Skinny Butcher Leverages Food and Cultural Trends With Netflix Deal

CEO talks to Progressive Grocer about what makes his plant-based products different, his approach to branding and “Stranger Things” 
Gina Acosta
a woman smiling for the camera
Nourishing the Next Generation With Plant-Based Foods
Skinny Butcher CEO Dave Zilko

Plant-based proteins have moved beyond being trendy and into an accepted lifestyle that’s part of U.S. food culture. Now the driving force behind one of America’s most creative plant-based brands is looking to integrate his alternative-protein products into pop culture as well. Dave Zilko, the strategic innovator behind the Garden Fresh Gourmet salsa brand and now Skinny Butcher, talked to Progressive Grocer about what makes his plant-based products different, his approach to branding, and “Stranger Things.” (To watch complete video interview with Zilko, CLICK HERE.)

Progressive Grocer: How was Skinny Butcher developed?

Dave Zilko: After we sold Garden Fresh to Campbell Soup Co. in 2015, my partner and friend Jack Aronson switched to a completely vegan lifestyle after being diagnosed with cancer. He was unbelievably passionate about it. So when I was with him and our creative director, Mike Griffin, I couldn’t help but be moved by Jack’s passion for a vegan lifestyle. And it just struck me that this is a space that we could make a real contribution to.

PG: You remember the exact moment when you came up with the name?

DZ: Yes. As Jack’s health deteriorated, he really couldn’t be involved in it to that great extent anymore. So it was really me and Mike, who’s just brilliant, who developed the brand aesthetic. It really evolved from there, somewhat serendipitous really, a combination of what Jack did after we sold Garden Fresh and what he was going through health-wise, and then still recognizing that this is a place that we can make a real contribution in.

We wanted to have Skinny Butcher come into a crowded sandbox with the best product on the market. And I define “best product on the market” by meaning we’re winning on branding and we’re winning on a flavor profile. 

PG: Tell me about the winking butcher.

DZ: Our brand aesthetic for Skinny Butcher is designed to put a smile on your face. And he’s winking at you because there’s an old joke: Never trust a skinny butcher. But he’s winking at you, saying, “Look, this is so good, even I’m eating it. You can really trust me.” And the butcher is the second-most-trusted individual in the supermarket, right behind the pharmacist. So that was the brand aesthetic we set out to create. 

PG: Your flavor profile is innovative and unique.

DZ: We’re importing a bamboo fiber from Italy. We’re the first in this country to do it. We put together a proprietary blend of chicken flavoring that we just think is terrific. And then we decided to follow the gold standard and be pea protein-based, so all our items are soy-free. But pea protein can have an unpleasant aftertaste, so in the development of this product, we really focused on masking agents so there’s no unpleasant aftertaste with our products. So our approach was to come to market with the best product, and define “best product” by winning on branding and winning on flavor profile.

PG: Can you talk about the  response you’ve had from buyers  and retailers?

DZ: We are literally in launch mode right now. We’re in Safeway, about 350 stores. But we have a lot of onboarding coming soon. So far, the response has just been great. I mean, it has been universal for buyers and brokers alike saying: “Never seen anything like this. This really does put a smile on my face.”

I think my favorite response was from a digital media executive. He said: “Look, I got to tell you. … I’m committed to a flexitarian lifestyle. I know it’s good for me. I know it’s good for the environment,” but, he said, “I just hate how all these other plant-based protein brands are leaf this and leaf that.” He said: “Skinny Butcher, you guys aren’t afraid to be what you want to be. You have swagger, braggadocio.” It’s really representative of the response we’re getting to the brand aesthetic.

Skinny Butcher Nuggets
Skinny Butcher's Crazy Crispy Chick'n Nuggets are part of a high-profile promotion at Walmart for the popular Netflix series "Stranger Things."

PG: Let’s talk a little bit about innovation when it comes to marketing. Can you talk about what Skinny Butcher might be bringing to bear in this area?

DZ: Yeah. It’s really fascinating to me, because when we were building Garden Fresh years ago, Google, Facebook, they weren’t even invented yet. At Garden Fresh, everything was at point of sale. So as we’re embracing this new technology and saluting it, we’re kind of saying, what makes our brand special, and how do we extrapolate that into the digital zeitgeist? So again, our brand is designed to put a smile on people’s face. These are chicken nuggets, for crying out loud. They should be fun. So we want to have fun with it. So we’re engaging with a bunch of digital media firms, and we’re telling them to go ahead and have fun with us. 

PG: You have something cooking with Netflix. Do tell!

DZ: Our manufacturing partner is Golden West Food Group, run by Josh Solovy and Zach Levenson in Los Angeles. When I went out to L.A. to meet them and showed them our brand aesthetic, they wanted to license the brand. And I said: “Look, I’m not looking to license the brand. I like to control my manufacturing. I want to be partners.” So we brought them in as a very significant equity partner, and we gave them a contract to do all our manufacturing. And they’re doing just a phenomenal job. Golden West does a lot with Walmart, and Walmart has a “Stranger Things” deal. Golden West was in touch with Walmart, which said, “We’re looking for a chicken nugget.” And Golden West said, “Well, we’ve got a plant-based chicken nugget that we’re really proud of.” So they ran samples over to Netflix, and Netflix said: “Environmentally, this is on-brand for us. We should be doing something plant-based.” But they also said these are the best chicken nuggets they’ve ever had, either regular or plant-based. So we were very flattered by that response. We are going to be part of the Walmart “Stranger Things” promotion. It’ll be in concert with their series finale, which begins in May. There’s going to be 11 “Stranger Things” products throughout the store.

We’re going to have our Crazy Crispy Skinny Butcher nuggets co-branded with “Stranger Things.” We met with Netflix and we told them, “Hey, we’re a brand that doesn’t take ourselves too seriously, so have fun with this.” And they said, “Well, how much fun can we have?” And I said: “Just knock yourself out. If you go too far, we’ll tell you.”

PG: How far did they go?

DZ: Well, one of the main characters in “Stranger Things” is Eleven, and whenever she goes to this upside-down world, she comes back and she might have a little bit of blood under her nostril. So we told them, “Go ahead and put some blood under our winking butcher’s nostrils.” They said, “Are you crazy?” I said: “Look, we’re going to take a chance. We think our brand aesthetic and our brand personality is that we should put a smile on people’s face, so go ahead and do it.” And they did, and we’re going to run with it. We’re going to take a chance with it, and we’re going to be on an end cap at Walmart. It’ll be nationwide in May. And Walmart is putting a point-of-sale sticker on the freezer door, and it’s going to have a QR code. And a consumer can scan the code and have a map pop on their phone that will be a kind of scavenger hunt for going around Walmart and buying other “Stranger Things” items.

PG: It’s a great brand-building exercise for you.

DZ: Yes, it’s a great way to onboard us nationwide at Walmart. Walmart’s really been great about it. Netflix has been phenomenal, and we’d like to expand the relationship with them even beyond this.

PG: What else might be in the pipeline for Skinny Butcher at retail or marketing-wise, or anything at all?

DZ: We’re coming to market right now with chicken nuggets, chicken tenders, chicken patties, and chicken breasts. Very soon, we’re going to have sliders, so we’re really excited about that. In probably about three months, we’re going to have spicy items out. And then probably in the third quarter — and this is something I’m really excited about — we’re going to have fish sticks and fish fillets. We’re having fun with our brand. On our fish sticks and fish fillets packaging, we’re literally putting a sea captain’s hat on our beloved butcher, and it is just putting a smile on people’s faces when we share it with them. 

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