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Garner startup details plans to expand, double headcount

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August 24, 2018

by Lauren K. Ohnesorge
Senior Staff Writer, Triangle Business Journal
Link to TBJ article with photos
A Garner food startup hoping to “anchor” your plate with plant protein is readying for expansion, with plans to double its headcount this fall.
Improved Nature, which manufactures meat substitution products, is expanding in sales and marketing, a move that could increase the 15-person headcount to 30 in the coming months.
And plans are still underway to move into a yet-to-be-constructed manufacturing facility – one that could bring another 150 jobs to the North Carolina town.
In an exclusive interview, CEO Rody Hawkins talks about the product and how school cafeterias are fueling its growth.
Improved Nature splits its business into two lines. There’s the “dry product,” which he compares to pasta, where you make different shapes and boil it to create a meal.
“It’s plant protein and we’re turning it into fibers, long strips, and those strips can be formed into different shapes – strips, cutlets, filets, slices,” he says. “It becomes this fibrous protein that has the look, the texture, the bite and the nutritional profile and cooking characteristics of meat.”
In this unit, the dry product is shipped for other companies to transform into food.
The company’s second unit, which just scored a major contract, is where it’s Improved Nature – not its customers – that’s actually molding the protein into final products.
n that unit, most of what's created – from chicken-like tenders to chicken-like patties to yet-to-be-sauced “slices” – target school nutrition, kindergarten through twelfth grade.
“There’s a big need for vegetarian products that meet the nutritional standards that are at price points that the school system can afford," Hawkins explains. “We do all three… We hit price points for school lunch.”
And, thanks to a big contract win, it’s about to launch its products in schools in California, starting with the Los Angeles United School District, which serves about a million meals each day.
“We’re starting there and also throughout the California school system,” he says, noting that, in LAUSD, an estimated 15 percent of its meal needs are vegetarian. “There’s not a variety of affordable, vegetarian protein meals that they can provide the students, so they’re getting meal fatigue.”
Right now, a typical cafeteria option for vegetarian children is a black bean burger, tofu, or a slice of cheese pizza, Hawkins says.
“Ours is just more similar to meat products,” he says. “In fact, a lot of people say they’re better than the chicken tenders they are already served.”
Even so, Hawkins does not consider Improved Nature’s products vegetarian substitutions, but rather “another center-of-the-plate protein item that anybody would be happy to consume.”

And his outlook is getting results, as the firm sent its first European shipment of product last month, with additional orders pending.
Down the line, he hopes big name brands such as Gardein, Boca and Impossible Foods, might one day be customers for that dry product ingredient. But such partnerships will require scale.
Hawkins says plans for the larger manufacturing facility are early. His team is looking at sites, and has even considered land adjacent to where Amazon will soon erect its 1,500-job fulfillment center on Jones Sausage Road.
“We’re probably still a year away from breaking ground on a site,” he says.
His preference would be to stay in Garner, but he says he’s considering other locations in the Triangle, too.  
In the meantime, the operation is growing within its current footprint.
At the company’s current 30,000-square-foot facility, it’s producing 10 pounds of dry product a minute, which “hydrates up to four times its weight in water and flavoring," Hawkins says.