All that many North Americans need to know about Gardein's products is that Oprah likes to eat them. More importantly, she likes to talk about them on her show while several million viewers take notes and race to their grocery store to check out the entertainer's latest obsession: chickenless chicken created in a B.C. factory by an eccentric Quebecker. It tastes like meat, looks like meat and even cuts like meat, but brother, it ain't meat. Gardein's "chick'n filets" and "beefless strips" are actually a proprietary blend of soy, wheat and pea proteins, grains (including but not limited to: amaranth, quinoa, millet and kamut) and organic beet root fibre. The resemblance would fool even the most blood-hungry of carnivores.
"We had to hire six receptionists in October to take calls after Oprah mentioned us on her show," says Yves Potvin, founder of Gardein. "Within two hours, we were number three on the most-Googled list. Sales have been-how best to say-helped along nicely."
Potvin is already a celebrity in the world of vegan-friendly fare. He founded Yves Veggie Cuisine in his kitchen in 1985, pumping out a popular line of veggie dogs and burgers for a small-but-growing market of vegetarians (his cartoon likeness appears on the packages). In 2001, with annual sales approaching $60 million, he sold the brand to Hain Celestial, the world's largest natural and organic food conglomerate. Smart move: Yves had landed a contract to supply veggie burgers to McDonald's restaurants-a major coup-but would need help to meet the increased production demands.
Potvin used proceeds from the sale (Hain paid $34 million U.S.) to launch Gardein, which is based on a recipe and process he began developing more than a decade ago. Now, the company's work force numbers 185, and more than 5,000 U.S. and Canadian grocery stores stock Gardein products. (Canadian retailers will begin selling Gardein's frozen food line this month.) Gardein is also negotiating a contract to supply burrito fillings to Chipotle, an upscale American fast-food chain with close to 900 locations. After opening a spiffy new factory in Richmond, B.C., Gardein should have no problem meeting demand, says Potvin.
Still, Gardein's founder prefers that you don't think of his processes as high tech (even if the firm has spent millions of dollars on equipment to perfect the product's formula and texture). "People don't like to hear technology and food," he says. "They think of Frankenstein. Instead, just think of it as a pasta machine and an oven. More art, less science.
"And Oprah likes it. Did I mention that?"