From Ground Up
By Andrew Snook
Plant protein pioneer set to blossom into a vegan food powerhouse after investing in top-notch thermoform packaging machinery
Over the past 20 years, the demand for plant-based protein products has grown exponentially as consumers search for alternatives to meat-based proteins that constitute healthier and more sustainable options.
As demand has grown, so has the number of companies offering vegetarian and vegan options. One of those companies is TMRW Foods in Port Coquitlam, B.C.
But unlike some of the plant-based protein manufacturers, TMRW Foods is looking to be more than just another product option for consumers. They want to change the way the average consumer thinks about their protein options altogether.
Originally from South Africa, company co-founder Blignaut once operated a plant-based food company with his wife called MoonBean Unbakery, before they moved to Canada five years ago. Although they closed that company after immigrating, Blignaut’s passion for creating plant-based foods never left him. In 2020, Blignaut teamed up with the co-founders of Virtuous Pie, a plant-based pizza and ice cream company in Vancouver, and started up TMRW Foods with the mission to find creative new ways to showcase the full potential of plant-based proteins that will appeal to all consumers.
“The key for me is injecting the feeling that we’re trying to create something different, something new,” Blignaut says.
“To create a company and a set of products that are meaningful—capable of driving tangible change at a scale that helps to change the trajectory of our current food system.”
To meet TMRW’s main goal of making an impact with all consumers, and not just those currently searching for more vegan and vegetarian options, Blignaut says there are four big challenges that need to be overcome.
“The first one is that it must taste great, that’s always the most important thing,” he states. “Second, you must create the products in a way that people are comfortable with putting into their bodies.
“Third, it must be affordable. And fourth, we have to change the consumers’ perception of plant-based proteins, he says, “which means we have to change the way they think about food.”
The affordability factor is particularly critical, according to Blignaut, because so many people buy protein products based on tight budgets, making it a market segment that many plant-based proteins have traditionally priced themselves out of.
That said, there’s more than just cost parity that’s required to win over consumers currently opting for animal-based proteins.
The team at TMRW Foods spent a great deal of time focused on R&D (research and development) for new products that would appeal to consumers before hitting the market.
“We’ve always had this idea that we can create a protein that’s better than animal protein, but it’s still early on into this evolution,” Blignaut says.
“We very much care about the impact that this type of product can potentially have, but we’re also realistic about where plant-based protein is, and where it needs to go, and we’re determined to help solve all those problems.”
As Blignaut explains, TMRW Foods manufactures its proprietary TMRW Protein base, as well as its entire range of products, at its own dedicated SQF-certified facility in Port Coquitlam.
“We knew we would need that flexibility to try new products, and to be able to rapidly adapt to ever changing consumer needs and demands,” Blignaut explains. “It is also essential for us to own as much of our supply chain as possible to drive price parity.
“Finally, having our own manufacturing facility gives us a tremendous ability to control the quality of our products,” Blignaut Points out.
While the goal of TMRW Foods is to make plant-based proteins that appeal to a wide range of consumers, the company says it isn’t trying to make its product taste like any specific animal meat of a particular species.
“Our drive has never been to make our protein taste exactly like animal protein, but rather to make something that tastes like its own thing,” Blignaut points out.
“It’s never been, ‘How can we make it taste like beef, or chicken?’ “But we still want it to look appetizing, taste great, have a satisfying bite, and feel familiar.
“These are the things we obsess over—endlessly iterating until we created something we knew would be able to surprise consumers.”
This passion for innovation has enabled TMRW Foods to build up an impressive collection of popular products in a relatively short period of time.
Their main plant-based protein products, all made without soy, include: The Burger; Protein Shreds, The Sausage, and The Ground; Breakfast Patties; and their most recently released big hit Ocean Cakes, a plant-based alternative to fish proteins. All TMRW Foods products are made without soy.
Since opening up in 2020, the demand for TMRW Foods’ products has virtually exploded, with its products nowadays found in over 2,000 retail locations across Canada and the U.S., including Whole Market Foods, Loblaws, Sprouts, Metro and many others.
The company’s products are also making in-roads with meal kit companies, and also showing growth in the ingredient distribution and food-service markets.
With this surge of success came an entirely different set of hurdles an obstacles to overcome.
“That’s when you start running into challenges with growth,” Blignaut says. “Your sales functions are working, your distribution is growing, consumers are responding well to your products… but you need to make sure you’re getting products out on time, while also keeping the quality consistently excellent.”
As part of the effort to maintain quality and continue to grow its marketplace, TMRW Foods recently decided to research options for optimizing its packaging and production lines efficiencies.
After closely scouting the marketplace, and closely evaluating three or four different suppliers, the company ultimately chose to work with the food processing and packaging experts at Reiser Canada, which supplied TMRW with a Reiser Variovac Optimus thermoform packaging machine and a Reiser Vemag Robot 500 filler.
TMRW Foods had looked at three or four companies in total but opted for Reiser due to a combination of factors.
As Blignaut relates, “We ended up working with Reiser because of their approach in terms of guidance and support: they have a great team who understand the full manufacturing process that we could run assumptions through and get high-quality information from.
“The equipment they offered made sense based on our needs, including cost, reliability, simplicity of installation and use, and efficiency,” Blignaut says.
“They worked together with our specialists [and] it was a huge help for them to have our plant-based specialists there for them,” adds Alessandro Sestini, Reiser Canada’s sales representative for the B.C territory.
“One of the reasons they decided to go with us was the support we provide with our specialists for packaging and processing… so they could look at the process as a whole,” Sestini says.
The decision to invest in the Variovac Optimus thermoform packaging machine stemmed from a combination of wanting to automate the packaging lines, become more sustainable, and assist with the company’s rebranding of its packaging.
“We went through a deep exploration of different options that would allow us to reduce the plastic mass of our packaging, as well as reduce labor and packaging costs,” Blignaut says.
TMRW Foods was using trays for its burger and ground protein product portioning that were being filled manually, and found this method was inefficient for keeping up with growing demands, and unnecessarily costly.
With the addition of the Variovac Optimus thermoform packaging machine, TMRW Foods was able to funnel most of its packaging requirements into one packaging line.
The company was also able to significantly reduce its plastic waste.
“It helped us reduce our plastic consumption by 60 per cent, and reduced the cost of each package,” Blignaut says.
Another big advantage was that the thermoforming machine is simple to operate and maintain.
“With a young company like ours, we don’t have a dedicated maintenance department.
We can’t have highly complex systems, because we would run the risk of not maintaining them effectively,” says Blignaut, adding he’s been impressed with the speed of the thermoforming process on the machine.
“The machine can do 13 cycles a minute” he says. “It is very fast.
“Overall, when you take it all into account—cost of materials, the speeds it can run, maintenance costs, finance costs… it just made the most sense to run with it.”
The installation and commissioning of the machine was performed in June 2021, according to Blignaut, and everything has run smoothly since then.
Some of the attractive features of the Variovac Optimus machine include:
- Easy to operate, three-button operation (Start, Stop, Reset), E-stop, flexible programmability, recipe management storage, a full-color 10-inch touchscreen, and optional remote diagnostics;
- Easy set-up and troubleshooting with failure messages/analysis;
- Easy access for cleaning;
- Quick changeover times, small footprint, non-proprietary parts and local support;
- A stainless-steel frame with sturdy construction built on a self-supported frame that can be moved with one forklift;
- Completely washable design, with all the color-coded tubing contained in a designated frame inside the machine;
- Available web widths of 320 mm, 360 mm, 420 mm and 460 mm;
- Up to 400-mm advance and up to 100-mm package depth;
- Available frames lengths of 2.0 m, 2.5 m, 3.0 m 3.5 m, 4.0 m and 4.5 m;
- Available for application with flexible and semi-rigid films to produce MAP, vacuum and skin-pack formats;
- Up to 13 cycles per minute (shallow vacuum packs), 30 per cent faster than competitors due to due to Variovac’s proprietary Rapid Air System technology.
“Our machine could deliver the growth they were expecting,” Sestini remarks.
“There are more affordable options,” he says, “but when they saw what they could with the machine for the future, the machine was the right one for them to grow with.”
To complete the upgrade, TMRW also purchased the Reiser Vemag Robot 500 filler around the same time to process the company’s burgers, ground proteins and sausages.
According to Blignaut, the biggest advantage of the Vemag is that it can process multiple products.
“Once it’s programmed, it’s straightforward, easy to clean, and safe,” he relates. “Generally, it’s one of the machines we’re not too nervous for new employees to be around because it’s well fenced-off.
“Safety is a massive concern for us,” Blignaut says, “adding that the Vemag Robot 500 automatic vacuum filler runs quickly and offers a high output with quality that is consistent and predictable.
“It just works,” Blignaut adds. “We’ve never had any issues with it not running or downtime because of the machine not cooperating.
“If the line is set up properly and it’s programmed properly, we have no issues with it.”
Reiser ensured things would go smoothly with the Vemag Robot 500 by completing thorough testing during the commissioning stage.
“To make the veggie casings, we were able to test the machine during the installation process,” Sestini adds. “The veggie casings can be challenging, but with the machine and the experience of our specialist, it went very smoothly.”
He says the Vemag’s ability to process multiple products generates substantial cost savings.
“With the Vemag you can do multiple products—burgers, sausages, ground—and have excellent accuracy with weight and presentation,” he says. “With all of that, you can save a huge amount on labor for a smaller customer that is growing.”
For his part, Sestini says the projects with TMRW Foods were managed the way Reiser likes to do business with all its clients.
“The way we like to work is to help the customer so they can be a partner in the long term.
“Our main concern is to really understand what they need; it’s a partnership,” he concludes.
“I think we’re very fortunate to have them as a partner, and to keep helping them with their growth pains.”