Origin Story Interview W/ Csaba Hetényi, Plantcraft

Origin Story Interview W/ Csaba Hetényi, Plantcraft

Brighter Future

 / 

Sep 13, 2023

#BrighterFuture #entrepreneurship #Sustainability #ClimateChangeSolution #originstoryseries #seekthechange #plantbaseddeli #sustainablefood #plantbasedfood #deliproducts #foodinnovation #veganfood #vegandeli #healthychoices #meatalternatives #Vegan #PlantBasedDiet

Brighter Future

We’re here with Csaba Hetényi, founder and CEO of Plantcraft, a plant-based deli meat company.

Thank you so much for being here with us, Csaba. Do you think you could introduce yourself and your company?

My name is Csaba Hetényi, and I am Hungarian. I come from the financial sector, but a few years ago, I dreamed of becoming a CEO and founding a company like Plantcraft. I am thrilled to have this opportunity and am enjoying the experience immensely.

Plantcraft is a deli company specialising in plant-based products. We develop and produce various vegan deli products, including salamis, pepperoni, bologna, hot dogs, and sausages.

From the beginning, we have focused on two main characteristics of our products. Firstly, they are allergen-free, so we do not use soy or gluten-containing ingredients. This was unique when we started, and we continue to prioritise it. Secondly, we produce our products without harmful additives, such as gums or methylcellulose, which can improve texture but are unnecessary.

Why did you decide to make your products both zero-harm and allergen-free? What is the background behind your startup?

We noticed that there were claims from meat and dairy manufacturers that while vegan products don't contain animal products, they're unhealthy due to artificial ingredients used to mimic the taste and texture of animal-based products. However, a few years ago, there was an evolution in ingredients and product development. We wanted to answer these claims and create a product that prioritised animal welfare and sustainability and is healthy for consumers. In addition, we wanted to shorten the ingredient list and make our products both allergen-free and with zero harm. So we started as a second-generation non-meat company.

As we are based in Europe, being "additive-free" has different definitions across the continent. While it's easy to specify that there are no numbers in the product, it can be misleading as many ingredients without numbers can still be unhealthy. So instead, we use the term "clean label" to describe our products, which has a different perception and definition in the US and Europe. Our main intention was to avoid compromising our products' taste, flavour, and texture while prioritising healthy, clean ingredients.

Can you tell us where your entrepreneurial journey began?

A few years ago, I needed to improve pasta's shelf life and texture for food service use. So, I collaborated with a scientist, and our collaboration eventually turned into a friendship. As it turned out, she had been working on a special food production IP that focused on vegan products and creating nutritious recipes for kids and adults with ADHD. This is important because if you have ADHD, your diet is critical in managing your condition. So, understanding how you intake fibre and carbohydrates and whether you're using artificial additives is essential.

I had a significant opportunity, but as someone with a financial background, I needed to learn how to make the most of it. So, I teamed up with two friends, and we spent three to four months analysing the market to determine which product we wanted to create. After delving deeper into the figures, numbers, competitors, and other details, we realised that there was an overlooked and undervalued niche that we wanted to focus on. Although many products were already in the market, no one focused on the values we wanted to promote. So, despite having a limited budget, we decided to work on this area since it was essential. Previous generations of food innovation used traditional wheat and soy-based products with several drawbacks, including flavour, colour, and health issues. That's why we decided to return to the scientist and share our plan.

Within a couple of months, we were able to develop a product that turned out to be highly successful. Last year, we received the World Plant-Based Award, which was a tremendous achievement.

Did you discover your entrepreneurial skills in your youth, or was it only when you started your first company?

Since age 21, I have worked in a local and national bank in project financing, and I was in that environment for around 20 years ago. So I started to venture with these companies and established a management lab. This lab focused on the financial sector, small social enterprises, LLC, supporting individuals, SMEs, and larger projects through project finance and advisory activities. Initially, I wanted to be a CEO and founder who could make decisions, seek funding and financing, and manage operations. What was new for me was the international aspect of the project.

I focused on gathering market information and scaling the project from the beginning. This was challenging, and I had to make joint decisions with my co-founders.

Are you primarily addressing vegans, or is your message intended for those with ADHD, or both?

From the beginning, the most important thing for us was to achieve the highest impact in terms of people investing in substitutes, which has a high impact on health and environmental sustainability. Consequently, we have always focused on people's goals rather than our success. Our target audience is people who eat meat or dairy-based products but are open and willing to start something new and reduce their animal-based diet. This has been our focus from the beginning, so our meat alternatives products are the best in the sector. In addition, we have been focusing on flexibility, as we can have the highest impact if we can convince people to fully or partly substitute meat products.

What part of your work do you find most fulfilling?

Anyone can run a business to make money, but what is different here is that being able to substitute meat products with plant-based products greatly affects people's health. I believe decreasing the consumption of animal-based products and supporting any kind of product or idea that promotes change is the only way. Plant-based deli products are an additional variety for the change of diet, which can convince people to switch from a meat-based diet to a plant-based diet. In addition, doing something to benefit someone is very rewarding personally.

Has your career ever gone in a different direction than you expected?

In the life of a startup, it is important to have long-term plans from the beginning. You must figure out the path you want to follow and what your goals are in three years. However, there are circumstances, both internal and external, that can affect your decisions. You may have to change your plans, reconsider past decisions, and make difficult, high-level decisions that significantly impact you. For example, you may need to shift your focus towards retail and branding, food service, and other cash flow. If the research and development of a product are unsuccessful, you may need to start working with someone else. The journey is not a simple line between two points but rather involves taking three steps forward, two steps back, jumping left and right, and making your way forward again. This is a permanent and exhausting journey and a fun and rewarding experience.

Unfortunately, this is not an approach for everyone. Some people prefer to work from nine to five in a comfortable environment for a multinational company. Whether someone can live with these challenges is a human nature issue, and being a startup is not for everyone.

With Plantcraft, what would you say were the biggest challenges that you have to face?

We have a lot of challenges, and one that should have been mentioned is R&D. If you want to create a unique product, not just in your hometown but globally, you often have to start from scratch and carefully consider your strategy and ingredients. R&D is a huge and continuous challenge, particularly for unique products. Additionally, the current era presents unique challenges. For example, COVID has changed our daily lives and made launching products in new markets difficult. Managing and launching a physical product in the US requires careful planning and remote team management. The Ukrainian war and supply chain problems have also created challenges for our production company. People focus more on basic staple foods in these uncertain times, and finding venture capitalists to invest in any business is difficult. Despite these challenges, we see potential in some of the changes caused by COVID, such as increased demand for plant-based products and sustainable living. Overall, while the challenges we face can be daunting, they also present opportunities for growth and innovation.

Did you encounter any mistakes or missteps while running Plantcraft, and what did you learn from them? Additionally, what positive lessons did you gain from your experience?

One piece of advice for startups is to be confident when making decisions. Timing is rarely perfect for changing R&D, making adjustments to the team, or altering the company's strategy. While it's important to analyse the situation from every angle thoroughly, you must make decisions swiftly and transparently. Honesty with your team and partners is crucial for personal integrity and the company's success. In addition, you want to save time and money. If a pivot is necessary, making the decision promptly and carrying it out effectively is vital.

When did you become aware of climate change and feel an impulse to work in this field?

It was during my time in university that I began with economic theory. My area of specialisation was in sustainability and the social impact of the economy. I was very passionate about this field of study and wanted to work there. However, I detoured and entered the financial sector for some reason. Through my work with Plantcraft, I have finally been allowed to return to this path, which is truly astonishing and important to me. Working with like-minded people at conferences and meetings to further this cause provides professional support and personal fulfilment. Working in the business world while contributing to the greater good is truly rewarding, and it's why I love what I do.

Have books, movies, speeches, or people ever served as sources of inspiration for you?

The company Patagonia, founded by Yvon Chouinard, is an inspiration. They are a business, but they also have a nonprofit arm. It’s a great example to look at in terms of how they manage their business and remain consistent with their core values. A couple of years ago, they published some books. I think the first one I read was the game changer for me; it was very noisy about the food industry, industrial farming, and animal quality of life. They also have other books that are important to me. These Patagonia titles have helped me face the problems of swapping animal-based product proteins for alternative proteins which are much healthier.

The food we eat can be poisonous, like constantly eating red meat. We need organisations and efforts from United Nations to call for action in these fields. When they start working on it and inputs from every direction, these efforts may generate revenue.

What were your biggest compromises or sacrifices to get where you are today?

When we started our company, we knew we would have to make compromises. We had several dreams: to promote plant-based foods and to revolutionise the supply chain, particularly regarding OSHA compliance. In addition, we wanted to streamline the training system and create a more sustainable ecosystem from producer to shelf. But this was a complex and costly process, both in terms of euros and environmental impact. We also aimed to use compostable or biodegradable packaging but realised we couldn't achieve everything simultaneously.

A simple triangle applies to food businesses (and everything else): price, taste, and convenience. If a product tastes good but is expensive, it may not sell well; if it's cheap but doesn’t taste good, it won't sell either. We faced this challenge with our bologna product, which initially came in a plastic tray with modified atmosphere packaging. However, the packaging was not environmentally friendly and turned customers away. So we had to accept the reality of the situation and think creatively about how to address it.

We continually explore ways to improve our ingredients, packaging, and supply chain, and we remain committed to our strategic goals. But of course we’ve learned that we can’t achieve everything at once. Instead, we must prioritise and take small steps to move forward. We believe that education is key, and if we can educate consumers about the benefits of sustainability, we can make a real difference in the world.

How do you envision the future you're helping to create with Plantcraft?

What Plantcraft has to do now is expand our portfolio with as many new products as possible. In addition, we need to continue our R&D efforts. We planned to launch in the US initially, as we believed it to be the largest and most homogeneous market for our plant-based movement. Our original plan was to establish a strong presence in the US before moving on to Europe. However, we have slightly changed our strategy and started to work on expanding in Europe. We recently expanded to the UK and contracted for the Netherlands this summer. Our ultimate goal is to become the Beyond Meat of the deli sector and a global brand. It may seem ambitious, but we still believe it's achievable. Luckily, we have a scalable production system that utilises traditional meat processing technology, allowing us to replicate our facilities and processes across different locations, such as California, the Netherlands, Hungary, or Singapore. This scalability is our focus for the next few years.

How would you picture your dream world if we looked beyond your company?

My dream is to stop the unnecessary use of animals for food. If we can obtain all necessary protein and other resources from alternative sources, why not choose those options? Ideally, everyone would support these sustainable practices, including the government, industry, and individuals. In my vision of an ideal world, we prioritise local and regional resources to reduce our carbon footprint and harm to the planet. This means transitioning to a plant-based lifestyle as much as possible. We should also aim to live sustainably by flying less, embracing minimalism, and avoiding frequent weekend trips to distant cities. Although this vision is ambitious, it is necessary for our future.

Why should we all consume less?

Because our consumption level is not sustainable and unnecessary, we need to rethink our habits. For example, around 70% of the food we buy goes to waste while we replace our cell phones every two years and cars every four years. If you take the time to examine your monthly food spending, you'll find that a significant portion of it is unnecessary, both in terms of money and time spent. Sitting in front of screens and mindlessly scrolling through social media also takes away from our real lives and those around us. We must return to these principles before making life much harder for ourselves and future generations. I don't want to leave this kind of life for my children.

How would you advise young and aspiring entrepreneurs, as well as individuals who are starting their businesses?

There are three things to consider when creating something, not just for business purposes but also for your mental health. Firstly, it should benefit you and the planet, something that can improve your life and the lives of others.

Secondly, it is crucial to stick to your plans and dreams, but it is also essential to be able to pivot and adjust your strategy if necessary. It's possible that what you initially thought would work might not align with what the people need. There are numerous examples where the original concept differs significantly from the idea that has become a successful global company.

Lastly, speaking with as many people as possible is vital, including your colleagues, potential buyers, target audience, competitors, and investors. This is the only way to obtain information from the market, discover the needs of the people, and learn from best and worst practices. If you fail to do this, you will live in your own bubble, and the things you create may not be needed. Therefore, talking to people as much as possible is critical.

How would you like future generations and perhaps family and friends to reflect on you and your journey?

If I could tell my grandchildren one day that their grandfather didn't just make money but also created something good for the people, it would be a proud moment for me. This is a good reason to wake up every morning and start a business, even though it can be difficult to set up. I'm experiencing this with some old friends from university and high school, and when I tell them what I'm doing, they say they would like to do something similar.

Thank you so much for spending some time with us; we hope your mission to create sustainable, delicious, animal-free deli products is a wild success.

If you’d like to learn more about Plantcraft, please visit www.plantcraft.com.

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