“Why is this stuff brown?”
That was the question posed to Johnathan Bonnell and David Gaucher by celebrity chef Ted Reader, a.k.a. The Barbecue King, back in June 2016. The budding entrepreneurs were looking to develop a line of plant-based foods, and had asked Reader to lend his culinary expertise. On this particular day, the chef was trying out various plant-based foods Gaucher and Bonnell had bought, and his questioning about why there is texturized soy in everything got them thinking.
“Why are brands afraid of putting veggies at the fore of the product? Why are they trying to make them into fake meat?” recalls Gaucher. “Our thinking started shifting towards doing something that is not so highly processed—something that doesn’t take plants and make them into something they’re not meant to be.” Not that they see anything wrong with fake meat. “What companies like Beyond Meat have done is incredible,” says Gaucher. “But we thought we could carve out our own space and go in a different direction, where the product really is just vegetables.”
The duo worked with Reader on product development, with the goal to create products that would “celebrate vegetables and make it easier for people to get vegetables on their plate,” says Bonnell. “Our thinking was that if we could convince a meat chef to make a [veggie] product that was edible and tasty to them, we would have won over the toughest critic.”
After eight months of recipe testing, the co-founders landed on the final product: “veggie-full patties” in three flavours: Southwest Beet, Sweet Curry Carrot and Herby Garlic Greens. The colourful patties are non-GMO and free from soy, gluten and artificial colours, flavours and ingredients. In February 2017, Wholly Veggie debuted at the CHFA West show in Vancouver—and it was a hit. “Person after person came by and tried our products and said ‘I love it, I want to list it,’” says Bonnell. Today, Wholly Veggie products are sold in 1,500 stores nationwide including Metro, Sobeys, Loblaws, Whole Foods, Goodness Me! and Nature’s Fare Markets.
The inspiration behind Wholly Veggie came, perhaps not ironically, from the meat industry. Bonnell’s career background is in advertising, where he held various strategy roles at top-tier agencies. Gaucher worked as a process mechanics engineer in Laval, Que. before spending five years in Mexico working on his family’s condo-hotel development project.
In 2013, Gaucher moved to Toronto and joined an organic meat company. Bonnell joined the following year. “David and I spent the better part of five years working together … and being on the frontline of the meat business gave us the inspiration to start something that we felt would have a more positive impact for the planet,” says Bonnell.
Gaucher gradually went from being a meat eater to becoming vegan during that time, and says one of his main reasons was realizing the environmental impact of meat production. “Prior to that, I just never had the consciousness that eating meat was driving all these challenges for the planet,” he says.
Vegans, though, aren’t Wholly Veggie’s main target market. Their core consumer is “flexitarians”—people who are mainly vegetarian but occasionally eat meat. “Our brand is all about being colourful and having fun with vegetables, and not being one of those companies that shames you for eating meat,” says Gaucher. “That would be very hypocritical given our backgrounds and our journey.”
Since launching, the company has added two product lines: Veggie Bites in three flavours; Vegan Pizza in three flavours, all made with cauliflower crust; and Vegan Cauliflower Crust for those looking to create their own pizzas. This September, Wholly Veggie is launching a line of products in partnership with Toronto-based Greenhouse Juice Co. Wholly Veggie is “upcycling” vegetable fibres (which are usually discarded) from Greenhouse’s cold-pressed juice operations, and using them in products such as low-carb pizza.
As for the future, Gaucher says, “Wholly Veggie is not a project anymore—it’s a real business and it’s growing quite fast. We don’t know exactly how things will play out, but our goal is to do something positive, have fun doing it, work hard and create a culture where people are happy to be part of that mission.”
This article appeared in Canadian Grocer’s August issue.