, you know, you’re just giving someone a product that they know very well, but it has all these great, you know, social, environmental effects. In my first company, was an almond company, but we had flavors from around the world, and we’d import from like Lebanon, Ethiopia, and the whole idea of that company was to create a cultural exchange, but through a medium that every American at a grocery store in middle America could understand, right?. So like, yes, there are different ways that you can do it. I think specifically, on like the mass CPG level where we’re acting, and not, I mean you can do this in a restaurant too, but, we’re able to get in front of millions of people at a global scale, to have real impact. So I think it’s super powerful.
ANDREW MCCLURE: Yeah, yeah. Political is a loaded word. I would say, yes, food ought to be political if the goal is to educate people and create a better sense of oneness among all of us, but at the same time, politicizing food unnecessarily just to piss people off, I mean we saw that, to go back to our earlier point, we saw that with, really, the first wave of vegan food, which was to bash people over the head with a baton intellectually, to belittle them, and then hope that their behaviors are going to change, but that’s been proven to not work.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Well, thank you guys for coming on the show.
ANDREW MCCLURE: Thank you so much.
AIDAN ALTMAN: Yes, that’s great. Great to be here. Thank you.
[EXIT THEME BEGINS]