Based in Canada, Top Tier Foods produces a vegan Wagyu beef called Waygu – a product so authentic that a renowned master chef reportedly could not tell the difference between the two. We spoke with founder Blair Bullus on what sets this vegan beef apart and makes it “not just another plant-based ground beef company.
We asked Blair about his motivation behind starting Top Tier Foods. The young businessman said that his aim was “to create a company that could innovate and create the best tasting, most ethically-produced products in the world by using the latest in food science.
He explains that, “Top Tier Foods was established as a reaction to mass-produced, low-quality ready-made meals that used unnerving levels of refined sugars, salt, artificial flavours and colours to mask foods that are low in nutrition.”
What is your current vegan product portfolio? And what is your best seller?
We started out creating quinoa-based products including Sushi Quinoa, the world’s first sticky quinoa for sushi, before making the move into meat alternatives. Although we were 100% plant-based from the start, our transition into animal protein alternatives was gradual and due in large part to the demand brought forward from the environmental crisis we face.
When we created Sushi Quinoa it quickly became our best seller. Through Sushi Quinoa’s development process I forged an unlikely friendship with a master sushi Chef, Hidekazu Tojo. Chef Tojo was kind enough to provide feedback to me, a young 27-year-old entrepreneur at the time, on my research and development of Sushi Quinoa. This guidance from Chef Tojo helped Top Tier Foods create our world-leading products that are fit for a Japanese master chef.
His support over the years has been immeasurable and contributed greatly to our plant-based Waygu. He described our final version as “amazing” and said “I am very impressed” after initially unknowingly believing he was eating actual wagyu beef, not our plant-based version.
What differentiates Top Tier Foods products from other vegan food suppliers, how do you stand out against any competitors?
We are very different and not just another plant-based ground beef company.
At Top Tier Foods we have consistently developed unique, leading edge products that are backed by top chefs and largest restaurant groups. It is our commitment to creativity that allows us to deliver interesting food products that are compelling to the consumer, such as Sushi Quinoa.
But maybe most importantly is our commitment to taste. When we set forth developing our plant-based Waygu we wanted to create the world’s best tasting plant-based beef alternative. Chef Tojo’s reaction to the sample we gave him is testament to that – when thought he was eating real wagyu beef and not something made of plants.
Waygu is particularly interesting – since Wagyu is so prestigious, please tell us how you think your version compares to its animal counterpart and why you chose to veganise this particular meat.
We wanted to make sure we got our plant-based Waygu right. Wagyu beef is widely considered the best beef in the world by meat eaters and is renowned for its fat marbling and tender qualities.
To make sure we replicated wagyu as closely as possible, we partnered with Japanese manufacturers who both understand wagyu beef better than anyone (wagyu literally means: “wa” – Japanese, “gyu” – cattle) and have centuries of working with soybeans, the main ingredients in Waygu.
Japanese people have used soybeans in food productions dating back over 1000 years using it in textured products like tofu and bean curd, as well as fermented items such as miso and soy sauce. We were able to leverage many of these traditional methods including fermentation to create a product that is uniquely Japanese and extremely similar to its animal counterpart.
How is your vegan Wagyu produced – what are the ingredients and are they sustainable?
Waygu is produced using many of these traditional Japanese methods and ingredients, including use of a gluten-free soy sauce made just 45 minutes away from the product facility.
By leveraging traditional cooking methods, we have been able to create a product that is very sustainable and clean label in comparison to other similar products on the market. Our ingredients list includes typically Japanese ingredients such as rice wine, seasoned ginger, garlic and soy sauce.
JAT Oppenheimer has released a vegan Wagyu in Australia amidst a backlash overuse of the original name, what is your opinion on the farmers’ response?
We don’t expect any controversy over Waygu as we are competing for two uniquely different clientele, that is vegetarians and vegans. With our plant-based Waygu we look to celebrate the work of wagyu cattle farmers by creating a product of equal stature that can be enjoyed by people who for individual reasons have chosen not to eat meat.
You have glittering endorsements from Master Chef Toju. Please tell us about his involvement with your company?
Chef Tojo is one of the most respected sushi chefs in the world. Involved in the creation of the California roll and recognized by the Japanese Government as a Cultural Ambassador. Chef Tojo’s restaurant, Tojo’s, is consistently ranked inside the top 100 restaurants in Canada and is a must place to visit for A-list celebrities when they are in town, even serving the British Royal Family.
About 6 years ago, I reached out to chef Tojo to see if he would be interested in testing out a new product that we had developed at Top Tier Foods called Sushi Quinoa, a sticky quinoa for sushi.
He was the only chef to reply out of about a dozen we called, but his reputation preceded him so I was excited and nervous to meet the master Chef. Chef Tojo it turned out could not have been nicer. His enthusiasm and curiosity for food was infectious and mirrored my own creative spirit.
He was immediately interested in our Sushi Quinoa and helped greatly in the development process. Chef Tojo and I quickly became friends during that time working on Sushi Quinoa and continue to remain close to this day helping each other with many projects and events over the years. Through this friendship Chef Tojo was able to help Top Tier Foods develop a reputation for creating world class sushi products more-or-less in exchange for first access to whatever we created next.
Tojo has no official role in Top Tier Foods but his feedback and friendship has been key to our continued success.
Where are your products available and do you have plans to expand into other markets?
All of our products (including Sushi Quinoa and Waygu) will be available for restaurants across North America now and into Europe and Asia shortly. We have been lucky enough to partner with one of the biggest Japanese food distributors in the world, Wismettac Asian Foods who will begin distributing Waygu later this month in North America.
We are getting strong interest from Asia and Europe so will be working quickly to move into those markets as well.
Do you have any more exciting new vegan products in development?
We always have a pretty good pipeline of products in development, so make sure to follow along on our social media to see what we have coming up next.
In your opinion, why should the food industry continue to acknowledge veganism?
Of course, as a company Top Tier Foods will continue to advocate for a reduction in the overall consumption of animal proteins due to their continued adverse impact on the environment.
As time goes on and populations continue to grow, we must also continue to look for alternative protein sources or face food insecurity as the infrastructure around animal farming cannot keep up with the rising demands.
What are you aiming for as a company or what is your mission, and how do you hope to achieve it?
We want to continue to put all our attention into creating the world’s best tasting products. We know that if we can do so with a commitment to sustainable ingredients and practices, good things will happen. It is as simple as that.
Where do you see Top Tier Foods in the next five years?
With massive growth expected in the plant-based market over the next five years, we plan on positioning Top Tier Foods as one of the top plant-based brands in the world. As we have been able to do with Waygu, this will be achieved by focusing on creating unique products with great flavours and partnering with the world’s best chefs to create world class, sustainable vegan options.