Kimberlie Le, chief executive officer and co-founder of Berkeley, Calif.-based Prime Roots, and her team thought about making an alternative protein for the behind-the-glass deli meat case for a long time before coming up with their solution. They thought about texture and the different components that make meat taste and feel like meat, and they knew the answer was within fungi and mycelium, specifically koji.

“It’s made from koji, so all the products we make fall under the umbrella of koji meats,” Le said. “All the products are made primarily from the koji, a Japanese fungi. It’s found in miso and soy sauce so it’s pretty beloved already in the culinary world. The benefit that koji has is the same texture as meat. The mouthfeel, the taste, the flavor of meat really comes, and starts, with the koji. It’s also high in protein.”

Efficient fabrication

Le and the majority of the team at Prime Roots are meat eaters. Le said it made the development of Prime Roots products a personal one.

“We’re all really creating products for ourselves,” she said. “One of the most important things is that we make a product that does everything our beloved meats will do, slice, cook, you can have it hot, you can have it cold, but it’s really made for people like us, who eat meat.”

Prime Roots creates everything in a 20,000-square-foot facility, from growing and harvesting the koji to the actual making of the meat. The efficiency of the process from start to finish allows Prime Roots the ability to operate in an urban setting. The koji comes from a fermentation process that is similar to beer brewing. It’s grown in nutrient rich liquid with long fibers that replicate the texture of meat on a microscopic level. Prime Roots uses the koji fibers to make its deli meat in a similar fashion to meat made from animals.

“It’s very different than a lot of the plant-based alternative proteins on the market where you’re taking extremely processed pea protein or soy protein and then you have to extrude them and then make them into something that’s more spongy or mushy,” Le said. “Whereas we started with the building blocks of something that is textured like meat and are building meat from that. So, it’s a very similar process to making meat.”

The biggest difference in the process of fabricating the koji meat comes in the form of efficiency and environmental impact, Le said.

“The animal is just the protein, the muscle and the fat,” she said. “The majority of the koji, compositionally, is protein. So, we can get a very similar input without having the animal involved, and it’s very efficient. Our process is between 90% and 99% more efficient and better on a variety of different environmental factors whether it’s water usage, land usage or just energy usage in general.”

Kim-Headshot-03 smaller.jpgKimberlie Le, chief executive officer of Prime Roots


Deli disruption

Prime Roots’ decision to move into the deli meat category did not occur on a whim. The strategy was well thought out and based on testing and feedback from consumers over the past year. Prime Roots learned that consumers did love the koji meats, but there were other factors as well.

“It’s also that the behind-the-glass, bulk deli category is somewhere where there are no alternative meat players today,” Le said. “So, it is really interesting to think about being the first and really forging a path where we’re making something that is high quality that you can feel great about eating, that’s immediately swappable. So, for deli operators, for grocery stores and for restaurants, it really slices the exact same way, it cooks the exact same way, and you don’t have to change any of your recipes or anything like that. We can swap very seamlessly into their program.”

Le added that the koji meats from Prime Roots expand the deli meat market. Consumers have a variety of reasons for not eating deli meats, according to Le, and she believes Prime Roots’ products address that market, including the population of people who love deli meats who want options that are hormone free or antibiotic free, the leading product claim within the whole industry.

“Live better products is what consumers are craving and we’re able to be a part of that in a very real way,” Le said.

Listening to consumers solidified Prime Roots’ future in the deli case and gave it an edge in establishing the quality aspects of the koji deli meats. The data gleaned in the last few years has allowed the company to respond to different requests and prove its platform can support a variety of products.

“Deli is one of those categories where there are so many different types of products,” Le explained. “There are many different flavors, there’s chicken, there’s beef, there are pork products across the category. We’re able to create all those from the koji. That really highlights one of the core capabilities of the company; we are a protein company.”

Prime Roots has received good receptions from the retail and foodservice markets and others. The products are currently prelaunch with a large-scale launch scheduled for later this year.

“We’re really excited to be building a household name because deli is a product that people consume almost every single day,” Le said.