Verso Food CEO Tarja Ollila isn’t fond of the word ‘meat replacement’. Replacing meat has a negative tone to it; Ollila prefers alternatives.
“No one would want to eat härkis every single day,” she notes. “Our goal isn’t to replace anything; instead, we want to add more options on the table.”
Verso Food, founded in 2010, develops and produces vegetarian foods. The flagship product is protein- and fibre-packed, soy- and gluten-free härkis, made from Finnish-grown fava beans.
In Finland, härkis has been in stores since last autumn, and it’s become a household name. The first, unflavoured version has since been accompanied by seasoned alternatives.
Finland isn’t the only country seeing the extent and variety of vegan and vegetarian products rapidly expanding. Now, Verso Food is heading abroad under the name Fava Mill, first in Sweden and Norway and later in continental Europe and the UK. Ollila notes that this is the right time for a company like Verso Food to go international, as both restaurants and consumers are growing more and more accustomed to testing new plant-based products in their kitchens.
It helps to be from Finland, too.
“Globally, Finland is known for its pure nature and clean ingredients,” Ollila notes.
Win-win-win: animals, planet, health
Initially, Verso Food used peas as the main source of protein, but fava beans took over in 2013. According to Ollila, who’s worked at Verso Food for four years, the company’s aim was to create a plant-based product that could be used in cooking similarly to minced meat. Härkis was as close as it gets – and in many respects, better than its animal role model.
“It’s sustainably produced, nutritionally balanced, made of Finnish ingredients in Finland and tastes really good, too,” Ollila lists.
Veganism and vegetarianism seem to be growing trends that work in Verso Food’s f(l)avour. Ollila believes that consumers are increasingly aware of the ethical elements of their diets.
“People consider ecological aspects, like the wellbeing of our planet, as well as ethical ones, including animal welfare,” she notes. “On top of this, there are various studies that show the detrimental effect of red meat on people’s health, which is definitely a factor when people choose what to eat.”
Another thing is flexitarianism: consumers who choose to eat less meat and more plant-based, without going full-on vegetarian. Vegetarianism and especially veganism were previously sometimes seen as ‘either-or’ extreme choices, whereas now omnivores can easily grab a box of härkis or pulled oats instead of chicken breast or kebab – without being labelled hippies or animal rights activists.
Partners instead of competitors
Currently, Verso Food employs six people. All production is handled by a subcontractor, which has the capacity to increase volume as international orders start coming in.
The first steps abroad will be taken with the existing product range. When it comes to future plans, Verso Food has a keen ear for customer feedback.
“We continuously look for ideas and listen to customers’ wishes,” Ollila assures. “As we’re launching new products, we’re more than happy to hear what else is missing from the market.”
Although vegetarian options are already relatively plentiful in comparison to just a few years back, Ollila doesn’t see companies similar to Verso Food as competitors. She prefers referring to them as partners.
“The market is still so small I think that if anything, we’re supporting each other,” she explains. “The more alternatives there are, the more people deem them worthy for their plates, too.”