Founded by the former cattle farmer Jaap Korteweg, the Dutch brand’s quirky products – which include “nochicken” nuggets and “chickburgers”, apparently with the same “taste and structure” as patties made out of chicken – have earned it a cult following among vegetarians and vegans.
In the UK, its products are sold largely through healthfood shops, and also in Waitrose.
Unilever’s Nitin Paranjpe said it had been attracted to the brand’s “clear mission” and strong position in a booming market for meat alternatives.
The deal comes as manufacturers, supermarkets and restaurants scramble to tap into the burgeoning vegan market, which has expanded as more people drop meat from their diet for health or ethical reasons. The UK has an estimated 22 million “flexitarians” – those who enjoy meat but want to reduce their consumption. Last month a plant-based burger that “bleeds”, from the US brand Beyond Meat, made its debut in Tesco.
Unilever, which owns household brands from Magnum to Marmite, said the acquisition of The Vegetarian Butcher, for an undisclosed sum, fitted its strategy to move into healthier plant-based foods with a lower environmental impact. Unilever already sells 700 vegan and vegetarian products under existing brands such as Knorr, Hellmann’s and Ben & Jerry’s.
“The brand will fit in well within our portfolio of ‘brands with purpose’ which have a positive social impact [and] are better positioned to meet the needs of consumers,” said Paranjpe. Last year Unilever, which also owns PG Tips and Liptons, bought Bristol-based ethical tea brand Pukka Herbs.
Korteweg’s family had reared animals for nine generations but he converted to vegetarianism after witnessing Dutch herds being ravaged by swine fever and BSE. He started The Vegetarian Butcher in 2007 and has spent the past decade developing new products in keeping with what he sees as a “big transition from animal to vegetable meat”.
“We want to conquer the world,” said Korteweg. “It is our mission to make plant-based meat the standard. This acquisition will help to accelerate our mission.”
Unilever has been working with The Vegetarian Butcher for the past two years but, with a presence in 190 countries, the acquisition will offer the potential to dramatically increase the brand’s distribution beyond its current 4,000 outlets in 17 countries.
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