On Aug. 30, Barvecue, a Cornelius company that makes wood-smoked plant-based barbecue, announced their expansion into 360 Sprouts Farmers Market locations. The move, which follows Barvecue’s announcement last winter that it will soon open the world’s largest plant-based smokehouse, marks the company’s national rollout into supermarkets.
“Sprouts has stores from California to the Carolinas,” says Barvecue CEO Lee Cooper. North Carolina boasts five outlets of the natural and organic grocery chain, with one on Ballancroft Parkway in south Charlotte’s Ballantyne neighborhood. In their freezer sections, each Sprouts location will carry Barvecue’s signature product, Pulled BVQ, vegan barbecue pork with the company’s original sauce, as well as Naked BVQ, a sauce-free version for customers who want to add their own sauce or seasonings.
In addition to these products, Barvecue also makes two more variations, Chopped BVQ, a gluten-free version of Pulled BVQ with a slightly different texture, and a naked counterpart to Chopped BVQ.
The Sprouts announcement is the result of Cooper’s strategy for building the company’s reputation for its high-quality, good-tasting plant-based meat substitute: Improve it locally, and scale it up nationally. The expansion wouldn’t be possible without Barvecue’s other massive milestone, the opening of the 10,000-square-foot Carolina Smokehouse. The facility, which will come online in late September, will have the capacity to produce the growing quantity of the brand’s meats needed to cater to the company’s expanding clientele.
“It’s the largest plant-based smokehouse in the world,” Cooper says. As Barvecue goes from strength to strength in the plant-based food sector, filling a niche for vegan barbecue, much the way brands like Beyond and Impossible staked their claims in the vegan burger market, the 58-year-old Cooper is gratified. He’s also a bit surprised, primarily because he has no significant background in the food industry.
A gathering of vegetarians
Cooper’s expertise lies in industrial processes. He graduated from North Carolina State University with a degree in engineering, and subsequently co-founded Valworx, a manufacturer and distributor of actuated valves and controls. After 25 years, he sold the company in 2017, intending to decompress for a while.
“I wasn’t really planning on starting another business,” Cooper says. But then, a series of chance encounters, all with vegetarians, kickstarted the next phase of Cooper’s life and career. Cooper himself has been a vegetarian for 30 years. “It’s for typical reasons,” he offers, “initially for animal welfare and then for health and the environment.”
In summer 2017, a special education teacher named Andy Werner started working with the youngest of Cooper’s two daughters, Ana, then aged 16. Werner hit it off with Cooper’s wife Jeni, and the two women decided to introduce their husbands to each other. Speaking on local podcast Paper Trails, Andy’s husband Zack remembers the meal the two couples shared when they first met for dinner — barbecued black bean burgers. Right then and there, the vegetarian Werner knew he was going to hit it off with Lee Cooper.
Andy Werner has been a vegetarian since age 12. When the couple married, 34-year-old Zack did the cooking, quickly mastering the art of vegetarian and vegan cuisine. To be fair, he had a big head start. After earning an undergraduate degree in food science at Michigan State University, Zack Werner subsequently graduated from the Culinary Institute of Michigan. His career as a food scientist landed him positions in research and development, and food technology in Chicago and New York, when his then-fiancé, Andy, expressed her wish to attend graduate school at UNC Charlotte. While happenstance brought the Coopers and Werners together, mutual interests turned them into business partners.
“[Zack] had the component that I didn’t have to start the business,” Cooper says. Drawing on Werner’s expertise in food science and Cooper’s background in manufacturing, the two men decided to launch a vegan barbecue company. It turned out that 2017 was an ideal time to get into the vegetarian/vegan field.
“The whole plant-based meat sector had been around for a while but it was really taking off,” Cooper says. Following vegetarian inroads like soy milk, oat milk, and plant-derived cheese into grocery store’s dairy sections, Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger upped the ante in refrigerated sections, bypassing vegetarian and vegan brands like Boca Burger in popularity.
Cooper says the plant-based sector has continued to expand exponentially in quality and market reach. A study by The Good Food Institute and the Plant Based Foods Association shows plant-based retail sales reached $5 billion and grew 11% from 2019 to 2020, a growth rate five times that of total U.S. retail food sales. Business and market consulting firm Grand View Research places the global market for vegan products in 2018 at $12.69 billion, and has projected a 9.6% expansion between 2019 and 2025.
“Consumers are driving the expansion,” Cooper says. He adds that the plant-based meat sector is growing fastest with flexitarians, people that are interested in putting plant-based options on their plate three or more times a week. “That’s where the huge growth is.”
While the opportunity to grab the untapped plant-based barbecue market niche was motivation to develop Barvecue, there is also a cultural and emotional element. Growing up in the Carolinas, Cooper has fond memories of gatherings centered around barbecue, even if vegetarian options back then were few and far between. Cooper recounts a recent experience in Charlotte, when he and Jeni attended a vegan wine and cheese tasting at Tip Top Daily Market on The Plaza. After sampling products like Asheville-based Dare Vegan Cheese, the Coopers had dinner at Oh My Soul, the first fully vegan restaurant in nearby NoDa.
“It was so strange because back in the ’80s and early ’90s [in Charlotte] there were no choices,” Cooper says. Now, his company offers a choice that was severely limited before Barvecue launched. In retrospect, Cooper feels it’s no accident that he and Werner focused their plant-based wizardry on barbecue.
“This is barbecue country,” Cooper says. The challenge was to get Barvecue’s texture and flavor right. After Werner rejected tofu as too soft and jackfruit as not nutritious enough, the company hit upon their current recipe, derived from whole soy beans from the Midwest and sweet potatoes from the Carolinas. Developing the sauce for Pulled BVQ proved particularly tricky for a North Carolina-based company.
“North Carolina is in these two different major flavor profiles,” Cooper says. “It’s total vinegar in eastern North Carolina and its vinegar and tomato in the western part of the state.”
In the end, the company opted to go with neither eastern nor western style for their sauce. Barbecue means different things to different people, Cooper maintains, particularly for a brand that is expanding nationally with plans for global reach. Far more important than measurements of vinegar or tomatoes to Barvecue’s flavor profile is the process of actually smoking the plant-based meat in a smokehouse.
While flavoring agents like liquid smoke could be used, Cooper rejects this approach. “We’re defining barbecue as wood-smoked plant-based proteins.”
It’s been standard practice to smoke animal proteins for centuries, but where Barvecue is innovative is with scale. The 10,000-square-foot Carolina Smokehouse will prepare wood-smoked vegan proteins at an unprecedented level. Construction on the new facility began in January. It’s a process Cooper describes simply as “buying a big box and putting a food plant in it,” is a bit of an understatement.
The facility is a stone’s throw away from Barvecue’s current 4,000-square-foot facility. In fact, both new and old facilities are on Bailey Road in Cornelius. When the company opens the largest plant-based smokehouse in the world, it will keep its current facility as an innovation center, test kitchen and sales office. In fact, the innovation team is already at work on a new project. Currently, all four varieties of the Barvecue line are vegan, but only three are gluten-free. Pulled BVQ contains wheat, but Cooper says Barvecue is working to rectify this situation. Efforts are underway to have all of Barvecue’s varieties gluten free by early October.
A growing market
Barvecue offers takeout at its current location, but there is no sit-down service. Soon after opening, Barvecue started offering its products at online vegan grocers like GTFO, It’s Vegan; VeganEssentials; and Vejii. The company soon expanded to brick-and-mortar Charlotte retailers like Earth Fare, Mecklenburg County Market and Berrybrook Farm Natural Foods. From the beginning, Barvecue has targeted the food service market as well as the retail market. While Pulled BVQ with the company’s classic tomato-and-vinegar-based sauce is Barvecue’s most popular product, the food service industry required a more flexible product.
“When we started approaching food service outlets — a restaurant or a college dining room — they wanted multiple uses for the product,” Cooper says.
To that end, the company introduced its Naked products: lightly seasoned plant-based pork with no sauce.
“A restaurant may have their own barbecue sauce, and they want their own flavor profile.” Naked BVQ can be used for countless purposes, including tacos and burritos. “I’ve got a customer who uses it for sushi,” Cooper says.
After the Sprouts expansion, the next grocery store rollout will come in November with the addition of several Safeway Stores in the Pacific Northwest. The company is also distributing its product to restaurants, both independent establishments and chains. College and university dining halls and food services are also on Barvecue’s radar. Elon University became the company’s customer on Earth Day 2021. By the end of October, Barvecue will be in UNC Chapel Hill, UNC Wilmington, Lenoir-Rhyne University, High Point University and Washington State University.
“We’ve got 10 or 12 colleges that we’re rolling out into right now,” Cooper says. Expanding markets, new smokehouses and increased production require capital. Barvecue, which was self-funded during its first few years of operations, eventually turned to outside investors. The company completed a $2 million seed round with mission-driven investors in August 2020, and an additional $1 million was closed in February 2021. Those funds enabled the company to scale into national groceries and food service distribution, Cooper says.
If, as a consumer, you’re overjoyed by the increased quality and availability of exceptional plant-based products like Barvecue, thank the flexitarians, Cooper says. The number one reason flexitarians are putting plant-based options on their plate is health. The number two reason is concern for the environment, and number three is animal welfare.
“There’s a whole shift in the global food system as people pay attention to the health effects and the environment,” Cooper says.
Cooper finds reason to celebrate reports that younger people are turning to vegetarianism and veganism. (A College Pulse survey from 2019 finds that 14% of college students are vegetarian or vegan.) Washington State University, one of Barvecue’s newest customers, kicked off the school year with a barbecue event, Cooper says.
“With the barbecue they offered a plant-based option on the menu, and 25% of the students chose the plant-based options,” Cooper says. “That’s so cool it’s crazy.”
Often people wonder what they can do to improve their health or alleviate stress on the environment. The easiest, and often cheapest, thing anyone can do is to make a choice in what they eat, Cooper says. A food system shift is also necessary if we as a species hope to mitigate the effects of climate change. If a shift to plant-based proteins can reach a tipping point, we might see a reduction in the practice of factory farming and its detrimental effects on a warming planet.
If the trend toward plant-based menus, vegetarianism, veganism and flexitarianism continues, Cooper believes Barvecue could have lasting effects beyond plate and palate.
“North Carolina is the top hog-producing state in the country,” Cooper says. “We wanted to be a part of the changes taking place in that factory-farming sector.”