Founder Jaap Korteweg about food sustainability, vision and growth.
Twelve years ago, a farmer from the Netherlands found himself at 44 years of age with enough time and energy on his hand to start something new. What some would describe as a creative spin-off on a mid-life crisis, Jaap Korteweg decided to do a unique thing: make the most savory meat substitute the world has ever tasted. In other words, to become a vegetarian butcher. Even though he always appreciated a fine piece of meat himself, after the BSE or ‘mad cow disease’ at the end of the nineties he decided to become a vegetarian. But as many former carnivores, he did miss the taste of meat. How could he satisfy his cravings without bothering those lovely animals?
“In general, I believe that in the future the main bulk of our food will be produced in factories. And that is a good thing”
The End of the Meat Era
This simple question led to a three-year quest, during which he developed an innovative vegetarian meat product with just the right bite. It was a dream come true and Jaap couldn’t wait to share it with the rest of the world. In 2010 he opened his first vegetarian butcher shop in The Hague with the aim to become the ‘biggest butcher’ in the world. Already in 2012, a culinary columnist of the New York Times wondered whether The Vegetarian Butcher was inaugurating the end of the meat era. And this year, food giant Unilever will take over the barely a decade-old company for the stunning amount of 30 million euros. Founder Jaap Korteweg was guest speaker at the Automotive Inspiration Day at B. Amsterdam last week and we had the chance to speak with this impressive and honest farmer from the low countries.
You are the forefront of the latest developments in sustainability. Could you tell us more about the latest trends at The Vegetarian Butcher?
Gladly so, but here it is important to first point out that The Vegetarian Butcher works together with the largest meat producers in the country. This is great news, as they already possess the full equipment necessary to make vegetarian alternatives for all their different kinds of meat. There is no need to invest in any new apparatus. In addition, we have our own production facility for hamburgers, meat balls and sausages.
Within that context, The Vegetarian Butcher continues to develop alternatives for those kinds of food for which we still need animals. Think about milk for example. We are currently working on a milk product that still comes from grass, but there is no need for a cow anymore. Instead we make use of a cow made from stainless steel. Another innovative development is vertical farming with the help of LED-lights. This is something I personally strongly believe in, especially when it concerns herbs and vegetables. Perhaps you could notice a small shift in our focus from offering alternatives to livestock farming to taking on agriculture at large. In general, I believe that in the future the main bulk of our food will be produced in factories. And that is a good thing.
What is your stance towards other methods of developing meat substitutes, such as genetic modification and cultured meat?
That is certainly not a direction The Vegetarian Butcher wishes to take. I personally do not believe in the promises of genetic modification and it is simply not necessary. Cultured meat in turn will always be more expensive and less efficient than the alternatives we offer, which are based on beans and other vegetable materials already available now! Why make the process more complex with ‘in vitro meat’?
The amount of actual meat substitutes you offer is much larger than those of fish. Why is that?
This has to do with, on one hand, the demand on the market. There is simply a much bigger market for alternatives for hamburgers, sausages, steak tartare and so forth. But there will be an increase in the demand of substitutes for fish, I am certain of that. At this moment people still have a positive image in mind when it concerns fish. There are many so-called ‘vegetarians’ who still eat fish – which is a bit strange if you ask me. Whether it concerns fish caught in the ocean or farmed fish, both are very environmentally unfriendly. Sometimes even more than the meat industry. I see it as one of the objectives of The Vegetarian Butcher to achieve a shift in consumer consciousness about the way the fish industry operates and actually pollutes the environment.
“In a way, I may have rebelled against the system but not against the people within the system”
Could you tell us what made your company grow so fast in only such few years?
The most important factor is the quality of our product. We focused primarily on the meat structure of our substitutes. For example, when you eat a vegetarian hamburger it must be tasty and invite you to take the next bite. Next to that, we closely collaborated with the meat industry. We established important relationships with butchers, other farmers and even retail chains like Smullers, Unox and Mora in the Netherlands. In that way, The Vegetarian Butcher was able to portray itself as an opportunity instead as a threat. As mentioned before, the meat industry can easily switch from producing animal meat to producing meat from chickpeas and other sorts of beans. In a way, I may have rebelled against the system but not against the people within the system.
“In that respect, people still are the true drivers of change. Most of all when it concerns the way we treat animals”
Where do you receive your inspiration for all the innovative ideas of The Vegetarian Butcher?
They mostly spring from the top of my head. I barely watch television and often do not even have time to read the newspaper. But of course, when you set up a company like The Vegetarian Butcher, you find yourself in a circuit of certain people who help to develop your ideas, make them more concrete. I simply recognize a problem and think of a practical solution after which I talk to other parties who might know more about it. I do not pretend to come up with completely unique ideas, most of them are not new at all. But what you need is the drive and the discipline to put them into action. In that respect, people still are the true drivers of change. Most of all when it concerns the way we treat animals.