‘It doesn’t need to bleed like a beef burger’: Snacks disrupter The Curators on how the humble mushroom can shake up the meat-free space

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: The Curators
Image: The Curators

Related tags Meat alternatives Snacks plant-based meat-free mushrooms frozen

Best known for its nuts, biltong and pork puffs, UK start-up The Curators has ventured into meat alternatives with a range of mushroom-based products. The aim is to tap into the fast-growing consumer appetite for more natural plant-based meal solutions, it tells FoodNavigator.

The brand recently launched two SKUs -- Mushroom Burgers and Mushroom Meatballs (both rsp: £3.49/200g) – into the frozen aisle of the UK’s largest supermarket Tesco and the chilled sections of Whole Foods and Planet Organic.

Tesco plans to deliver a 300% increase in sales of plant-based meat alternatives by 2025, and the category is projected to grow to £1.1bn by 2024, according to Mintel. But with the food industry currently busy exploring new alternative proteins such as soy, seitan and pea -- and even the realms of microorganism fermentation and cellular agriculture as ingredient sources in the meat-free space, it begs the question: why the humble mushroom?

The Curators claims its mushroom range is a UK category first and delivers a ‘super high’ mushroom content of 86% to offer two products full of ‘umami, delicious taste’ and a ‘fantastic meaty texture’. Targeting flexitarians, the products are a source of protein, high in fibre, low in saturated fat and have been ‘consciously curated to be the perfect balance of function, flavour and foodie flair’. All this, it notes, is in contrast to the question marks currently surrounding both the organoleptic​ and nutritional qualities​ of meat alternatives.

“As consumers, we're not vegan,”​ said co-founder Max Rees, “but we are more conscious than ever about trying to balance our diet.” ​The brand, he explained, was hugely excited by the meat-free space, but wanted to make a ‘more natural’ product that delivered from a taste and texture perspective. That drew it to innovate with mushrooms -- an ingredient boasting antioxidants, fibre and Vitamin D -- and rule out ‘something processed to taste like beef’.

“We thought this was a product we would eat, and we don't see a lot like it. It's delicious, it feels more natural, it gives you the burger and meatball experience but without it being meat.”​ He added: “It doesn’t need to look and taste and bleed like a beef burger.”

Co-founder Ed Hauck added: “We haven't stopped our ambition in snacking at all, but the plant-based category is just exploding and it feels like it's got the right kind of momentum at the right time for a young brand like us to cut through so we can be that disruptive challenger. There aren't 50 other versions of what we're trying to do. We're standing reasonably alone in the space as a challenger doing this kind of ‘hero ingredient’ play on it.”

Magic mushrooms

The range is made by a third-party manufacturer in the Netherlands, where a ‘unique’ process is used – based on treating the mushrooms before they’re blended to create a bound texture -- to deliver a high mushroom content.

Meat analogues are “normally padded out with potatoes, or beans and it crumbles a bit like a fishcake texture,” ​said Rees. “Whereas ours eats like a meaty burger and that's what's so exciting for us.” ​Hauck added: “Mushrooms are this amazing meat analogue because they have that earthy, umami-rich density already in their natural state. We’ve turned that into something that has the same burger experience, with that same chunky bite. That was the key thing for us.

“We launched in mid-January but we've already got some pretty impressive reviews on the Tesco platform. And the theme definitely seems to be that the texture and the bite is a real differentiator, plus a lovely strong mushroom flavour.” 

The range is made with common button mushrooms grown in the Netherlands. The duo, however, doesn’t rule out using other varieties to give an even deeper and richer flavour to the products.

The ‘creative cook’ cohort

The Curators is targeting three consumer types with the mushroom range. First are the ‘adventurous foodies’: usually younger consumers keen to explore new things. Next are ‘nutrition seekers’ attracted to front-of-pack claims. The largest cohort however is what the founders call ‘creative cooks’: typically, family cooks who crave convenience but who are also demanding more options for vegetables to be the hero of the plate. “Meat alt has had such a rapid acceleration over the last couple of years but veg has kind of trundled along,”​ noted Rees. “And there's a lot of chatter in the industry about how that's going to be the next big wave and we're really excited to be at the front of it. You could say [our competitors] are everything from Richmond meat-free sausages to Beyond Burger because it's all vying for that space. But actually, what we are trying to do is probably up-trade the Linda McCartney consumer who wants that natural veg-based product with a bit more flair and taste and a bit more premium quality.” 

High times

The NPD comes on the back of a solid 2020 for the brand, which saw its online sales rise 600% and a doubling of its turnover to over £1m, with 40% of turnover coming from online. It's planning to triple the business in 2021 thanks to a funding drive that closed in January and which pulled in a ‘seven-figure' sum from angel investors.

“We're in over 300 Tesco stores and our ambition is to have this nationwide by the end of the year,”​ said Hauck. The brand is also looking to expand into Europe. "The UK is blazing the trail on launching more plant-based SKUs but there's definite opportunity in Europe. You only have to look at some of the brands that are in this space like Beyond Burger and Moving Mountains. They're opening up distribution quickly across Europe, so I think there is definitely an appetite for this stuff there. Some of the markets there tend to be a little bit more entrenched in the meat-eating behaviours, but I think it will be still a phenomenal growth area.”

The Curators founders Max Rees (l) and Ed Hauck (r) are confident they can disrupt the meat alternatives category. 

Meat-free: a bullish future

Meanwhile, the snack brand’s move into meat alternatives is not the major shift it may initially appear. “The Curators is all about amazing tasty stuff with good natural nutrition,” ​explained Rees. “In our meat snacks you get nutrition from a really good sustainable source, like silverside beef joints. With our almonds, the protein fibre is coming from the almonds. It's not injected or processed. That's the same with the mushroom burgers and meatballs: it's all coming from a really good natural ingredient.”

The snack brand is therefore confident it can successfully bring its challenger influence to the world of meat alternatives.

"The key thing for us as a young brand is being led by the same themes and having the same compass in meat alternatives as we have in snacks,”​ Hauck elaborated. “We want to innovate quickly but bring a real sense of theatre and excitement to some traditional areas.”

Snacking, for example, is a ​hugely established and traditional area’,​ he explained. What The Curators has done is to take inspiration from a range of influences from food service, chefs and hospitality through to the craft beer market, festivals and world food trends and ‘bring the best of that into snacking’.

“We're bringing excitement into the snacking space whilst still bringing really strong scaleable product ideas,” ​said Hauck.

The same attitude now applies to the meat-free category, he told us.

“We’re being true to our brand ethos, which is taking inspiration from the best of the food industry and bringing some of that excitement into plant-based but curating it in the right way. 

“The idea of our brand is to be the editors and arbiters to make sure what we do bring to market is really right and relevant for the UK consumer, but bring a bit of disruption and theatre. So, we're just doing more of what we've done in snacking -- because it's working.”

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