Location:
San Francisco, California
Founded:
2019

With a focus on the science of flavor, founder Sunny Kumar’s plant-based lamb manufacturer is off to anything but a sheepish start.

As Kumar’s company
expands within the plant-based foods manufacturing space, it’s taking a wholly
different approach than its competitors — both in terms of the proteins it’s
making substitutes for and key aspects of its ingredients. For instance, Kumar
says of the company’s first offering, “We understand what makes lamb ‘lamb.'”

Calling lamb a “polarizing” meat with a devoted fan base, Kumar says both the positive and the
negative flavor aspects that people experience while eating it are due to
compounds called branched-chain
fatty acids
, which are found in different ratios within the foraging
animals.

“We understand the
good and we understand the bad. We actually take the flavor compounds that are
found in lamb that are really positively-associated with flavor and we keep out
all the negative stuff,” says Kumar of his scientific team’s work. “So, what
we’ve done is we created a [plant-based] lamb that’s better than animal lamb in
terms of flavor.” Furthermore, Kumar says, “We’re using plants to essentially
create the flavor compounds.”

Kumar uses Legos as an
analogy to describe how Black Sheep Foods takes plant sources — including
pomegranate, beets, potato, bamboo, peas, and cocoa butter — and combines them to
mimic the look and mouthfeel of lamb. But built into that Lego-like structure,
the company also fastens flavors and aromas — those branched-chain fatty acids — found within lamb. According to the company’s website, those compounds are
extracted from grains which contain similar “gamey” flavors.

So far, about 45
restaurants are serving Black Sheep’s plant-based lamb. They’re mostly centered
in the Bay Area of California, with a small presence in Los Angeles as well.
The plant-based lamb arrives at restaurants in the form of frozen meatballs,
burgers, sausages, and kebabs, as well as ground.

The product is presently
contract manufactured in San Diego. And although Kumar says, “We don’t share
production numbers,” a December 2022 article
in Tech Crunch notes how Black Sheep anticipates eventually making
millions of pounds of the plant-based lamb annually.

Once adoption of the product
increases via restaurants, Kumar sees Black Sheep Foods eventually entering
stores and overseas markets. The company is already seeking European regulatory
approval and has received over $12 million in investments
to expand its operations, including funds from Saudi Prince Khaled bin
Alwaleed’s investment firm KBW Ventures.

But Black Sheep Foods doesn’t
intend to stop at lamb. Kumar says a plant-based duck is already in the
works along with wild boar. Besides just being novel meat substitutes, Kumar
asserts that plant-based duck tastes more flavorful than its chicken
counterpart, and plant-based wild boar tastes better than pork substitutes. Kumar
says Black Sheep Foods is aiming to increase the rate of flexitarianism in the
population by “coming up with these amazing flavors” within its plant-based
products.

Photos courtesy Black Sheep Foods

Furthermore, in
putting together its food offerings, Kumar’s company doesn’t turn to any of the
large, established food flavoring companies to provide primary flavor ingredients. “There’s like five or six flavor houses that own
like 70 percent of the market,” says Kumar, noting how Black Sheep Foods is
presently seeking patent approval for aspects of its work, which reportedly
involves its own flavorings.

Indeed, the R&D that
Black Sheep Foods devotes to flavoring leads Kumar to make a novel declaration.
He observes, “I would say we’re more of a flavor house that masquerades as a
plant-based company than a plant-based company.”

Challenges: It’s
“brand messaging, brand marketing” types of challenges, says Kumar. The company
has harnessed technology to produce a product that receives high marks from
food industry people. But it remains to be seen whether the public will
wholeheartedly respond on the cultural side of the equation, ordering it while
out and eventually buying Black Sheep products at stores.

Opportunities: Becoming
a powerhouse plant-based food brand through the aggregate of its novel
products, says Kumar. Ideally, flexitarians will turn to the brand and decide
“let’s have Black Sheep for dinner.”

Needs: “Scientists,”
says Kumar. “Always a hiring challenge. So, we’re always recruiting if you know
anyone.”

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