San Francisco, California
Plant-based lamb and other meat substitutes
As Kumar's company expands within the plant-based foods manufacturing space, it's taking a wholly different approach than its competitors -- both in terms of the proteins it’s making substitutes for and key aspects of its ingredients. For instance, Kumar says of the company's first offering, "We understand what makes lamb 'lamb.'"
Calling lamb a "polarizing" meat with a devoted fan base, Kumar says both the positive and the negative flavor aspects that people experience while eating it are due to compounds called branched-chain fatty acids, which are found in different ratios within the foraging animals.
"We understand the good and we understand the bad. We actually take the flavor compounds that are found in lamb that are really positively-associated with flavor and we keep out all the negative stuff," says Kumar of his scientific team's work. "So, what we've done is we created a [plant-based] lamb that's better than animal lamb in terms of flavor." Furthermore, Kumar says, "We're using plants to essentially create the flavor compounds."
Kumar uses Legos as an analogy to describe how Black Sheep Foods takes plant sources -- including pomegranate, beets, potato, bamboo, peas, and cocoa butter -- and combines them to mimic the look and mouthfeel of lamb. But built into that Lego-like structure, the company also fastens flavors and aromas -- those branched-chain fatty acids -- found within lamb. According to the company's website, those compounds are extracted from grains which contain similar "gamey" flavors.
So far, about 45 restaurants are serving Black Sheep's plant-based lamb. They're mostly centered in the Bay Area of California, with a small presence in Los Angeles as well. The plant-based lamb arrives at restaurants in the form of frozen meatballs, burgers, sausages, and kebabs, as well as ground.
The product is presently contract manufactured in San Diego. And although Kumar says, "We don't share production numbers," a December 2022 article in Tech Crunch notes how Black Sheep anticipates eventually making millions of pounds of the plant-based lamb annually.
Once adoption of the product increases via restaurants, Kumar sees Black Sheep Foods eventually entering stores and overseas markets. The company is already seeking European regulatory approval and has received over $12 million in investments to expand its operations, including funds from Saudi Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed's investment firm KBW Ventures.
But Black Sheep Foods doesn't intend to stop at lamb. Kumar says a plant-based duck is already in the works along with wild boar. Besides just being novel meat substitutes, Kumar asserts that plant-based duck tastes more flavorful than its chicken counterpart, and plant-based wild boar tastes better than pork substitutes. Kumar says Black Sheep Foods is aiming to increase the rate of flexitarianism in the population by "coming up with these amazing flavors" within its plant-based products.
Furthermore, in putting together its food offerings, Kumar's company doesn't turn to any of the large, established food flavoring companies to provide primary flavor ingredients. "There's like five or six flavor houses that own like 70 percent of the market," says Kumar, noting how Black Sheep Foods is presently seeking patent approval for aspects of its work, which reportedly involves its own flavorings.
Indeed, the R&D that Black Sheep Foods devotes to flavoring leads Kumar to make a novel declaration. He observes, "I would say we're more of a flavor house that masquerades as a plant-based company than a plant-based company."
Challenges: It's “brand messaging, brand marketing” types of challenges, says Kumar. The company has harnessed technology to produce a product that receives high marks from food industry people. But it remains to be seen whether the public will wholeheartedly respond on the cultural side of the equation, ordering it while out and eventually buying Black Sheep products at stores.
Opportunities: Becoming a powerhouse plant-based food brand through the aggregate of its novel products, says Kumar. Ideally, flexitarians will turn to the brand and decide “let's have Black Sheep for dinner.”
Needs: “Scientists,” says Kumar. “Always a hiring challenge. So, we're always recruiting if you know anyone.”