GW Chew grew up in a meat-loving family. As a self-described “country boy” in southern Maryland, he and his relatives regularly chowed down on ham, fried chicken, ribs and other staples.
But then he started noticing the effects of that diet on the health of his community. And on his aunts and uncles. And finally on his father, who died at age 62 from cancer that Chew says was related to his meat-heavy diet.
So around 2001, Chew became a committed vegan. Then he started developing recipes made with plant-based meat analogues for soul food dishes and other foods. It was the start of a journey that resulted in Something Better Foods.
Something Better either offers or is about to bring to market plant-based analogues for fried chicken, chicken nuggets and patties, meatballs, fried fish and more. It is now established in Whole Foods and other stores, primarily in California but also in Arizona and Nevada, and in small natural food stores up and down the West Coast. It had sales of about $900,000 last year, the company’s first full year of operation, Chew says.
Chew became vegan in reaction to the toll that a meat-based diet was taking around him. That was his motivation to begin the long, slow, trial-and-error process of developing recipes for analogue meats.
There wasn’t much in the way of reference material he could use; recipes for analogue products existed, but he didn’t find them particularly useful. So he started experimenting with beans, grains, roots and other ingredients.
Chew did “hundreds and hundreds of experiments” from 2004 to 2007. “I was literally in my mother’s kitchen, taking every grain, every bean you could think of, and doing different tests.” Eventually he figured out how to create a “horizontal substrate of protein” from soy milk.
“The texture was just different,” he says. “It created these layers of protein. Most plant proteins are built from an extrusion process. We create more of a horizontal layer of protein that kind of mimics muscle.” That became the basis for all of Something Better’s subsequent product development.
Once the R&D was done, the next step came in 2008, when Chew opened a vegan restaurant in his hometown of Prince Frederick, Md. About two years later, Chew moved to Arkansas, where he got married and opened up another vegan restaurant. Then came a third restaurant, The Veg Hub, in Oakland, Calif.
The next step was industrial manufacturing. Chew established Something Better Foods as a company in 2017 and started raising money to take his products into retail freezers.
He now leases two manufacturing buildings, totaling about 6,000 sq. ft. of production space. Chew decided at the beginning that he wanted to manage production himself and not use contract manufacturers.
Part of it was an identity issue. “You don’t have very many Black-owned manufacturing companies, and that became very important,” he says. He raised funds through a loan from ICA, a community-minded investment house, and grants from the Wells Fargo Diverse Community Capital Program and other sources.
Scaling up his recipes was the next challenge. A large part of it was finding the right equipment.
“Most of the machines that have been developed have been made for meat processing,” he says. With analogue products, “sometimes the textures or the form or the shape or the weight of the product it deals with don’t react the same.” He worked with manufacturers to get the right equipment for each step in the process, which took a lot of time, effort and traveling – and some more trial and error.
The pandemic spiked Something Better’s retail sales, while business at The Veg Hub had its best year ever. It did affect Something Better’s foodservice sales, though, as customers went out of business. But overall, Chew says, “We were very fortunate that we were able to survive the pandemic and came out stronger.”