While James Cameron lectures New Zealand about moving beyond meat, a number of local startups are actually doing it.

The largest, the Sir Stephen Tindall-backed Sunfed, has already been a hit locally.

Tomorrow, it will launch its Chicken-free Chicken product into Coles supermarkets in Australia - and founder Shama Lee has made the front pages of the Aussie business press this week in the build-up.

The move is Auckland-based Sunfed's first international expansion.


Lee won't front with any sales figures for Chicken-free Chicken since the product was launched in early 2017.

But she says sales increased 170 per cent last year, and her company's flagship product has become ubiquitous in Kiwi supermarkets (it's now in more than 250 stores).

Sales were good enough to fuel a $10 million Series A funding round, led by Australian outfit Blackbird Ventures (which now holds an 11 per cent stake). Sir Stephen's K1W1 fund (5 per cent) and the Crown-backed New Zealand Venture Investment Fund (1.4 per cent) also bought in.

And they've now been good enough to convince Coles to take it on.

Lee says the series A money will be used, in part, to expand Sunfed's manufacturing into Australia, and her broader aim is to "create a brand new protein industry that will be commercially viable for farmers".

"People are moving away from red meat. Consumption is in decline," she says, and the stats back her claim.

Although the Aussie launch looks promising, there's still a lot on Lee's to-do list, including the long-promised addition of Beef-free Beef and Bacon-free Bacon to Sunfed's line, and getting on Air New Zealand's menu (our national carrier is currently featuring the US-owned Impossible Burger on selected business class flights).

Lee will also have her eye on the fake-meat boom in the US, where Beyond Meat's May 3 IPO was a break-out hit. The maker of plant-based burgers and sausages listed at US$25 a share. Stock in the money-losing, early-stage company closed at US$152.48 yesterday, giving it a market cap of US$10.1 billion.


US sales of plant-based meats jumped 42 per cent between March 2016 and March 2019 to a total of $888m, according to Nielsen. Traditional meat sales rose 1 per cent to $85b in that same time frame.

Postscript: does it taste like chicken?

As a confirmed meat eater, I thought Shama Lee's startup was a great business story, but I only had limited interest in trying her product (Chicken-free Chicken's ingredients are listed as "pea protein, rice bran oil, pea fibre, pumpkin, natural yeast extract, and maize starch". It costs $12.99 for a 300g pack).

But when my daughter became a vegetarian earlier this year, I started to buy it on a regular basis, substituting it for real chicken in curries. It does taste like chicken. In a blind taste test, I'm not sure I could tell them apart.

I'm not 100 per cent convinced it has the texture of real meat, as billed - to me it feels springier in your mouth - but it's not too far off.

Straight out of the pack, Chicken-free Chicken looks nothing like the real thing; in fact it looks down-right unappealing. But once cooked, it's a reasonable facsimile.

It's definitely not as robust as the real thing, however. If you're frying it, you've got nudge it around the pan pretty gently or it will fall apart.

And (turn away at this point, vegetarians), while I'll keep buying and eating Chicken-free Chicken, I'll keep buying the real thing at times, too. Because I do like a good piece of crispy chicken skin ...