Vegan wings kinda taste like … chicken

It started as a science project to keep plant-based meat from drying out.

James Salazar

Examiner staff writer

Jessica Schwabach and Siwen Deng’s chicken wings began as a science project. But neither woman set out to reinvent the plant-based foods industry.

The duo met in the University of California Berkeley’s alternative meats program where they were charged with finding a way to solve the dryness in plant-based “meat” products. Through their project, Schwabach and Deng founded Sundial Foods, a company that aims to make plant-based food more nutritious, sustainable and affordable.

“I took (the alternative meats program) because I was vegan and I thought we would get free vegan food,” said Schwabach, who is now Sundial’s chief executive officer.

While researching and developing plant-based meats in a UC Berkeley laboratory, the group they were part of found that “when consumers interact with plant-based meat, they kind of treat it the same way they treat animal meat,” said Schwabach. “They cook it for the same amount of time. But moisture leaves plant-based meat more quickly, and so it dries out.”

Schwabach and Deng’s group thought their product would benefit from having a skin, as the barrier prevented moisture loss in the cooking process. They originally developed a plant-based chicken drumstick, but after feedback from peers, classmates and friends, they pivoted their approach.

“We would tell people what we were doing … and they’d all say, ‘Man, it would just be so awesome if you’d make a chicken wing.’ And finally, we were like, ‘Wait, why not? We should,’” Schwabach said.

Sundial’s wings are made out of only eight ingredients: salt, water, soybeans, sunflower oil, gluten, nutritional yeast, chickpeas and chickpea protein concentrate. A bamboo stalk substitutes a bone and gives the wings their structural support while a protein-lipid film replicates the wing’s skin.

Shortly after their alternative meats class ended, Schwabach and Deng founded Sundial. Class feedback to their project was positive and pushed them toward a commercial launch.

According to Schwabach, Sundial’s wings target “meat eaters and flexitarians who want to cut out meat for whatever reason. It might be for their health or for ethical or sustainability reasons,” she said.

In 2020, Sundial participated in the Nestlé R&D Accelerator program in Switzerland where they took their chicken formula from testing to pilot production. Soon after, Sundial co-branded with Nestlé’s plant-based food brand Garden Gourmet and ran a test launch in more than 40 grocery stores across Switzerland.

Sundial’s soft launch prompted in Schwabach a mix of fear and excitement. “When you’re working so hard on something and kind of putting all your hopes and dreams and effort into it and then it’s suddenly in the real world, it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh! But people are merciless, this is gonna be scary,’” she said.

The experience proved fruitful as commercial sales allowed Sundial to gauge interest in their product. Through interacting with customers, the team learned about areas for improvement as well as what they did well.

After an overseas limited release, Sundial Foods is turning its focus to the U.S.

To back their domestic launch, Sundial secured funding through a slew of investors including IndieBio, a San Francisco-based biotech company. Meanwhile, Rutgers University’s Food Innovation Center is handling the production side of their wings.

Over the last two weeks, the wings were made available to order in New York City and San Francisco.

The Foghorn Taproom’s two locations, 450 Balboa St. and 534 Irving St., will be slinging the plant-based wings. From their shape and size alone, Sundial’s product could easily pass as its meat-based counterpart. Chive garnishing and a hearty drenching of buffalo sauce fuel the presentation.

As Sundial prepares to roll out their wings in more U.S. cities, this small-scale launch allows the company to test a critical assumption.

Schwabach said: “People are so used to seeing the Impossible [Burger] and Beyond Burger on menus that they’re not going to blink if there’s a vegan chicken wing, too. And meat-eaters will be able to order it without sort of being like, ‘What is that?’”

In the span of three years, Schwabach and Deng went from lab partners to business partners. The shift, though unexpected, gave them the push to take their plant-based meat aspirations to the next level.

“We realized that we could actually go out there and do this thing that would directly impact people and enter the real world instead of being all theoretical,” said Schwabach.

jsalazar@sfexaminer.com

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