“This isn't meat,” said Phil Lapp’s nine-year-old daughter Morgan after wolfing down some home-made meat-free tacos one evening in 2011. “This is neat”.
Within minutes, his entrepreneurial juices started flowing, recalls Lapp, a Lancaster, PA-based former sales exec at Auntie Anne's Pretzels who knows better than most what it really takes to get a new product to market.
A year later, he and his wife Laura (who started experimenting with meat-free recipes based on nuts and beans after Morgan and her sister Kaitlyn suddenly decided they were becoming vegetarians) co-founded neat foods.
By August 2013, he’d quit the day job to focus on neat full-time ahead of an official launch of the brand at Natural Products Expo East in September 2013.
Since then, things moved at lightning speed, as the Lapps struck deals with the nation’s top two natural products distributors (UNFI and KeHe), and teamed up with broker Presence Marketing.
“This isn't meat. This is neat…”
Today, the ‘neat’ stuff that impressed family and friends in 2011 is gracing shelves in stores across the country, and neat foods is seeing repeat orders from Whole Foods stores in the north east to HEB stores in Texas and scores of independents.
But unlike many other meat-substitutes, neat doesn’t contain soy, and is instead based on a combination of protein-packed garbanzo beans and pecan nuts - plus gluten free whole grain oats, organic whole grain gluten free cornmeal, sea salt and spices.
To prepare neat products, shoppers open a pack, add water and two eggs (which boost the protein content and serve as a binder), and throw the mix into a skillet - just like ground beef. Original is ideal for burgers; Italian for meatballs or rather ’neatballs’ - a term the Lapps hope to trademark; and Mexican for tacos.
We’re targeting flexitarians. The meatless Monday crowd
But isn’t most of the action in meat-free in the frozen aisles, where the likes of Gardein, Quorn and MorningStar Farms are slugging it out for supremacy?
Right now, maybe, says Lapp. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a huge - largely untapped - opportunity in the shelf-stable aisles.
“We might expand into frozen products in future, and we’re working on some now. But starting out in frozen or refrigerated foods is a very expensive way to get into the market and we think there is a huge opportunity in the shelf-stable market.”
And neat products are every bit as convenient as frozen soy crumbles or ground beef, he claims. “You just grab a pack from the pantry and it’s ready in minutes.”
You just grab a pack from the pantry and it’s ready in minutes
The packaging is bright, clean and modern - designed to appeal to meat eaters and vegetarians alike of all ages - not just the natural foods crowd, says Lapp, a meat eater who was prompted to reassess his diet and lifestyle after a routine test in 2011 showed he had high cholesterol.
“I’d been eating red meat all my life, so after being told to cut down, I started looking at what I could eat instead.
“We developed the brand and the website, and started working with Vision Corps [formerly the Susquehanna Association for the Blind and Vision Impaired], which employs blind and visually impaired people, to produce neat.”
And the target audience? Flexitarians, says Lapp. "The Meatless Monday crowd. People that want protein without all the saturated fat.
"We've done a lot of sampling in stores and in many instances, people don't know it's not ground beef."
Even the Superbowl had vegetarian options this year
He knew they were really onto something with the products started getting five star reviews on Amazon, he says. “We’d got more than 40,000 likes on facebook and a lot of great PR as well, and after Expo East, we just thought we’re going to go for it.”
He was also convinced that to take the business to the next level, the family needed to bring in outside investors - having already pumped $100,000 of their own cash into the venture.
As for the future, he’s thinking big: “The defensibility of our food lies in the brand - and I think we can be a global brand. Being shelf stable also gives us an advantage as we can send our products all over the world.
“Right now these products are considered niche, but look how quickly things are changing; even the Superbowl had vegetarian options this year.”