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Meeting New Demand for Vegetarian Foods—Taiwan’s Plant-Based Meat Experts

new kind of vegetarianism

 

Beyond Meat, the American maker of meat substitutes, was established in 2009. Since then, Taiwan has seen the rise of a new kind of vegetarianism, one not limited to certain religious groups, but that also extends to people who adopt it for reasons related to health, the environment, or a love for animals. Interestingly, Taiwanese plant-based meat substitutes predate this trend by many years. In fact, a Taiwanese “hidden champion” developed its own plant-based meat substitute back in 1995, and has filled many orders for foreign brands in the years since.

 

Hung Yang Foods is a major Taiwanese producer of plant-based meat substitutes located in Yunlin County’s coastal Sihu Township. It’s not particularly accessible for the foreign businesspeople who come to negotiate deals: they typically fly into Taoyuan International Airport, take the Taiwan High Speed Rail to Yunlin, and then have to drive an additional 40 minutes to the company’s offices. What draws them all the way here? Company president Jack Hsieh explains, “Our clients are committed to making very specific products. We turn their visions into reality.” The company has been making nearly everything asked of it for the last 20 years, from vege­tarian chicken nuggets and Dongpo pork to eel and tiger prawns. Lately, Hsieh has been working on vegetarian pan-fried buns in hopes of interesting older meat-eaters in plant-based meats.

An international business

Hsieh first exhibited his fried “vegetarian tendons” 20-some years ago at the very first Food Taipei trade show. Made from wheat gluten that was soaked in water, dried, and then seasoned with his own blend of spices before being baked, the snack was a hit with tasters at the show. Some of them knew that Hsieh’s family produced pork floss, and asked him whether he planned to make a vegetarian version of floss too. Their inquiries prompted him to begin contacting importers of meat substitutes, from whom he learned that Taiwan imported all of its meat substitutes from Japan at a pricey NT$750 per kilogram.

Around the same time, Hsieh happened to hear about a National Taiwan University professor named Chiang Wenchang who specialized in food extrusion and had studied in Japan. Hsieh visited Chiang and negotiated a technology transfer that enabled Hung Yang to produce its own meat substitute here in Taiwan. The company then sold its product for half the price of Japanese imports, and grew into Taiwan’s biggest maker of vegetarian “meat.”

Hsieh, who studied mechanical engineering and electronics, personally drew up blueprints for the company’s original meat substitute production equipment, and then imported the parts and assembled them in Taiwan. Nowadays, the company’s machines produce batches of meat substitute just 31 seconds after workers pour in the ingredients. To ensure that none of the products are contaminated with non-vegetarian ingredients, Hsieh’s production lines make only meat substitutes.

A year’s hard work enabled Hsieh to propel his com­pany’s meat substitute sales beyond those of its established non-vegetarian products, and encouraged him to switch to an entirely vegetarian product line. He expanded the business further in 1998 by accepting orders from abroad.

Hung Yang’s overseas orders have grown steadily ever since. It began with OEM products, but has since moved into ODM products. Hsieh pulls out a stack of boxes labeled with images of fried shrimp, fried chicken nuggets, and smoked salmon, all manu­factured under a client’s brand and exported to UK supermarkets. “The US and European markets go for frozen, seasoned items, while Southeast-Asian markets prefer unflavored vege­tarian foods,” says Hsieh. He adds that markets differ even within Europe, with the Germans preferring one mouthfeel and the British another. With that in mind, Hung Yang has its customers do taste tests on each item before going into production.

In 2019, overseas sales accounted for 80% of Hung Yang’s revenues. For example, the products it makes for ODM brand Sophie’s Kitchen are widely distributed through Walmart and other stores in the US and in 90% of Australian supermarkets. Hsieh remarks with satis­faction, “When the world wants vegetarian meat, they come to us.”

Boundless creativity

The 54-year-old Hsieh still bubbles with ideas. The owner of a soup buns (tangbao) shop recently asked him about the feasibility of vegetarian soup buns, and he immedi­ately proposed a method. “The broth in soup buns comes from pig skin. You can’t put pig skin in a vege­tarian soup bun, so what do you do? You have to come up with a food that gels when cooled and melts when heated. Aiyu jelly is what you want.” Hsieh loves a challenge and reveals that he’s currently working with a convenience store on a future launch of vegetarian chicken breasts.

Hsieh often travels abroad to food expos. Stopping into a US supermarket while on one such trip, he noticed that Americans love energy bars, which have a low gly­cemic index and provide a feeling of fullness. On returning home, he decided to develop energy bars more suited to Taiwanese palates. He then signed deals with Yunlin farmers to buy their entire crop of organic cereals, and purchased his own threshing machines to maximize the efficiency of Hung Yang’s energy bar production.

The company has enjoyed success with the product, which it launched under its own “Grain Plus” brand. National Taiwan University Hospital includes the bars among the processed foods it allows its diabetes patients to eat. And when Hsieh provided energy bars worth NT$3 million to the athletes’ village during the Taipei 2017 Universiade, they proved so popular that the contractor providing food to the athletes asked for another NT$2 million worth from Hung Yang.

Visitors to the factory pass through numerous doors before accessing the interior. “Even a fly would have a tough time getting in here,” jokes Hsieh. The employ­ees inside wear dust­proof clothing from head to toe to protect the production process from contamination, and use sodium hypochlorite rather than alcohol to keep the facility disinfected while meeting Halal certification requirements. Hsieh demands attention to detail at ­every level. Holding up a vege­tarian shrimp, he tells us, “The pattern on the surface is painted by hand with carrot juice. It’s very time consuming, but it just doesn’t look right when painted by machine.”

Hsieh says that in addition to drawing interest from foreign clients, his plant-based meats also got the atten­tion of his three sons, all of whom studied food processing and now work for Hung Yang in the company’s R&D and marketing departments. The younger Hsiehs’ participation even led to the company’s launch of its Hoya brand to target overseas markets.

A polished website

The trend towards vegetarianism is reflected in both the changing flavor of products and the growth of online distribu­tion. Websites selling vegetarian products often used to feel bland and have religious overtones, which made it hard for them to attract customers who weren’t already vegetarians. But then the brand “Suudays” (the name is a play on the Chinese word for “vegetarian”) launched in 2017 with an emphasis on webpage design and user experi­ence in hopes of better promoting vegetarianism.

The founder of Suudays used to deal in materials used by the electronics industry, but transitioned into selling vegetarian products online in response to his personal vege­tarian­ism and larger concerns about sustainability.

Product manager Allen Chou says that the key to Beyond Meat’s success in building its brand in Taiwan has been its marketing approach. Plant-based meats existed prior to Beyond Meat’s arrival in the market, but their association with religious vegetarianism limited their appeal to the broader public. In contrast, Beyond Meat’s use of celebrities to promote the ideas of “health,” “the environment,” and “love for animals” has created a sense of trendiness and timeliness that has increased interest in its vegetarian ­products.

The Suudays website lets visitors shop by item type, brand, or cooking method. It even has an attention-­grabbing category called “Dishes from Michelin-rated restaurants.” More surprising still is that this category includes dishes from the decidedly non-vegetarian curry house Joseph ­Bistro.

Chou says that when they were first thinking about how to promote vegetarian food, his team observed that “no one is more authoritative about food than Michelin.” So he visited each of Taiwan’s Michelin-rated restaurants to see which were willing to develop vege­tarian products for Suudays. His hope was that vege­tarians would be able to enjoy dishes from Michelin-­rated restaurants, and that the Michelin connection would entice non-vegetarians to try vegetarian offer­ings. As product manager, Chou continues to scour Taipei for delicious vege­tarian eateries in hopes of providing them with greater exposure and offering even more choices to consumers.

“But nowadays popular stuff is available everywhere. There’s no way that your website is going to be the only one selling it. As a result, any website without products of its own is going to end up competing on price.” That’s why Suudays launched its own brand. Its strategy has been effective—many of the website’s top-selling products are Suudays-brand items, including its Taiwanese tempura, vegetarian bawan and vegetarian shrimp rolls.

Established just three years ago, Suudays has already gotten a lot of positive feedback from users. According to Chou, customers say that the company makes it easy for them to eat vegetarian. Looking ahead, the Suudays team plans to develop additional vegetarian dishes and to continue to spread the word that vegetarian food can be both convenient and delicious.