Maybe it’s because of my last name, but I never took to lamb even before I became a vegetarian. It could have been the gamy flavor, the fact that it’s often dry, or just thinking too hard about what exactly lamb is.
But for much of the world, specifically Australia, New Zealand, India, China, and other Asian countries, lamb is a dietary staple. As these countries grow in population and become more wealthy, it’s likely their demand for all meat — lamb included — will only increase.
So it’s timely that a new startup called Black Sheep Foods is developing a plant-based alternative to ground lamb. Founded in June of 2019 by two former employees at cell-based seafood startup Finless Foods, Black Sheep’s lamb burger is made from soy protein, coconut oil, and natural flavors. Sunny Kumar, Black Sheep’s co-founder, told me over the phone last week that they’re eventually planning to develop a versatile ground lamb product that can be used to make everything from patties to curries.
Black Sheep has been working out of the MISTA food business accelerator program, which is run by Danone, Mars, and more. However, they’re packing up to move to Singapore to participate in the 5-month Big Idea Ventures accelerator program, from which they will also receive $250,000 in funding. [Ed note: The author is a mentor for Big Idea Ventures but is not directly involved with Black Sheep Foods.]
Their go-to-market plan is to sell the plant-based lamb through restaurants and foodservice, specifically targeting large office cafeterias. Kumar said they plan to launch product on a limited scale by the end of the Big Idea Ventures program in five months. In terms of price, the plant-based lamb will likely be on par with the cost of lamb in the U.S., where the meat commands a premium, but more expensive than lamb in areas like Australia where it’s cheaper.
Kumar hasn’t decided precisely where they’ll debut their plant-based lamb, but said that Singapore would be a natural choice because of the area’s love for the new wave of uber-realistic meat alternatives, like Impossible Foods’ burgers which debuted there last year.
Whether or not they launch in Singapore, Kumar was very specific that Black Sheep would initially target Eastern regions, like India and China. Not only is there less competition — the plant-based meat alternative space is not as crowded as it is in the West — there’s also a pressing need to find sustainable, tasty protein sources to feed booming populations in these areas. And while Asian consumers might have a plant-based burger every once and a while, to make a real difference there must be alternatives to everyday staple meats, such as like lamb.
Black Sheep isn’t the only company hoping to tap into the massive potential of the Asian alternative protein. Right Treat’s Omnipork makes plant-based ground pork, sold in both retail and foodservice, which target Asian consumer preferences. And on the cultured meat side, Singapore-based Shiok Meats is making cell-based shrimp and Integriculture is tackling cultured foie gras (and other meats) in Japan.
Eventually, Kumar does want to bring his plant-based lamb to the United States. “Ultimately, we can’t ignore the U.S. market,” he told me. There, Black Sheep’s focus on lamb could help them stand out from a sea of beef burgers, especially if they decide to branch into retail. Then again, lamb’s gamey flavor makes it a pretty polarizing meat for U.S. consumers, which may scare foodservice spots away from trying out Black Sheep’s initial product.
Regardless, I think Black Sheep would be wise to continue focusing on the Asian and Australia/NZ markets. Australia and New Zealand eat a ton of lamb, so they might welcome a high-quality plant-based alternative. And while the aforementioned startups like Omnipork do make faux meat for Asian markets, the space is relatively empty compared to Western markets. Plus nobody’s making lamb there yet.
However, if Black Sheep does make its way to the U.S., I’ll have to get over my lamb skepticism and give it a try. Last name be damned.