It was the outbreak of swine fever and mad cow disease in the late nineties that caused Jaap Korteweg, a farmer in the West-Brabant province of the Netherlands, to rethink his profession.
When he was asked if his warehouse could be used to store tens of thousands of animal carcasses, he decided to convert to animal friendly, organic farming – all fine until the day came to take his livestock to the abattoir. He became vegetarian and recruited food scientists and plant protein growers to develop a a protein blend from soy, protein and lupin that could satisfy his meat cravings.
From a small concept store that opened in the Hague in 2010, The Vegetarian Butcher now works with distributors to sell its products in 16 countries worldwide.
You started out as a meat farmer before switching to making vegetarian meat alternatives. How has this shaped the philosophy behind your business?
"I was a ninth generation farmer and a big meat lover. I was hooked on the taste of meat. I tried to be a vegetarian for ethical reasons but it was very difficult so I started The Vegetarian Butcher for my own needs. Plant-based meat products with a taste, texture and nutritional value which is almost indistinguishable from the real thing."
What have been the biggest challenges you have encountered since launching The Vegetarian Butcher?
"It's still before us: the typical Dutch smoked sausage. I hope we can introduce it to the market within a year. We are working on it from the start. It’s simple to make just a smoked vegetarian sausage, and there are many on the market, but we are only satisfied if we can fool every meat-eater with ours.
"Our Bratwurst is chosen in the top five of Best Bangers in Leeds in the UK, our meatball won bronze in a competition amongst 45 real meat entries, our sausage roll had a much higher score in a panel of meat eaters than the real deal, so noblesse oblige…"
Meat alternatives are becoming mainstream and not just for vegetarians. Has this changed the way you market your products?
"No! Right from the start we focused on meat lovers whether they were vegetarian or not. We don’t produce surrogate but replicas. Some vegetarians think it’s coming too close, but we are working on converting meatlovers to vegetarians, without taking their cultural tradition from them."
The meat alternative sector is becoming increasingly busy. What advice do you have for entrepreneurs or start-ups wanting to enter now?
"Taste, taste, taste! If you are able to develop products with a comparable or even better taste than real meat the world will beat a path to your door. It’s not easy, but there’s a huge reward: the world will be sustainable, animals can just be your friends, people will be healthier, climate change can be managed, rainforests can be restored, a world to win. The future will be plant based."
Do you welcome the fact that meat companies are beginning to make vegetarian products?
"Yes that's great. It can greatly accelerate the mission when major meat companies see plant based meat as an opportunity rather than a threat. We
have a wonderful project with Unox, which is a Dutch brand from Unilever for meat products. We hacked their meatballs in satay sauce, it was the first time ever they brought a co-branded product to the market. With us, The Vegetarian Butcher! Within two months 100,000 packs have been sold and we’re working on new products [that are] ambient stable, no need to store it in the fridge."
What would you do differently if you had to start again?
"Nothing! I had the luck that I met very talented people to work with. After that it's trial and error with a lot of enthusiasm. Our team is all people who feel themselves part of the mission, and not only our team but also our customers [too]. It's a movement. Our ambition is to be the world’s biggest butcher, to save the planet. We’re in a hurry, no regrets, just no time to waste."