I sensed it the moment I stepped inside Sweet Earth Natural Food’s 35,000 square foot facility in Moss Landing, California. It was almost instant, undeniable and omnipresent. I’m not referring to the smell of spicy hickory and sage smoked “Benevolent Bacon” and burritos lingering in the air (although, that was great too). What I’m talking about is a positive vibe that encapsulates the place and the people that work there. I wondered, was it the quintessential California location? After all, Sweet Earth is located along an idyllic stretch of Highway One on the California central coast, one of the most abundant agricultural regions in the world, with the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean merely a stone’s throw away.
Or was there more to it?
Sweet Earth’s website proclaims that the most important ingredients are ones they don’t list on the package, “sweet vibes,” “rolling surf,” and “pure sunshine.” Within minutes spent at Sweet Earth’s HQ, it became clear that the “sweet vibes” was not just clever branding by a couple of seasoned marketing executives (COO Brian Swette was Board Chairman of Burger King, CMO at Pepsi and COO at EBay, and CEO Kelly Swette held senior marketing roles at Calvin Klein and Pepsi). From the smiling employees to the energy and enthusiasm of the Swette’s themselves, this place seemed genuinely infused with positivity and passion for food.
From the Labs of Burger King and Pepsi to the Farms of California
“We value tradition over science,” said the Swette’s, as they explained the philosophy behind what Sweet Earth is trying to do. Not words you would expect from a couple that built their very successful careers in companies like Burger King and Pepsi (both giant food corporations that grew their bottom line without much regard for the environment or human health). But the way the Swette’s see it, everything they did in their careers and their lives before Sweet Earth, lead up to this very moment.
They realized that something had to change in the food industry, and they could either wait for it to happen or help to propel the change themselves. Brian has always been interested in sustainability (he is on the Board of Directors of Arizona State University’s Global Institute of Sustainability), and Kelly, on the other hand, was passionate about nutrition, health, and food. So, three years ago, this husband and wife team decided to combine these interests and dedicate their energy to Sweet Earth, which they proudly refer to as their “legacy project.”
The emphasis on sweet vibes and real foods could easily mislead some into believing that Sweet Earth is merely the couple’s way of giving back, after incredibly successful careers in the corporate world. And while creating products that are environmentally friendly and nutritious is what drives the Swette’s, the natural and plant-based food space also happens to be going through an incredible phase of growth.
As the leading online publication on the forefront of the conscious consumerism and sustainable food movements, we here at One Green Planet have written extensively about this growth, and how we are in the midst of an important shift that will forever transform the future of food, in America, and potentially across the world. Conscious consumerism, with food choices at the fore, is not just challenging outmoded food habits and trends, but currently redefining entire industries. We get millions of visitors flocking to One Green Planet every month, hungry to learn about how to make healthier and more sustainable food choices, and we know this is just indicative of a much larger trend.
Meat consumption in the U.S. has been in steady decline over the past few decades, driven by reasons ranging from health, concerns over animal welfare, to environmental factors. Recent studies estimate that nearly one-third of Americans (roughly 100 million people) are consciously choosing to keep meat off their plates more often, and millennials are transforming the American consumer marketplace by demanding fresh, healthy and plant-based options. Yet, Americans want more protein in their diets, so the question is, how are they getting this while keeping meat off their plates? You guessed it! Products offered by companies like Sweet Earth Naturals, Beyond Meat and others. So, while Sweet Earth’s food may be the antithesis of what Burger King and Pepsi have been selling to the public for years, the company’s mission still makes very good business sense.
The Future of Protein
Meat (at least the kind that actually comes from an animal) and other animal products are starting to face some stiff competition in the grocery aisles. From plant-based products that aspire to replicate the exact taste and texture of meat, to test-tube burgers, and even veggie burgers that bleed, the race is undoubtedly on to develop the protein of the future.
Venture Capitalists are pumping millions of dollars into businesses that are trying to make good on the promise of recreating the taste, texture and nutrition of animal meat, minus all the health problems, environmental destruction, and cruelty. My recent conversations with Ethan Brown from Beyond Meat, Josh Tetrick from Hampton Creek, and now the Swette’s have only further solidified my belief that we are collectively not just part of a new trend or a passing fad, but a real movement. By having the ability to influence and shape the food choices of millions of Americans, we stand at the precipice of a tremendous opportunity, one that offers us a real glimmer of hope for a more sustainable and healthy future.
Sweet Earth is playing a part in this movement in their own unique way. “We’re not trying to create fake foods” explains Brian, “We want to focus on authentic ancient proteins that stand the test of time.”
Sweet Earth’s products feature combinations of nutrient-dense vegetables, protein-rich grains, seeds and legumes, all topped with herbs and exotic spices like Za’atar. “We have a passion for cooking and want to take people on culinary adventures,” says Kelly “that’s why we incorporate bold, global flavors that can surprise and delight people who are yearning for high quality healthier alternatives that don’t compromise on taste.”
I tried a few of their products and noticed that protein is a dominant nutrient, and a focus on flavor seems to be a consistent theme. Their “Righteous Meats” product line includes an array of interesting plant-based protein options (in fact, their Tuscan Savory Grounds are one of the most flavorful plant-based grounds I’ve tasted!), but what I found especially interesting is that Sweet Earth’s frozen burritos are currently their most popular product. The breakfast foods market is undergoing a significant (and much-needed) shift at the moment, as consumers move away from sugary cereals and processed carbs to foods that are convenient to eat on-the-go, and high in healthy protein. Armed with breakfast burritos, Sweet Earth has a very exciting opportunity to disrupt the entire category (projected to reach $15.7 Billion by 2017).
Winning Hearts and Tastebuds in the Grocery Aisles
The Swette’s are onto something. Not only do they understand that Americans’ interest in global flavors is increasing, they know that consumers want leaner, healthier, greener protein sources in convenient packages.
While we should continue to encourage people to slow down, shop for fresh produce, and prepare home-cooked meals, the reality is that in today’s faced paced world, convenience is indispensable. But what if every time someone tried to make a convenient choice, they didn’t have to compromise on taste or nutrition? Imagine the impact on the health of our nation, where 35 percent of the population are obese and 68 percent are overweight. Imagine the impact on the environment.
Kelly Swette acknowledges that their goal is incredibly challenging, but believes that Sweet Earth’s authentic commitment to offering real, flavorful, nutrient-dense foods at an affordable price point makes them tough to beat in the packaged food space.
Sweet Earth seems to be in the early stages of its evolution from a laid back natural food company to a national food brand, but how easy will that leap be? In other words, can Sweet Earth really help transform people’s perceptions of food, their eating habits, and their health? Moreover, can they stay true to their focus on simplicity and sustainability, and yet become a real contender in the future of the food industry?
There’s no debating that the future of food will be shaped by companies that are bold enough to try, and my guess is with the Swette’s at the helm, and “sweet vibes” under their sails, Sweet Earth undoubtedly stands a fighting chance.
For more on Sweet Earth and their recent acquisition by Nestlé, check out this recent episode of the #EatForThePlanet with Nil Zacharias podcast.
Lead image source: Sweet Earth Natural Foods