A Good Community chats to Rens Bekkers, CEO of Amsterdam based dark kitchen, Bright Kitchen (we see what you did there, Rens). We talk about mouthwatering plant-based burgers, how to encourage people to eat less meat, is soy sustainable?, and whether the Netherland's reputation for sustainability—at least what we view it as anyway—holds up. Dig in!
AGC: Travis Kalanick, the former CEO of Uber, has just invested a ton of cash into a dark kitchen business based in LA. It's a concept that's growing around the world at the moment, with a lot of attention in startup land. There's a few names— —dark kitchen, shadow kitchen, ghost kitchen—what is the concept exactly?
RB: So to build a bridge between what Travis Kalanick is doing and what we’re doing, his company, Cloud Kitchen’s, model is selling space on a monthly contract for companies like us. So their business model is a B2B model, where they help restaurateurs, or dark kitchens, find a spot where they can produce the deliveries. What we're doing, that's Bright Kitchen, our core business is B2C. We actually set up online food delivery brands that deliver.
"In the plant-based world, people tend to like something that triggers a bit extra."
AGC: Okay, so what kinds of brands have you developed through Bright Kitchen?
RB: Currently we’ve got six different brands, all plant-based or vegan. Our most famous brand is Vegan Burger Brothers, and it was recently announced by Deliveroo that one of our burgers, The Royal Melt, is the number one vegan dish in the whole Netherlands on the platform, which is pretty cool.
AGC: What's in the burger?
RB: It's a black burger bun, made from activated charcoal, so it stands out I guess. Second to that there is a sriracha mayo, yellow jalapeños and a vegan burger patty. So it's rather spicy and I think people really enjoyed it. I think in the plant based world, people tend to like something that triggers a bit extra. And spices for us do pretty well, spicy food or a spicy option within the burgers for example.
The Royal Melt
AGC: Sounds delicious!
RB: Yeah I eat them a lot. Another brand is Doner Dudes, which is a shawarma but made fully vegan. This is more for people when they come home after a couple of beers, for example, we see an uplift when it's slightly later in the evening. Another brand that we have is Los Pollos Veganos, which sounds a bit like Los Pollos Hermanos [Breaking Bad], and is vegan chicken.
AGC: What is vegan chicken?
RB: In our case, soya, we have different types of chicken. But the majority is made from soya.
AGC: And what prompted vegan, was it a conscious decision from the outset?
RB: Well first of all, it was a very conscious choice to only focus on delivery. We don't have anyone coming in, we don't even have a cashier for people to buy food. So we focus really on production and focus on the online side of things. We started off with one vegan brand and two other brands, not specifically selling meat at all. They were 90 to 95% meat-free anyway, but they were not targeted towards a vegan audience. And what we saw is that the brand Last Vegan, which still exists by the way, did very well. So we thought okay, how can we do something different but still targeting the same market? And that's how we came up with Vegan Burger Brothers. Then, about a year ago, we decided very consciously to only focus on plant-based food and the vegan market. And now our mission is making great food for a more sustainable world, which was not attached to our company beforehand, but that's something that has developed later and now we're very strongly committed to making food for a better world.
"Plastic is hidden in so many products."
AGC: Interesting, and this also feeds into packaging and delivery as well?
RB: We're currently trying to make it so all our delivery drivers are on bicycles or electric vehicles, which is a bit of struggle I have to say. And then, yes, avoiding plastic as much as we can. But again it’s pretty complicated, plastic is hidden everywhere.
AGC: What have you found that had plastic hidden inside it that you didn’t expect?
RB: Plastic is hidden in so many products. If you take a drink, like milkshake cups for example, they almost always have some sort of plastic coating. A burger wrap generally has some sort of plastic coating too. That's the reason that we're going to move to burger boxes, because they are available without plastic coating.
"If you put 100 grams of soy towards an animal that will only provide you with 20 grams of meat protein. I think that conversion is where the actual problem lies."
AGC: The Netherlands has a reputation for feeding the world. Do you source a lot of ingredients locally?
RB: Local is not something that's very deeply ingrained in our strategy at the moment. However, we do have some local products. We have a local burger patty supplier, our bread supplier is very local and vegetables from the Netherlands. But if you want to go really local and you start serving soy, for example there is a very good chance that it’s not from Europe.
Farm in Callantsoog, Netherlands
AGC: Of course, and there’s a bit of a dispute about soy currently, how sustainable it is?
RB: Yeah, I always find it a very interesting discussion around soy. Deforestation is probably what you're referring to, and water usage? I think what the real cause of the problem is, because the problem is very real, is that currently soy is one of the main types of food for the animal industry. If you put 100 grams of soy towards an animal that will only provide you with 20 grams of meat protein. I think that conversion is where the actual problem lies, because you basically bin 80%. When an actual human consumes it, you would only need 20% of the whole soy production. If you look at it in that way, I don't think the problem is too big. Unfortunately, animal consumption is still growing, as well, in the Netherlands.
RB: Yeah. For every person in the Netherlands compared to 2018, it’s 600 grams more over the course of the year.
AGC: So despite all the press attention about how eating meat is better for the environment and we should all move towards a plant-based diet, despite people like you making vegan food delivery services and making it super easy to eat vegan, the amount of meat per capita is increasing?
RB: Still increasing, and that's parallel to the growth of meat replacement products. So meat replacement products do have a very strong uplift but, simultaneously, meat consumption continues to grow. And that's something quite contradictory, but it's actually what's happening. So that's pretty worrying, I think.
AGC: You need to step up operations!
RB: For sure. Our plan is to build 50 kitchens in the coming four years and to create more relevant brands for customers that want to eat less meat or sustainable food. Some people are slightly allergic to not eating meat. That's not how we frame it. We don't talk about meat.
"It's proven over and over again that the environment is not a selling point, people don't buy because it's better for the environment, in a lot of cases."
AGC So it's a branding issue partly?
RB: Partly. There's a lot of research on how to convert people to eat less meat, and I think one of the more interesting pieces of research says to go with an opt out. If the standard option is vegetarian, but meat is still available, 80% will go over to the vegetarian dish. And I think that applies well for creating an interesting brand, that is click worthy. For us, it could be possible, it's something that we're probably not going to do, but maybe if we can prove that we attract meat eaters, by having one meat product on the menu, and then try to direct them to non-meat products. That's actually how we can make much more of an impact than being fully plant-based. And that's an interesting contradiction, because you'll be criticised for it on the one hand, on the other hand you could make more of an impact.
"We will communicate with proteins and nutrition in order to hopefully attract that person to a certain dish without showing that there is a need for meat."
AGC: We talked to the CEO of a sustainability consultancy called Sustainable Online and he said it's easy to get young people to become more environmentally friendly, but the real trick is getting someone who's entrenched, someone who's 50 or 60 years old, to make changes to the way that they live their lives.
RB: Exactly. For that reason, with some brands, we're communicating strongly with vegan branding. However, there are certain demographics that are more 'allergic' to this word, meaning this is not how you're going to grab their attention. And we're currently exploring this more by launching brands such as Flex Kitchen and GROW. Both fully-plant based but, with Flex Kitchen, creating some sort of ‘market dishes’ environment and with GROW, creating different dishes targeted more towards athletes i.e. ‘The Game Changers’ audience. With these, we won't speak about vegan or vegetarian in the branding to really try and attract a different type of customer, or customer that might be looking for meat or the benefits of meat. So we will communicate with proteins and nutrition in order to hopefully attract that person to a certain dish without showing that there is a need for meat.
AGC: Almost kind of like veganism or vegetarianism by the backdoor.
RB: Yeah, exactly.
"There's a lot of business decisions made in the Netherlands and they're definitely not all sustainable."
AGC: And it’s interesting that you’re another sustainable-minded company from the Netherlands. Why do you think the Netherlands is a hotbed for sustainability?
RB: Yeah, that's an interesting question. I think there's a lot of different solutions for different problems. With the cycling, for example, that's not something that's grounded as being better for the environment. I think it's just the most effective way of transport here and, as well, the government supports it in terms of building cycling lanes, etc. So I think the main reason for that is just a better, quicker method of transportation, rather than being making it the conscious choice. On the same hand, it's proven over and over again that the environment is not a selling point, people don't buy because it's better for the environment, in a lot of cases. I’m not saying that's always the case, but research shows it over and over again. So you have to trigger people in different ways.
AGC: So you're saying the Netherlands isn't really that sustainable?
RB: Not to break the Netherlands down, we're doing a lot of good things. But, for example, we're also now building data centres here in the Netherlands and those data centres, they consume the same power as the city of Amsterdam for one data centre. And this is also something that the government allows to happen. On the same hand, they’re building wind farms to supply those data centres, but it just means we're not supplying households, we're supplying these data centres with the added green electricity. There's a lot of business decisions made in the Netherlands and they're definitely not all sustainable.
AGC: So it’s sustainability as a result of efficiency?
RB: Yes, partly. You spoke about food and how it is produced here, I think that is a very prescribed method and the water usage is all very low and very efficient and effective. And that turns out to be much better for the environment, which is a great thing. However, the problems that are solved are, as well, economically beneficial. The real problem that we have in the Netherlands is limited square meters, as in limited space to build stuff. So what people have been looking for over the years is more efficient and effective ways to use space. And you could frame it as that, or you could frame it as much better for the environment.
AGC: Interesting, One last question: who else should we interview for A Good Community?
RB: I think Johan Jansen at Tea By Me would be a good person to speak to. They've developed a tea that can be grown in cooler climates, so more sustainable.
AGC: Thanks Rens, good luck with the mission!
Do you have an opinion on this, perhaps you work for a sustainable food business? We'd love to hear from you. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.