Alternative protein startup SIMULATE, known for its NUGGS and TENDERS, is introducing two new versions of its plant-based, simulated chicken product aimed at restaurants.
STRIPS are similar to grilled chicken, while CUTLETS mimic the kind of product you’ll find on fried chicken sandwiches that have become so popular on restaurant menus.
The new products are made using a technology method called high moisture extrusion, which “uses heat and pressure to denature plant proteins and realign them in a linear fibrous structure, which is the key distinctive trait of animal protein,” SIMULATE founder and CEO Ben Pasternak told TechCrunch via email.
“It’s important for fibrous products, like STRIPS, and enables a really accurate, muscle-like simulation,” he added. “High moisture extrusion is the first of a few technologies that we’ve been building and we’re excited to share more later this year.”
We last profiled SIMULATE back in 2021 when it raised $50 million in Series B funding, which valued the company at $260 million. At the time, the company’s products were in more than 5,000 stores. Today that number is over 12,000, an increase of more than 140% year over year, Pasternak said. The company now has 40 employees, a 2x year over year increase, and is currently hiring for its research team.
The interest in plant-based food has been growing in the last five years. In fact, “total U.S. retail plant-based food sales grew three times faster than total food sales in 2021 to $7.4 billion,” according to the Good Food Institute’s 2021 Plant-based State of the Industry Report. Among that figure, $1.4 billion was plant-based meat sales.
Though plant-based versions of chicken are the most popular, alternative protein sales still represent low single-digits among all meat sales; SIMULATE is among a group of companies trying to increase that with their appeal to changes in consumer behavior, while also working to provide a product that tastes good and can scale accordingly.
In fact, the past few months have been quite busy in this category. For example, Daring Foods recently launched its first fresh — versus frozen — offering called Plant Chicken Tenders, and partnered with Cuisine Solutions to offer their unbreaded pieces in a “sous vide” format for foodservice partners. Nowadays’ pea-based nuggets debuted in Whole Foods stores in California, and Chile-based NotCo launched its plant-based chicken sandwiches and nuggets in Burger King Chile.
Meanwhile, the new strip and cutlet products represent a departure from SIMULATE’s previous direct-to-consumer and retail business models, Pasternak said.
“When we first launched NUGGS, they were only available on DTC via our website,” he added. “After we had much success with DTC, we transitioned to retail where the vast majority of our revenue comes from today. Now, we’re entering the next evolution of SIMULATE, where we're primarily focused on building a heavy presence in restaurants.”
Along with that came some growing pains. Pasternak explained that it was challenging to enter the foodservice industry, which requires different distribution networks, sales processes and product development processes. “Fast-food chains work on an extremely large scale, so it's taken us a moment to build the manufacturing capacity to support that,” he added.