CEO Darcey Macken is charting a course to extend the reach of several plant-based protein brands.

The world’s largest meat-processing company, JBS S.A. started Planterra Foods as an entry point into a growing market.

“They have a group called the Global Innovation Team,” says Macken. “Plant-based obviously kept coming up and coming up, so it wasn’t an ‘if we should invest in this,’ it’s ‘how we should.'”

She adds, “There is an increase in protein demand, and animals can’t keep up with that demand. There has to be another source. So if we just follow the math, this demand won’t go away. It truly is just making sure you are meeting those consumer needs.”

Planterra launched its first retail brand in 2020. “I created OZO as our first brand,” says Macken. “It comes through that high nutrition, high quality of ingredients, clean label, non-GMO — that’s going to be what OZO stands for.”

The proprietary recipe of pea protein and wheat gluten flavored with MycoTechnology‘s PureTaste (pea and rice proteins fermented with shiitake mushroom mycelium) is lower in fat and calories and higher in protein than typical ground beef and most plant-based alternatives.

OZO products “will be at price parity within the plant-based world with our eyes on making sure that we’re close within premium meat as well,” Macken says. “We want this food to be for everyone, not just people who can afford it.”

After establishing a retail presence for OZO in 12 countries, JBS acquired several other companies in the plant-based protein sector — including Netherlands-based Vivera — and positioned them under the Planterra umbrella in 2021.

“It’s actually up to us in how we determine how we work together, but the direction is very clear from JBS: one plus one equals three, so how do we make each other stronger?” says Macken. “There are so many directions we could take Planterra, whether it’s food service, private label, we just wanted to be that partner for suppliers, for vendors, for customers, because we knew we wanted to provide more access of all things plant-based for people in the protein world.”

Macken joined the company in October 2019 after 10 years with Kellogg’s and four with Noosa Yoghurt in Colorado. “We grew it to over $200 million in just three years, and eventually sold it,” she says of Noosa. “I stayed on as the CEO and general manager with Noosa for about a year, and then I just thought, ‘It’s time to do it again.'”

Serendipitously, JBS called Mackey about helming Planterra at about that time. Like Noosa, the opportunity meshed the entrepreneurial bent of a startup with the financial backing from a $50 billion company.

“They said, ‘We’re looking for somebody to start this business with us fully funding it,'” says Macken. “It sounded too good to be true, to be honest, and so far, so good. Let’s face it: If we were a true startup, I would be out raising funds and it would take five years to be where we are today. It’s really about the mindset and the focus on growth.”

She adds, “We’re leveraging where we can from the JBS network standpoint when it comes to shared services, procurement, suppliers, and at the same time being a complete standalone, basically a subsidiary of JBS.”

Planterra is readying its 189,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Denver while outsourcing the majority of production to a third-party co-packer in Texas. “We’re doing trial runs [in Denver],” says Macken. “We’re still building and learning.”

The company uses wet extrusion to make the OZO products. “How this happens is absolutely from unique manufacturing,” says Macken. “The end-to-end product from the extruder all the way to the final product is unique that we have that all in one spot. A lot of people have to farm out different areas . . . but we’ve built in a lot of flexibility in Denver depending on the type of product as well as if it’s grilled, baked, fresh, or fried — there are so many different ways we can look at types of protein — and the blend is unique as well. The machine isn’t necessarily the unique part, it is the way we create it, and we’re calling it batch processing.”

That allows for seasoned products — Macken notes that Mexican-seasoned OZO is the company’s top seller — and other flavor varieties.

“We marinate at different temperatures and different times, we take our time in our different ways and different times during the process itself, so call it art, not necessarily science. The art is going to make these products unique so that people can go, ‘Why is this so different?’ or ‘Why does this taste so good?’ or ‘Why is this texture so unique?’ . . . There are going to be other wet-extrusion products out there, but it’s going to be very much up to taste and quality, and that’s really what OZO stands for.”

Planterra sources peas from Canada and works with MycoTechnology on new ingredients. “We’re very dedicated to traceability,” says Macken. “We are very mindful of the quality of these ingredients, so that’s why we only picked a handful of suppliers that we know we can trace and we know where the farms are.”

Macken says the company will launch manufacturing in Denver in the first half of 2022, and the company could hit 200 employees in 2023.

Boosting distribution in the U.S. is a big part of that. Planterra is currently at 15 percent all-commodity volume (ACV), and Macken says the goal for 2022 is 60 percent.

“Our benchmarks up until now were really getting prepared for growth,” she says. “We know how important it is to be reliable as a partner. Our capacity is there, our people are there, so [2022] is our year for growth. It really is a turning point for us.”

Challenges: Standing up the Denver manufacturing facility, says Mackey, is at the top of the list. It’s about equipment and training, she says: “Having for the first time the end-to-end process in one building, so it is absolutely getting that seamless process down.”

Supply chain is another unavoidable challenge. “Everyone’s feeling this pain,” says Macken. “It’s absolutely top-of-mind. We are lucky that we get to pile in with the JBS procurement, suppliers, and those relationships.”

Boosting awareness is another issue. “People are shopping differently today,” says Macken. “Retailers are struggling a bit with where this should belong in the store and how to communicate it.”

Opportunities: Dynamic growth, says Macken. “The category is just in the beginning. It’s fascinating to see the trajectory in fresh [plant-based protein products] — frozen has been around for many, many, many years, so that’s not necessarily new — but innovation has to be key. I think we’re just at the beginning when it comes to new food forms, new types of food flavors, meal solutions. The great news is we don’t have to talk people into trying plant-based — it’s there. Consumers are willing, they’re interested, we just have to provide better solutions.”

“We mimic meat — we’re a meat alternative — for a reason, because we’re going after this flexitarian, people who still eat meat and they want to flex in an alternate protein at some point during the week,” she adds. “There are different motivations — health reasons, sustainability, environmental. Whatever the motivation, food has to taste good. It can’t be a sacrifice. We want to be that delicious go-to when you’re thinking, ‘I’m going to go plant-based today.'”

Photos courtesy Planterra Foods

And the road map is global: “We found success through the JBS network in Canada and Mexico, and we’re actually launching in the U.K. right now. We’re actually extremely fortunate in that we complement Vivera extremely well on-shelf. We have different positioning, different brand propositions, and different types of food, so we are actually stronger together.”

New products are another ongoing opportunity, with an OZO-brandes plant-based chicken alternative debuting at retail in early 2022. “It’s True Bites, which is something we have trademarked because of the eating experience,” says Macken. “It’s the texture, flavor, and full experience of actually eating a muscle chicken.”

Needs: Employees, including technicians and engineers in Denver as well as data and sales specialists in Lafayette. “Culture is a highly used word, but for us, it’s attitude, drive, natural curiosity,” says Macken. “To me, it really is about work ethic and wanting to be part of something special as we’re building this.”