In the U.S. ‘Delicatessen’ is a delicacy.
Long for deli, delicatessens emerged in Germany in the 18th century and spread like mayo to the United States in the 19th. Now, in the 21st century, San Francisco-based startup Prime Roots, unveils the first deli-style meats made from koji mycelium, which the company says has the texture of deli meat, savory, umami taste of deli meat, and look of deli meat, but instead of animals, this deli meat is sliced from plants.
With a $30 million Series B funding round from True Ventures, Pangaea Ventures, Prosus Ventures, Top Tier Capital, Diamond Edge Ventures, SOSV/IndieBio, Solasta Ventures, Monde Nissin, Alumni Ventures, Gaingels, Meach Cove Capital, The House Fund, and Hyphen Capita, Prime Roots is expanding its team and scaling its plant-based meats to deli counters and restaurants nationwide.
What’s your favorite cold cut? According to the stats, of the 300 million sandwiches eaten daily in the U.S. most are turkey or ham. Prime Roots has all of your sandwich needs covered, making 75% of the deli options, whether your meat of choice is cracked pepper turkey, black forest ham, hickory bacon, salami, or pepperoni.
Each of these options is made through the process of fermentation.
The main ingredient in the “meat” is kogi, a mycelium with the thread-like structure of fungus, that mimics the microscopic texture of meat. After growing the kogi, Prime Roots drains the sugary fermented liquid, mixes it in a stand mixer, seasons it to taste like the desired cold cut, and presses and bakes it into shape. Then, just like deli meat the hunk of fungi protien, slices into perfect meaty slivers, as shown in a video by Financial Times Tech on fermented meat.
“It’s not just acceptable salami, it’s good salami. It’s very delicious,” FT Tech’s correspondent Dave Lee said in the video, sampling the meats.
Prime Roots is not the only plant-based deli meat to exist.
In September 2022, LA-based, but New York deli-inspired Unreal Deli, launched the first vegan plant-based deli meat after appearing on Shark Tank and gaining a deal from Mark Cuban, preceding a $50 million Series A round. There are a handful of other vegan lunch meat options, but according to Prime their koji cold cuts and bacon are “first-of-its-kind” sliceable deli meats.”
Aside from the lack of animals needed to make Prime Root’s meat, it has other benefits over traditional cold cuts baked in. According to a third-party impact lifecycle assessment, Prime Roots reports that the company’s methods are 89-92% more sustainable than conventional meats by limiting emissions and land usage.
In fact, the process of making koji meat only takes a few days, compared to the years it takes to raise an animal.
Plus, with a short ingredients list, the startup’s products have health advantages: no nitrates, preservatives, cholesterol, soy, wheat, and the meats have lower sodium than the leading brand, Prime Roots says.
“People are asking for sustainable meat options that taste good, make them feel good, and do good with less planet impact. Prime Roots delivers on all three: taste, nutrition, and sustainability,” Kimberlie Le, Founder and CEO of Prime Roots, said in a statement.
“This new funding is a testament to the market opportunity for the next generation of plant-based meats that meet consumer expectations while forging into old world categories like deli with disruptive innovation.”
The Series C round brings the startup’s total funding to about $50 million since its founding in 2017.
The recently B-corp-certified company made its first attempt at fungi meat in the University of California, Berkeley’s Alt: Meat Lab, where students that semester were challenged to make fish, without actually using fish.
Le was inspired by the kogi fermentation she grew up seeing her mom use in the kitchen, and thus she and Prime Roots’ cofounder Joshua Nixon created a koji salmon burger first in her apartment Instant Pot and later in a large-scale kitchen. After seeing success with perfecting the salmon burger, the two dropped out of Berkeley to pursue creating meat and seafood alternatives full-time, and in 2021 appeared on the Forbes Impact 30 Under 30 list.
After conducting consumer surveys, the Prime Roots team realized bacon was unsurprisingly the most desired. (Other startups FootPrint Coalition-MyForest Foods are on the plant-based bacon train as well.)
Since taking the Koji Bacon out of the test kitchen and onto a BLT in 2020, Prime Roots sought to make alternative deli meats for meat eaters, the majority of its customers.
Instead of creating “alt meat,” the company says it wanted to create Koji Meat, non-animal meat that still celebrates meat’s culture and is made like traditional deli meat.
The investment is there, but is the consumer appetite for plant-based deli meats really there?
According to a 2020 study by Yale Climate Connections, only 4% of Americans are vegan or vegetarian, with 96% still eating meat. However, many report wanting to change their diet for the environment or their health, while still enjoying the taste of meat.
In fact, 55% say they are willing to eat more plant-based meat alternatives with 26% willing to eat lab-grown meat, but the taste and convenience of plant-based is what stops them. Prime Roots is attempting to tackle both.
Right now Prime Roots’ kogi deli meats, bacon, and charcuterie boards are served at restaurants and catering companies across several cities in California including Oakland, San Francisco, Berkeley, and Napa, 46 locations in the state, one location in Hawaii, one in the Bronx, and another in North Carolina. The restaurants in the Bay Area first began serving up the company’s prime cuts in 2022.
According to the company, its retail partners report that Prime Roots' deli meat consistently sells out before lunch and sales are pacing at 5-10 times higher than other plant-based alternatives.
However, according to a survey by Deloitte, the buzz around plant-based meat may be dying down, ad 53% of consumers could be hard to reach because of cultural resistance to a product some view as “woke.”
Still, Prime Roots says they are an alt meat company by meat eaters and meat lovers, but as Le and Nixon argue in a Field Note on the site, “If you take a moment to stop and think about it, there is nothing inherently "conventional" about eating animal protein.”
“We love eating it, but for the sake of our planet, know there must be a better way,” the site reads.
As Prime Roots plans to expand to other restaurants and deli counters across the country, Le says the team is “keen to see plant-based become the default options and strive to make products that are better in terms of taste, nutrition, and cost than the animal counterpart to make it so.”
As the CEO told the publication VegNews, “Our goal is to be in all places where deli meats are served to provide a great tasting, fresh, and sustainable option for all eaters.”
“We want to make it as easy and obvious to choose Prime Roots meats, like it is to swap to an alt-dairy option.”