[Interview] UNLIMEAT: “It’s the Perfect Time to Enhance the ‘Deliciousness’ of Alternative Meat”
UNLIMEAT: “It’s the Perfect Time to Enhance the ‘Deliciousness’ of Alternative Meat”
October 19, 2023
UNLIMEAT, originating in South Korea and also enjoying success in the USA, is addressing a global issue that needs to be addressed more urgently by our food system, our producers, and our politicians. In the US alone, over 80 billion pounds of food is wasted each year, meaning that 30-40% of America’s annual food supply goes to waste, says founder and CEO Keum Chae Min.
In response, the young entrepreneur set out initially in her home country to upcycle unused, “ugly” plants to create plant-based meat products tailored for diverse global cuisines. “We want to accelerate the transition to plant-based eating by making it convenient and delicious for consumers. That is why we’re relentlessly finding ways to expand our offerings, from Korean BBQ to Pulled Pork, Pepperoni, and Dumplings to Katsu, using diverse plant ingredients, not just soy and pea protein,” explains Keum Chae.
Barely a single month has passed since UNLIMEAT’S US launch in 2022 that we haven’t reported on interesting developments from this forward-thinking producer of plant-based meats. It was time we got to know Keum Chae to hear more about her journey, motivation, and plans for the future.
Can you start by giving us an introduction to UNLIMEAT and its mission? What inspired you to start this company?
UNLIMEAT is a company that produces plant-based meat, seafood, dairy products, and various other foods using upcycled materials. I started an upcycled food tech business seven years ago to address the reduction of food waste. My initial business model involved selling upcycled products created with B-grade inventory collected from farms at the first step in the value chain, enhancing the value of said inventory through research and development. I crafted processed fruit and vegetable products from imperfect plums, tangerines, grapes, and apples, while also producing and distributing soups and porridge using “ugly” sweet potatoes, pumpkins, and mushrooms.
Tuna Kimbap © UNLIMEAT
During this journey, I discovered an abundance of grain inventory in my homeland, South Korea, which inspired me to embark on the development of plant-based meat using these grain resources. This marked the inception of our current brand, UNLIMEAT, a plant-based label that has since flourished. Today, in addition to our plant-based meat offerings, we provide a diverse range of products designed for the enjoyment of all kinds of consumers, including seafood, dairy items, frozen kimbap, and rice balls.
How do you assess the current situation in both North America and South Korea in terms of demand for plant-based products? What, in your opinion, does the future hold for meat alternatives?
Recently, the alternative meat market has experienced a period of stagnation lasting 2-3 years. In contrast, the plant-based food market is consistently growing by more than 10% each year. Both American and Korean consumers were interested in alternative meats due to their curiosity about ‘technology’ and the appeal of ‘healthy food.’
However, we believe that the alternative meat market will continue to stagnate unless it also focuses on delivering enjoyment, confidence, and satisfaction in the essential aspect of food: ‘deliciousness.’ It’s the perfect time to enhance the ‘deliciousness’ of alternative meat. Consumers are actively seeking out plant-based alternatives, not just for health reasons, but also due to the delicious and innovative options available.
Our goal is to provide consumers with the ‘pleasure of taste’ through K-VEGAN concept products like frozen kimbap, rice balls, and mochi cake. Furthermore, we aim to drive the expansion of plant-based foods by evolving beyond mere ‘meat substitutes’ and emphasizing the ‘convenience’ of easy consumption rather than the pleasure of cooking.
JUST Egg X Unlimeat
UNLIMEAT is known for using upcycled ingredients in its plant-based products. Could you tell us more about your approach to upcycling and how it aligns with the company’s philosophy?
Although we produce plant-based products, we never forget our mission to upcycle and reduce food waste, which was our initial model. That’s why our plant-based products contain a variety of upcycled ingredients, ranging from as little as 1-2% to more than 10%. As a result, UNLIMEAT products currently span both the plant-based food market (worth USD 75.7 billion) and the food upcycle market (valued at USD 53 billion).
Korea produces approximately 10 million tons of food by-products annually, with 70% of them classified as industrial waste, which poses a significant environmental and disposal burden. Among these by-products, 1.5 million tons consist of rice by-products, and approximately 430,000 tons are rice bran. Some of these by-products find use in cosmetics and animal feed. However, a substantial 70% of these materials are discarded as waste, resulting in an annual disposal cost of 7.4 billion won. We procure these by-products from farms and then entrust their primary processing to a manufacturing plant that stabilizes and refines them. Subsequently, they are transformed into plant-based foods at UNLIMEAT Factory, our exclusively plant-based food facility. Our primary goal is to reduce unnecessary costs associated with food disposal.
The soybean meal and rice bran we use are rich in nutrients like dietary fiber and protein. Since soybean meal and rice bran are abundant in Korea, our initial products used these ingredients. However, we have recently diversified our upcycling materials to balance UNLIMEAT’s protein content, color, and nutritional value. Particularly for new products, we are expanding our material sources to include not only soybean meal and rice bran but also by-products from potatoes, beets, carrots, and tomatoes.
What does a clean label mean to your company, and how do you ensure your products meet these standards?
Currently, our products not only comply with U.S. FDA standards but also adhere to the guidelines for prohibited raw materials set by Organic & Natural Mart. We avoid the use of chemical additives like MSG to enhance flavor and focus on creating nutritionally superior products with higher protein and carbohydrate content.
How are your products performing in various markets? How has your entrance in the US been received in comparison to your home market, and are there any expansion plans for further markets or retailers?
We have been active in Korea and Asia for about three years, and we are proud of the meaningful results we have achieved during this time. Our signature product, Korean BBQ, has been used in vegan options at major franchises like Subway, Domino’s, and Quiznos in Korea. Sukiya in China, one of the three major gyudon chains, has launched vegan gyudon menu items featuring our product, and IKEA has done so as well.
We have been engaging with consumers in the U.S. market through retail channels, offering a range of products including plant-based Korean BBQ, pulled pork, dumplings, and beef jerky since the beginning of this year. UNLIMEAT products are now available in 1,300 retail stores across the United States, including Albertsons. Additionally, they have recently been introduced in several organic and natural stores, such as Berkeley Bowl, Mollie Stone’s Market, Lassens in California, and Good Earth Market in Utah. We also introduced Korean-style corn dogs made with UNLIMEAT sausage through Two Hands’ hot dog franchise stores located throughout the United States.
Looking ahead, we plan to introduce our diverse product range to consumers across the United States through e-commerce platforms like PlantX, Amazon, and our own online store. Furthermore, through the expansion of the food service channel, our aim is to incorporate UNLIMEAT products into a diverse range of menus tailored to cater to the localized tastes of American consumers. We are also expanding our reach to provide consumers with the opportunity to savor our products through food trucks.
Image: Two Hands X UNLIMEAT
What is your current portfolio and are there any innovations in the pipeline?
As of now, UNLIMEAT offers a diverse portfolio of plant-based products. Our current lineup includes options such as Korean BBQ, pulled pork, dumplings, beef jerky, and tuna, among others. These products are designed to provide consumers with a wide range of flavors and experiences beyond traditional meat alternatives, catering to various culinary preferences.
We aim to take an extra step forward and are dedicated to developing products that make it even more convenient for consumers to enjoy our food. This initiative begins with the creation of ready-to-heat K-food meals such as frozen kimbap, rice balls, and bulgogi.
Unlike other plant-based brands that typically offer only burger patties and chicken nuggets, UNLIMEAT introduces new gastronomic experiences to consumers with items such as Bulgogi, pulled pork, dumplings, beef jerky, and tuna. We firmly believe that igniting curiosity beyond the usual meat textures and providing a distinctive and delightful experience to consumers who enjoy Korean cuisine represents a unique competitive advantage and a strategic approach to expanding our retail presence.
In addition to traditional favorites like sliced beef-type Korean BBQ and pulled pork, you also offer plant-based alternatives like tuna and jerky. How do these products contribute to expanding the choices for MZ consumers seeking diverse plant-based options?
Millennials and Gen Z prioritize sustainability, health, and wellness, making them more inclined than any previous generation to adopt flexitarian diets, including vegan or vegetarian lifestyles. They also exhibit a willingness to explore new and authentic cuisines from different countries. I believe that our products are well-catered to the needs of Millennials and the Z Generation.Millennials and Gen Z consumers desire a wide range of plant-based foods to savor diverse flavors. UNLIMEAT’s versatile products can be incorporated into a variety of dishes suitable for different situations, including snacks, breakfast, picnics, beer festivals, and lunch boxes, among others. This contributes to the promotion of a healthy lifestyle among the generation, who also favor a variety of nutritious foods.
What’s next for UNLIMEAT? Are there any future plans that you’d like to highlight?
We are Korea’s leading plant-based food company, and we take pride in our competitive edge in developing and manufacturing the most delicious K-vegan products. Our future plans include the continued introduction of healthy and delicious ‘vegetable foods’ through clean label and K-vegan concept products. Similar to our recent collaboration product with Just Egg, which marked the beginning of our brand collaborations, we intend to introduce a variety of new products through collaborations with other brands in the future.