PG: Starting a successful salsa company isn’t that simple!
DZ: Ours is an “Only in America” story. Jack, who passed away in August, started a salsa company in 1997. He was in his late forties, had to declare bankruptcy to hold on to the lease of his 1,200-square-foot restaurant just outside of Detroit, and, out of desperation, pulled out a 5-gallon bucket and in 15 minutes he made what is today Garden Fresh Artichoke Garlic Salsa. He was a food savant: He had no formal training, no formal education. He built a plant, invited me to be a partner, and before we knew it, we were, improbably — fresh salsa from Detroit? What could possibly go wrong? — the No. 1 brand of fresh sauce in the country. When we sold to Campbell Soup Co. in 2015 for $231 million, we were making 85 tons of fresh salsa a day. We were still peeling onions by hand, and making our salsa in 5-gallon buckets, just as Jack did for the very first time in that back of that bankrupt restaurant. We never compromised on our quality, no matter how big we got.
PG: How did your success with Garden Fresh Gourmet lead you to start Skinny Butcher?
DZ: My approach to building great food concepts is I want to win on branding then I want to win on flavor profile. If you can do that, the world’s going to beat a path to your door. That’s really what we did at Garden Fresh. So, in terms of the brand, we wanted a tension between the progressive nature of this category but still have a retro feel to speak to flavor profile more than we think other plant-based protein brands are doing. We’re no longer appealing to vegans and vegetarians, which are at most 5% of the population. We’re now reaching out to the flexitarian movement, people who are saying, "Yeah, it is better for the environment and better for me if I reduce my animal protein consumption.” If 25% of the $290 billion U.S. animal protein market gets converted to plant-based, this will represent the biggest opportunity in food in our lifetime.
PG: What is the origin of the company’s jovial winking logo?
DZ: There’s an old joke that says, “Never trust a skinny butcher or skinny chef — if they’re skinny, they’re not eating their own food.” He’s winking because he’s saying, “Look, this is so good even I’m eating it. You can trust me.” So we’re trying to communicate with the consumer at the point of sale; the butcher is literally winking, embracing him or her in the store. I think a brand should have a distinct voice and personality. I think people buy food with their eyes. You really need to connect there.
PG: How were the company’s plant-based offerings — patties, grounds, breasts, sausage, tenders, strips, etc. — developed?
DZ: We found a vegetable fiber strain in Europe, from Italy in particular. We’re the first ones in this country to have it. From there, we put a proprietary blend of chicken flavorings together. We really believe we’ve got a superior texture and a superior taste; we’re really thrilled with the flavor profile. With respect to taste, there is no sacrifice between, say, a Skinny Butcher Chick’n Nugget and an animal-based chicken nugget. I personally prefer plant-based just for the bite; real chicken can be muscly – especially a lot of chicken nuggets, which are made with dark meat. So with plant-based, with Skinny Butcher, you get more of a consistent mouthfeel and it’s just an easier process on your body right from the get-go. From there we said, “What’s the hottest thing going in the QSR space right now?” It’s the Southern fried crispy chicken sandwich. So we came up with the “Crazy Crispy” sub-brand, which is an important strategic differentiator. We’ve got Crazy Crispy chicken breast, chicken nuggets, chicken patties, and chicken tenders. And we have handed all of it over to Golden West Food Group, who are not just Skinny Butcher’s contract manufacturers but are significant equity partners in this venture, who can produce at national scale right out of the gate. They’ve got a 350,000-square-foot plant, 1,600 employees, and a national sales and distribution network that we will be tapping into.