Meet Starfield, China’s Leading Plant-Based Meat Company
Updated: Sep 27, 2021
Starfield Food & Science Technology might be the most important alternative protein company that few outside of China have ever heard of.
It’s the best funded plant-based meat company in mainland China to-date, with the backing of the U.S.-based New Crop Capital, Matrix Partners China, Joy Capital, as well as us at Dao Food International, among others.
It is working with more than 100 brands -- including Hey Tea, Luckin Coffee, Dicos, Nai Xue’s Tea (Nayuki), Charoen Pokphand Group, GaGa Café, Gui Man Long, Tim Horton’s and more -- and in addition to its own B2C platform, Starfield is already in some 10,000 stores in China.
And it is hugely invested in R&D, with the leading plant protein laboratory in China and its own manufacturing facility that is capable of producing 50,000 tons of alternative protein products every year, with backup capacity of up to 500,000 tons.
So why isn’t Starfield better known internationally, aside from the founders’ low-profile approach with the media?
Because it is located in China, away from the attention of many international investors, and is focused solely on the Chinese market, which few other plant-based producers have yet to enter. That’s an oversight, though. The company has more than 20 skus across many different categories including beef, chicken, pork and seafood as well as prepared foods like minced meat, meatballs, meat patties and more. It’s plant-based ground beef has already shown up on Papa John’s Future Meatball Pizza in China, and its bean-based protein mooncakes have proven popular at local Mid-Autumn Festivals where the meat-based versions, among others, are traditionally served.
This is happening not because Starfield is creating a new playbook for plant-based products, but because it is laser focused on the Chinese consumer and knows exactly what buyers in this country are looking for and expect, with the founders coming from a strong food services background. Yes, international brands like Starbucks, McDonald’s and KFC are embracing plant-based options in China and beyond, but it’s the interest of domestic brands such as Hey Tea and Luckin Coffee, along with legacy Chinese brands like Goubuli, which is working on vegetable-based versions of its classic meat buns, that are the most telling. The growth they’re seeing is directly related to rising Chinese consumer interest, and in particular the nuances of the local market.
For one thing, price matters.
For example Dicos, a fried chicken chain with 2,600+ across China, recently launched a Starfield chicken sandwich priced at just 20 RMB (about $3 USD), which is quite affordable for Chinese consumers. More than 100,000 were sold in the first five days.
The same thing happened when Tim Horton’s launched its Happy Farmers Plant-Based Rolls in Shanghai this year. More than 7,000 were sold in two weeks.
All of this is to show that demand for plant-based products is there in China, but producers need to be savvy to the local consumers in order to gain traction. Starfield has been deeply embedded in this market for several years and is posting impressive wins as it grows. What will the future hold long-term? It’s too soon to tell, but for international alternative protein products looking to enter the Chinese market, the company is rapidly becoming the incumbent domestic provider, and one that knows exactly who it is selling to and how.