Interviews

Fable Foods: “Reimagining Mushrooms by Improving Their Texture and Elevating Their Natural Umami Flavours”

Fable Food Co, based in Australia, creates sustainable meat alternatives with a focus on the shiitake mushroom to mimic the texture and umami flavours of meat.

Fable’s product portfolio includes items like plant-based braised beef, designed to integrate seamlessly into a variety of dishes, from stews to tacos, and the company’s approach to the plant-based market is not just about offering alternatives to meat but also about contributing to a shift in food culture towards more sustainable and ethical consumption practices.

Since we last spoke with CEO Michael Fox, back in 2020, Fable has raised US$8.5 million in Series A, with the funds invested to accelerate R&D, launch new mushroom-based products, and continue to expand internationally. We were long overdue a catchup with Fox, who tells us all about the company’s most recent expansion in the US.

What can you tell us about the new launch?
Fable has launched at Mendocino Farms across its 67 locations in the United States. In partnership with Fable, Mendocino Farms has created a plant-based Philly Shroomsteak Sandwich, with Fable shiitake mushroom-based steak, red pepper, onions, choice of hot or mild giardiniera, plant-based American cheese and green peppercorn aioli on a toasted sesame roll.

The Philly Shroomsteak is Mendocino Farms’ plant-based take on the classic Philly Cheesesteak and is a sandwich designed for meat eaters as well as vegan and vegetarian guests. It has been met with very positive feedback from customers so far; we’ve even had meat-eating customers sharing that they prefer the Philly Shroomsteak over real steak sandwiches on the Mendo menu.

Mendocino Farms - Fable Philly Shroom Steak
Mendocino Farms X Fable Philly Shroom Steak ©Fable Food Co

How did Fable fare during 2023, what is your take on last year’s downtick, and how do you perceive the current situation in the plant-based space?
Consumers buy food based on taste and price, and the primary reason for meat eaters wanting to reduce their meat consumption is health. The plant-based industry has yet to meet consumer needs in terms of taste, price, and health. They don’t yet taste as good as animal proteins, they’re typically more expensive than meat and consumers aren’t sure that the ingredient decks are healthier than animal meat, so the plant-based space hasn’t boomed as anticipated.

“plant-based foods will see the same growth when they taste better than meat, are cheaper than meat and are healthier than meat. We believe mushrooms are the optimal ingredient to achieve this.”

Just as renewable energy is seeing hockey stick growth now that it produces the same quality of electricity at a lower price than fossil fuels, plant-based foods will see the same growth when they taste better than meat, are cheaper than meat and are healthier than meat. We believe mushrooms are the optimal ingredient to achieve this.

Mushrooms have natural umami flavours, and the mushrooms we use to create our products naturally have the fleshy fibres that give the meaty bite you typically get from animal proteins. By using mushrooms as our hero ingredients in our products, we can keep our ingredients list small, our processing at a bare minimum, and keep our products as natural as possible, and simultaneously get the umami-rich and delicious taste and texture you’d expect from animal proteins.

Fable Foods packaging with mushrooms
©Fable Food Co

Shiitake mushrooms are central to Fable Food’s products. Could you elaborate on the benefits of using shiitake mushrooms in your alt-meat products? What makes Fable products different from other brands using fungi in alt meat?
Shiitake mushrooms are the core of our mushroom products. We’re reimagining mushrooms by improving their texture and elevating their natural umami flavours and nutrients to become a succulent, umami-rich culinary protein.

Shiitake mushrooms in particular have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years and they have long been lauded for their nutritional and medicinal properties. In a culinary context, shiitake mushrooms are very flavourful with their natural umami flavours, they are a slow growing mushroom so they naturally have the fleshy fibres that you typically get from animal proteins, and have the right chemical composition that when cooked allows us to taste flavours that are found in animal products.

On the evolutionary tree, fungi are more closely related to animals than they are to plants, and they share many similar characteristics with animals. Mushrooms contain glutamates and meaty, umami flavours. Their chitin cellular structure can be cooked in ways that mimic the texture of animal meats. And they’re incredibly healthy. Shiitake mushrooms are the most common ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine and for good reason, they’re high in Iron, Vitamin D (when exposed to sunlight which our mushrooms are), and Vitamin B12 and they have a higher protein-to-calorie ratio than beef. They’re also incredibly efficient to grow using very little land (1,000 times less land per calorie than beef) or water and their carbon emissions are low. These efficiencies make mushrooms cheap to grow at scale.

Fable Foods BBQ pulled mushrooms
©Fable Food Co

There are other fungi-based meat alternative brands that ferment mycelium to make their meat alternative products. Mycelium is the body of fungi which has the appearance of thin, white fibrous roots. In nature, mycelium grows through the soil or wood. Mushrooms are then the fruiting body of the fungi which are what we’re used to seeing and eating as humans. The brands that use mycelium ferment the mycelium in liquid in large stainless steel tanks and turn the mycelium into their products.

“They’ve evolved to be highly nutritious and delicious because the fungi want us to eat them to help spread their spores”

We love what the mycelium-based companies are doing and we cheer them on, but at Fable we use agriculturally grown shiitake and agaricus mushrooms. We’re using the fruiting body of the fungi as opposed to the mycelium. Humans have eaten mushrooms for tens of thousands of years and we’ve farmed them for thousands of years. They’ve evolved to be highly nutritious and delicious because the fungi want us to eat them to help spread their spores. We take these delicious, healthy mushrooms and turn them into delicious, natural umami-rich culinary proteins.

© Daniel Hine

How has the company adapted when entering international markets, and how do you perceive differences in both demand and consumer preferences in various regions?
Our expansion strategy when entering international markets is to launch our products in partnership with chefs in four main segments:

We have hired local teams in each of our key international markets, so we have eyes and ears on the ground when it comes to consumer preferences, to help inform our approach in those regions.

Meta Burger just added Fable’s Shiitake Pulled Pork to its menu. How has the response been so far and why is this partnership significant?
Meta Burger added Fable permanently to their menu across 4 menu items – the Cubano Sandwich, Texas Barbecue Sandwich, Big Country Burger and Barbecue Salad.

“The Fable Texas Barbecue Sandwich Sandwich became Meta Burger’s second best-selling special of all time”

Meta Burger ran specials throughout 2023 to get customer feedback and determine which new products to add to the menu. The Fable Texas Barbecue Sandwich Sandwich became Meta Burger’s second best-selling special of all time. It was clear that customers loved our product, which led to Meta Burger strengthening our partnership and keeping Fable on the menu permanently.

Meta Burger - Fable BBQ Salad
Meta Burger’s Fable BBQ Salad ©Fable Food Co

Could you discuss the role of investment and funding in scaling your business and how last year’s funding from the Series A round was allocated?
With our Series A fundraising, we expanded our footprint in our key strategic international markets, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Singapore. We grew our teams in each of those markets and now have dedicated sales and business development teams to accelerate our growth.

We also expanded our production and manufacturing capabilities and invested further into our R&D, including exploring new species of mushrooms we can turn into delicious food, new ways of cooking mushrooms to amplify their umami flavours and texture and make their incredible nutrition even more bioavailable to us.

What can we expect from Fable Foods over the next few years, what’s in the pipeline in terms of launches and developments?
We have some really exciting partnerships and new mushroom-based products that will be launching later this year, and we’re looking forward to continuing to reimagine mushrooms to create even more delicious culinary proteins.

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