Berkeley’s Prime Roots thinks of itself as “the Omaha Steaks for plant-based food.” The company sells its plant-based meats online through subscriptions, a model that’s become popular during the pandemic, but which it had started before the arrival of COVID-19.
“I had always wanted to sell online from many years ago, but people would say ‘no one wants to buy food online,’” said Prime Roots CEO Kimberlie Le. “I’ve always known that was shifting, but now due to COVID, everyone is buying online.”
Of course, new safety protocols among its team of about 20 have been established in its West Berkeley facility, but otherwise, it’s all systems go. Prime Roots launched its plant-based bacon in February, a few weeks before shelter-in-place went into effect; it sold out almost immediately. While the bacon will be available to its subscribers again soon, the company has also launched a number of ready-to-eat meals, mostly heat and serve, available at Berkeley Bowl and other markets in the East Bay.
There’s a meatless bacon mac n’ cheese, which was our favorite of the meals we tried. There are several meals made with meatless chicken, like Hawaiian shoyu chicken and kung pao chicken. There is also a Thai lemongrass beef larb and pork with soba noodles, and then our other favorite, a bacon quinoa kale bowl.
While Prime Roots doesn’t yet have the high profile of companies like other meatless makers, like Impossible Burger, it has big plans, and investment money to back it up. What makes it different from the others, however, is that it believes it’s the only plant-based alternative meat made from koji. (There is, however, a Berkeley-based company that makes koji-based dog treats.)
For Le, in some ways, it’s only natural that a company she’d be part of founding is using koji, since she grew up eating it.
Koji has been dubbed “Japanese mold,” and has enjoyed varying culinary uses for centuries in Asia. Adding the spores to grains and fermenting them causes an umami flavor; that is what comes through in miso and soy sauce.
“Now it’s highly beloved by numerous Michelin-starred chefs, but it’s part of my culinary toolkit because we started fermenting koji when I was young,” said Le. “Koji is itself a really beautiful, naturally textured, high-protein food, and you can use it as a base for all types of meats and seafoods.”
Le grew up in an entrepreneurial family in Vancouver. Her parents owned a Vietnamese restaurant, where her mother is the chef. (They still own it today, and it has recently gone entirely plant-based, with some influence from her daughter).
Because of the restaurant, Le can claim that she’s worked in the restaurant and food industry since she was 11, and like many daughters of immigrant parents, she never planned on going into the food industry herself.
She came to the Bay Area to attend UC Berkeley where she studied microbiology.
“I had seen the ins and outs of the food industry and wanted to get away from it,” Le said. “I saw the good and bad, and felt it was very broken and inefficient, and I didn’t think it was possible to make change as one person.”
But the more she studied agricultural systems, food waste and how much greenhouse gas emissions are caused by raising animals for meat, she felt compelled to do something about it.
Raising animals for meat contributes to approximately 15% of greenhouse gas emissions, which is “more than all of commercial and private transportation combined. That was really staggering to me,” Le said.
And as a meat-eater herself, she began to ask herself how she could do more to combat that.
“That I’m contributing to greenhouse gases by eating meat was something that was never really never part of the discourse,” she said.
Wanting to find a solution for herself, she tried a lot of the alternative meat products out there and found they were lacking in texture or taste, their nutritional value was questionable, and “if you look into how they’re made, they’re very processed, which makes them pretty wasteful, too.”
It was her microbiology background that got her thinking about koji, mostly for its efficiency in growing it.
And unlike Prime Roots competitors, products made from koji are not overly processed. “Koji is a whole protein, and you can grow it with microscopic fibers that are identical to meat muscle fibers,” she said. “Plus you can harness its textural and umami abilities to make the best version of meat.”
Prime Roots was founded about three and a half years ago at the Alternative Meat Lab at UC Berkeley’s Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology. It has an open and transparent relationship with its customers, where they have a say in the products the company will release next. While they came out with a plant-based seafood product earlier, the recent bacon launch was due to customer input.
“We had done a lot of events, and had developed a list of folks who had tried our products,” said Le. “This got us thinking about the relationship we want with our community and what type of food system we want to build. We can leverage the power of our community to help us make more relevant products.”
What might those future products be? Le didn’t want to say, but said Prime Roots is working on scaling up production now.