Dan Riegler and Blair Crichton are shaking up the meat industry with their sustainable and delicious jackfruit-based products.
If someone told you that they were using jackfruit as a meat alternative, you might call them crazy.
But that’s exactly what KARANA co-founders Dan Riegler and Blair Crichton are doing. The Singapore-headquartered company produces everything from gyozas and beef wellington to chorizo meatballs using minced jackfruit as a meat substitute – and its product is seeing adoption as far as Hong Kong and the US.
In this episode of Good Business, Riegler and Crichton join host Chris Edwards to discuss why jackfruit – of all fruits – make for the perfect plant-based meat, how their efforts in utilising the fruit could drive positive impact on the entire food and agricultural system, and how they’re partnering with top-tier chefs and restaurants to get consumers on board the jackfruit hype train.
00:00 – Ever wondered what goes into the food you eat? Dan Riegler does
00:52 – Dan’s eye-opening move to Asia
01:30 – Welcome to Good Business
01:59 – Why jackfruit?
04:52 – The systemic issues in the food and agriculture chain
07:27 – The resilient power of the jackfruit
08:34 – Partnering with chefs and restaurants to get jackfruit on people’s plates
10:41 – Expanding to new markets and beating incumbents
12:01 – Plans to scale jackfruit’s status as a super crop
12:58 – Chris’ takeaways from the conversation with Dan and Blair
14:24 – Thanks for listening!
Dan Riegler, CEO and co-founder of KARANA, a Singapore-based alternative meat startup that is scaling biodiverse, farmer-friendly, regenerative crops and crafting them into products that are meaty and versatile, nutritious and delicious culinary experiences
Blair Crichton, chief commercial officer and co-founder of KARANA
Good Business goes behind the scenes of the leaders of good businesses, who have people, planet and profit at the core of their mission. Follow the show on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Chris Edwards (VO)
Ever wondered what goes into the food you eat?
I grew up on a wheat farm, with sheep and cows, and I now live on 130 acres outside of Byron Bay and we have 60 cows here. We don’t eat takeaway and we are actively trying to reduce our meat consumption.
Dan Riegler is also someone who ponders a lot about what food is made of. Previously based in the US and pursuing a career in finance, Dan’s passion for food sent him into a very different world.
I came to this through a deep passion for food and knowing where my food comes from.
I grew up between Europe and the US, so sort of a mix between two food cultures, erring more towards the European side, but really wanting to understand what was going into what I was eating.
Chris Edwards (VO)
When Dan moved to Asia in 2010, he found himself working on a number of projects concerning agriculture with his former employer.
That’s when I started connecting the dots between the impact of where my food was coming from and the systemic issues with how we produce and consume most food and the environmental impacts of that.
Chris Edwards (VO)
Dan didn’t know it yet, but that experience led him to start a business in 2018 called Karana, a company that produces a whole new category of meat made from jackfruits.
Welcome to Good Business, a Launchpad podcast that goes behind the scenes of the leaders of good businesses, who have people, planet, and profit at the core of their mission. I’m Chris Edwards, founder of The Honeycombers and Launchpad, and this is the story of Karana, and how its co-founders Dan Riegler and Blair Crichton, are turning jackfruit into a super crop and revolutionising the meat industry.
So you’re probably thinking: Why jackfruit? Well, when Dan started Karana in 2018, he had a singular goal in mind: impacting change around the issues in the food and agriculture system. And it just so happens that jackfruit ticked all the boxes as a perfect solution.
So when we were sort of looking around for which crops to focus on in terms of crops that were very scalable, very farmer-friendly, had a very positive regenerative impact in terms of soil, biodiversity, tapping into wasted or underutilised resources, also told an interesting story nutritionally, but that we could actually turn into something quite interesting from a product standpoint and add value around, everything kept coming back to jackfruit, which ticked all those boxes.
Chris Edwards (VO)
Here’s Dan’s co-founder Blair, who joined Dan on the Karana journey a few months into its founding, with more to add.
You can tick all those sustainability boxes and everything, but you also have to have a product that consumers want. And as we went down that, we started thinking about, well, really, what is it that consumers are looking for. And what we see is that consumers were wanting things with shorter ingredient lists that were more transparent. And one of the primary drivers for adopting a more plant-forward diet is health. And so we saw jackfruit as also ticking all those boxes because it’s got this naturally meat-like texture that we have kind of enhanced through some of the processing techniques we use. We can offer them a product that’s whole-plant forward, so you’re getting the benefits of a whole food diet, has a shorter and cleaner ingredient list, and is very transparent, that tastes amazing, and then has all of these sustainability benefits.
And I think Blair touched on a really good point, which is that transparency… because if you look around, we talk a lot about what do… people want everything, right? You know, things have to be delicious, thay have to be accessible and affordable, and they have to be healthy, nutrition is a huge driver, but these are all quite subjective across different markets and consumer segments. But I think the universal truth in food is transparency. Everyone wants to know what they’re eating and where it’s coming from, what you’re putting into your body or feeding your family, and connecting people with where their food is coming from. Again, that’s really what was the origin behind a lot of this, making better use of an ingredient that people are proud, chefs are proud, to put on menus, to highlight and call out, and tell a story around, and know what the positive impact of that is, environmentally and nutritionally.
Chris Edwards (VO)
In terms of its ability to address the systemic issues with the food and agriculture system that we talked about before, well, I’ll let Dan and Blair explain this one.
I mean, jackfruit, it exists in high volumes all over South and Southeast Asia, but it’s not the cash crop. So it’s grown largely as a shade crop. And so that’s why, like, Dan was saying, it’s there, but there’s no off take. Actually, upwards of 60%, it’s been estimated, goes to waste in the markets where it’s growing because it’s providing shade for your cash crops like your spice and your tea and things like that.
Yeah, vanilla, turmeric…
So, literally, when you say shade, literally it’s there just to produce the environment for other crops that are… yeah, that’s so interesting.
That’s kind of… and that’s really what was inspiring us for a lot of this because, looking at even more traditional indigenous agriculture systems, we talk a lot today about regenerative farming is becoming quite buzzy and we’re seeing the need to move back from this very consolidated, industrialised agriculture system that we’ve been building for the past decades, which is leading to a lot of concern and problems around food security, around a limited number of crops we’ve been eating, and in a lot of South and Southeast Asia, there’s been a maintaining of this traditional approach to small-scale agroforestry. It’s really forest farms, where they both make use of what is already available and then plant crops that make sense to exist naturally in that ecosystem. And in Sri Lanka especially, you have this incredible, vast network of very small-scale forests, garden farms, where a lot of it is built around the jackfruit that exists. It’s actually illegal to cut a jackfruit tree in Sri Lanka because they know it is a crop that will be resilient through downturns, is very high-yielding, can support these kinds of ecosystems, and you see this in countries like India and Bangladesh as well. So jackfruit is an amazingly resilient crop, but because of that, tends to get overlooked. So there’s a huge amount of capacity that could still increase income for farmers, could still support more, but it tends to get lost in the shuffle relative to other crops. So we’re trying to both tap into that resource that exists and really help add more value and support those farmers who are practising the techniques and maintaining those systems.
Chris Edwards (VO)
On top of that, jackfruit has the added perk of being a fruit that can help populations tide through the tough times because it’s just so resilient.
We saw this in the last year, there was a lot of political turmoil and unrest in Sri Lanka. There were a lot of issues around fertiliser shortages and food prices rising, and you could see the resilience that came from having jackfruit and that population was able to rely on that. We actually paused our supply chain just to observe and see what would happen in that sense because it was really a test for how jackfruit has been preserved in Sri Lanka, and it worked beautifully and it really strengthens our conviction that this is a crop that can really help feed and nourish the world and create a lot of economic opportunity and great consumer products in the process.
Chris Edwards (VO)
And so the pair set off with their goal of transforming jackfruit into a super crop that could act as a meat alternative. However, they faced the challenge of having to create the demand for such a product because, well, obviously, who knew that you could use jackfruit in the place of meat? Where they found success in creating a market for their product was via partnerships with chefs at restaurants.
We’ve always been very culinary-focused. In fact, Dan used to sort of nightlight as a food critic. And we worked with chefs from the outset to understand how they work with jackfruit and what would be needed for a product to really work in food service, like, for them to actually bring it in and put it on in their menus. And so as we iterated and developed prototypes, there were always chefs that we were sort of leveraging there, but I think, then going beyond that, as we thought about bringing a product to market, it made sense because, when introducing something new to consumers, I think there’s a number of benefits that come with working with chefs. One, they can be ambassadors for your product and showcase how it can be used. They basically are giving you some form of social proof. And consumers are more likely to try something new in a restaurant setting than they are in a supermarket setting. And also, I think, by working with lots of different restaurants and a lot of different chefs, it enabled us to highlight the versatility of the product and how it can be used in lots of different formats to really validate that this is an amazing crop that can be used in our food system. And finally, chefs are super discerning and they’re very picky about the ingredients that they use, particularly, you know, the higher-end chefs that we started with. And we knew if we could get their stamp of approval, then we’re basically, you know, we know we’re on to something and consumers are also like it as well.
And chefs are incentivised to make things delicious, right? Like, ultimately, they need to please their customers and it shows the scope of different flavours, different cuisines, different ranges of preparation and preferences. So having chefs be able to take a new ingredient, a new crop like jackfruit and tell culinary stories around it and be the champions like Blair was talking about, that’s hugely valuable.
Chris Edwards (VO)
And all that work paid off. Today, Karana has expanded to launching in Hong Kong and the US and unveiled value-added products made from minced jackfruit, collaborating with various restaurants and food outlets to produce everything from gyozas and beef wellington to chorizo meatballs with Karana’s jackfruit.
We’re definitely seeing strong demand there. We’re replacing brands like Beyond Meat, we replaced Impossible in all of the Kebabs Factory locations across Singapore because they like the story you can tell around jackfruit. We see a lot of instances where something was listed as just an Impossible sausage or Beyond sausage, but then it’s a Karana jackfruit or jackfruit sausage. So really being able to tell a story around the ingredient is unlocking a lot of value. And so we get to enjoy and witness all the creativity, and I think definitely for that, that’s a huge success, to see jackfruit being utilised and introduced either in addition, instead of, or where they never would have looked at a plant-based alternative before because they can get that value out of it as a chef.
Chris Edwards (VO)
Looking ahead, the team is looking to further scale jackfruit’s status as a super crop.
I think our long-term goal is to scale jackfruit as a climate supercrop, and that’s seeing it as an anchor crop in this new food system, and we want to see that increasingly become true, right? And we’re already starting that, it’s not going to happen overnight, and so we need to develop the technology to enable the scale and the processing, as well as the amazing products to give that off take so that this high-yielding, very highly scalable crop has a use in the market. Both of us come at this from a passion for transforming our food system and that’s where we want to get to.
Well, thank you, Dan and Blair, it’s been so interesting and fascinating, really, what you have created and your ambitions, so thank you so much for your time.
Thank you for having us, it was an interesting discussion.
Chris Edwards (VO)
I loved this interview so much. I think my big takeaways is that it’s really not easy when you’re trying to build a whole new market, building, I suppose, a fan base and a consumer habit. Plus you’re trying to build a whole new supply chain and really a new industry. So Dan and Blair have challenges on both fronts. It’s also kind of hard to get funding right now for these kind of innovative businesses. But my big takeaway is that Dan and Blair are really certain and sure that climate change is the biggest challenge all consumers and businesses are going to be facing in the future and their product is a great solution to decrease our impact on the planet. They know and they’re hedging their bets that very soon there’s going to be a massive swing to vegetarianism and eating meat replacement products. And they’re very clear on their vision and mission. And I think that’s what keeps them going through this really tough journey. I really admire Dan and Blair. I feel like we need more entrepreneurs in the world that can see that this climate challenge is the most important thing we’re facing right now and that are solutions-focused, innovators, risk-takers, and just so, so, I suppose, inspiring with their single focus.
Thanks so much for tuning in. I hope you enjoyed this episode as much as I did. If you wanna learn more things about what Dan and Blair, and the Karana team are up to, just go check them out at eatkarana.com.
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Before we close out, I just want to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land of which I’m recording this podcast, the Arakwal people of the Bundjalung nation, and I pay my respects to elders, past, present, and future. And I extend my respects to all traditional cultures.
Thanks again for listening. I’m Chris Edwards, and I hope you feel as inspired as I am to create your own good business.