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  1. Interviews
December 11, 2019

Moving Mountains’ Simeon Van der Molen on UK plant-based firm’s roots in foodservice and push into retail – the bitesize interview

Moving Mountains owner Simeon Van der Molen talks about the UK company's growth in foodservice, ambitions in retail and why press scrutiny of plant-based products is over-cooked.

By Dean Best

After setting up a business selling cleaning products, Simeon Van der Molen turned to meat-free burgers and hot dogs, launching UK firm Moving Mountains in 2016. He talks to Dean Best about the company’s growth in foodservice, ambitions in retail and why press scrutiny of plant-based products is over-cooked.

just-food: Heading into 2020, what are your priorities for Moving Mountains?

Simeon Van der Molen: Growth in sales, launching into new territories and also reinventing our products consistently to improve them, which is what our main competitors are constantly doing.

There are a lot of other me-too companies jumping in now. A lot of these are owned by meat companies just to show that they’ve got something to offer the people and the quality is not very good.

just-food: What was the spark for the business?

Simeon Van der Molen: The initial spark came when I went to the doctor’s. I was complaining about all sorts of aches. We did some routine blood tests. The doctor said: ‘Everything’s fine, except your cholesterol. You’ve basically got two options – either change your diet and cut out all red meat, preferably all meat and eggs and butter, or you go on statins for the rest of your life.’

I took the first option and went to the supermarket to buy a whole load of vegetarian products, which, as you can imagine five years ago, were pretty dull. I tried a few, put them all in the freezer, they sat there for three to six months and I just tried my best with managing my diet.

But what you do when you go vegetarian is you tend to supplement everything with cheese, which doesn’t really help. I was missing having the juiciness of a burger and I always loved hot dogs and there was nothing else out there. Fortunately, I’ve already been very successful in business and I have another company that manufactures detergents, so I had the resource to start another company. 

just-food: What was your business background before Moving Mountains?

Simeon Van der Molen: I own ecozone.com. It manufactures detergents without the use of tallow, it doesn’t test on animals, is totally cruelty-free and the ingredients are certainly less damaging. I’m no longer the MD of Ecozone and I’m in a completely different office just for Moving Mountains. I pumped in all of my own money to start Moving Mountains. Ecozone provided office space and staff to get us going in the beginning. We hired a whole load of food consultants and protein technologists to introduce us to the market and get us started. It was a tough struggle in the beginning because we weren’t from the food industry. It felt like moving mountains – hence the name. It’s about my personal struggle in doing this but also that’s what we want to do on the planet: move mountains, make change, move mountains.

The interest in plant-based foods in the last 12 months has been absolutely astronomic. It’s been sensational. We are already across Europe, already in the Middle East. We’ve got locations in Singapore, we’re going to be launching in America. Australia had always been on our radar. When I last went to Australia seven or eight years ago, I was always amazed by the boom in plant-based even then. I would say that Australia – certainly the east coast area of Sydney, Melbourne – is probably one of the hottest areas in the world for plant-based foods, along with California (mostly L.A., San Francisco), southern England, maybe parts of the Netherlands, Spain and Israel. There are little pockets of really hot, plant-based activity.

just-food: How did you secure the listing with Woolworths in Australia?

Simeon Van der Molen: They had tried our product in one of the restaurants here in London on a visit and they reached out to us. The whole logistics and the shipping of getting product over there is quite tough because we manufacture everything in the Netherlands. We’re shipping – sea freight of course – to Australia, though there are plans to launch our own space or work with a manufacturing co-packer in the APAC region. We’re sending stuff across the sea; we should stop that.

just-food: What are the principal ingredients in your burger and hot dog?

Simeon Van der Molen: The largest part of the burger is actually mushroom, an oyster mushroom base. Mushrooms have a very meaty texture but we combine it with other ingredients such as a very unique pea-wheat texture, which clings to the mushrooms. In the hot dog is sunflower seeds, which grind down to a paste to make the hot dog paste. It’s very clean label, it’s gluten free, so it’s suitable for everyone. It’s ridiculously like a hot dog because we have it smoked in a real, genuine smoke-house.

On the burger, it’s very much more about the ingredients and how they work together. With the hot dog, it’s very much more about the cooking process: how we heat it to the right temperatures and mould it just like a real pork hot dog. Even though hot dogs are one of the cheapest products in the world, they’re not the easiest product to make.

“Customers need to think ‘Well, all these products are processed’ and decide what type of processing they prefer: the meat processing, or the plant processing”

With our burger, which is made from at least 20% mushroom, we like to believe we’ve probably got the least-processed plant-based burger out there at the moment. There’s a lot of talk about the processing of these products, which is interesting because hot dogs, burgers, spam and ham are all processed. There’s all sorts of colourants that go into these types of products. A beef burger is also processed, textured, goes through different forming plates, flavours are added, sugars are added, salt is also added. Customers need to think ‘Well, all these products are processed’ and decide what type of processing they prefer: the meat processing, or the plant processing. The choice is theirs really.

just-food: There is increasing scrutiny about the health attributes of plant-based products. Do you foresee the plant-based category having to continually reappraise its product portfolio to stay ahead of these concerns?

Simeon Van der Molen: Yes, that’s what we’re doing. If we look at the history of food, one day soy is good, one day it’s bad. Pea currently at the moment is good; soon it’s going to be bad. It’s constantly changing. If you look at where all these questions are arising from on processing, there could be some underlying interest from some potentially very large meat companies, trying to undermine the growth of these products. I don’t know if there is but I think there probably could be. We need to take that into account.

We are constantly looking at new versions to reformulate but I just want to make it clear that these products are not designed to be eaten every day. This is where I think the market that is scrutinising this is going wrong. We say that our burger should be eaten as a treat and not for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And it should be eaten in conjunction with a whole food, healthy, plant-based diet. Hot dogs and burgers are treats.

The market is just getting a fair bit carried away by saying this food is all processed. There’s a lot of people that eat nothing but processed ham for lunch every single day. We are aware of [the scrutiny] and we’ve just got to look at the nutritional profiling of our burger and hot dog and make changes.

I think [the press] are just looking for stories. They need something to write about after the success of Beyond Meat on the stock market. They think ‘Okay, well, maybe we can write some bad stuff about that burger now or tear them apart in another way.’ Ultimately, the market’s growing and burgers and hot dogs are bought as treats, not as something you have every day. Everyone should have a healthy diet and enjoy food when they can. That’s why I started it because I missed burgers and hot dogs.

just-food: When you started Moving Mountains, you focused on foodservice. Is that channel still the majority of the firm’s revenue?

Simeon Van der Molen: It probably represents about 75% of our actual trade. Retail’s tricky. I’ve always said you go to retail when you’ve got 20 products, you’ve got a really great brand already established in foodservice and other categories and then you launch it in the supermarket because then you would have more money in the bank and you’ve got it ready to give to the supermarket.

just-food: What will Moving Mountains’ sales be at the end of 2019?

Simeon Van der Molen: We go by the financial year but, by the end of the financial year, we’re looking at GBP10m (US$13.1m).

just-food: What growth rate is that on the previous year? 

Simeon Van der Molen: The previous year, when it was part of Ecozone, it was GBP2m.

just-food: What’s driving that growth?

Simeon Van der Molen: We did a really big deal with the meat trader Jan Zandbergen in the Netherlands, one of Europe’s largest meat distributors. We didn’t know much about the European market other than we wanted to conquer Germany, Spain, France and the Netherlands. It was very important for us to partner with a meat-trading company because, if you want to get in all the top restaurants and the restaurant chains, you need to partner with someone who’s already got contacts. All these restaurants across Europe don’t buy all their products from a vegetarian distributor. They buy all their products from meat distributors. We also did a deal with a similar meat distributor in Dubai to supply the Middle East. Growth has also come from introducing our second product, the hot dog – and we’ve got even more new products launching next year under wraps.

just-food: Is the strategy to continue to have foodservice represent three-quarters of your sales?

Simeon Van der Molen: As we go into new markets such as North America, our strategy is to do fifty-fifty. We’re probably going to see a much more even split going forward of fifty-fifty for the next three to five years.

just-food: What’s on the horizon in terms of new countries or new channels?

“The USA is going to be very important for us. We have a lot of leads coming from the US”

Simeon Van der Molen: The USA is going to be very important for us. We’ve just gone with a distributor for the USA and we’re working very hard to get them learning about the product. We have a lot of leads coming from the US.

The launching of new products is also important. NPD is the lifeblood of any company, so we’ve got to come up with new products, constantly improve flavours, textures, improve nutritionals.

Cash-and-carry is very important for us. We’re in cash-and-carry across the whole of Europe, so maybe looking at cash-and-carry in Australia, now that we’ve gone into Woolworths.

I like to look at the company like a tree. When a seedling grows, you notice that the root grows down first before the trunk starts growing and it starts to grow deep and it spreads out its roots. Once it’s got a strong roots, the trunk starts forming, the branches and the leaves form. If you want to build a company, you’ve got to build a really strong root for that company and you can do that by being in foodservice. Once you’ve got the product in there, and you’re on the actual restaurants’ menus, they’re not exactly going to discontinue you – and you’re building a stronger root for the company than launching your product in a supermarket [who] after even 12 weeks decides it’s not selling well enough and kicks you out. 

Once you’ve built the strong root in foodservice around the world, you can build a strong trunk for the company. Then you can start to bring on supermarkets and then the branches grow and you can go into supermarkets all over the world. Then you can then start picking the fruit.

just-food: Have you got any other irons in the fire in the retail channel?

Simeon Van der Molen: We will be launching – and I can’t say the name because the UK PR agency wants to keep it under wraps until January – but there will be a UK supermarket launch in January. We also have one for Netherlands in January as well.

just-food: To help fuel your growth plans, would you be interested in taking on investment? Do you need it?

Simeon Van der Molen: I do get contacted by loads of VCs and investors quite often. I’ve met with a few but, you know, all they’re interested in is themselves: how much money they can make – of course – and they want to put in as little money as possible for the largest stake. I stopped talking to them, basically.

What would be really interesting as part of the story is to say, unlike all these other plant-based food companies that have given away huge stakes to venture capitalists, what’s unique about Moving Mountains is it is still 100%-owned by by the founder and he’s able to keep the company very true to its values and steer it in the direction he wants. That would be a refreshing story than to say I’ve taken investment from Bill Gates or someone – well, if he offered, I probably would.

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