It was a Wednesday night in late May, and I was scrolling through my dog’s Instagram, when my attention was arrested by a sponsored post: a perturbed rooster with a bright red comb gazing at what seemed to be a chicken nugget. “Don’t be chicken, eat NUGGS!” the caption urged. I was two glasses of wine into the evening, so I thought, why not? and clicked through.
NUGGS has taken the chicken out of the nugget, creating a “more advanced,” pea-protein-based nugget. The brainchild of 19-year-old serial tech entrepreneur Ben Pasternak, the goal is to make nuggets go viral — and catalyze a shift away from animal-based foods, by offering a product whose flavor and cultural cachet rivals actual meat. NUGGS has already attracted $7 million in funding, led by McCain Foods, the Canada-based frozen food giant. Other prominent backers include Rainfall Ventures, Greylock Partners Discovery Fund, Casper founder Neil Parikh, and Bob Pittman, MTV founder and CEO of IHeartMedia.
Can direct-to-consumer frozen nuggets sold over the Internet win over plant-based meat skeptics? And can a founder known for his success in social apps create an appetizing nugget that people want to eat? I wanted to find out.
I meet Pasternak and other members of the NUGGS team at the company’s NYC headquarters, an open-plan office on a newly fashionable strip of lower Broadway near Canal Street. Plants crowd the windowsills, straining toward the light; nearby, several employees at a long communal table gaze at their various screens. The NUGGS “test kitchen” occupies the center of the space: graduated cylinders share space with more traditional cookware, there are bins of white powders stacked in the corner, and a mysterious beige foodstuff floats serenely in a countertop sous-vide. Almost everyone here has that intense yet dewy look of very young adults — that sort of easygoing, unflappable poise that people of my age cohort, at the ragged upper limits of the millennial demo, are rarely, if ever, able to manage. And this is a very young company. At least three of the company’s top employees — its Head of Product, Head of Growth, and Pasternak, the CEO and founder — have yet to reach legal drinking age.
Pasternak, 19, is precocious even by the standards of today’s tech entrepreneurs. At 14, he created two iOs games that went viral and topped the app store charts. At 15, he dropped out of high school in Sydney, moved to New York City on his own, and began courting VCs and launching companies — Flogg, a sort of social marketplace for teens, and Monkey, a video chat app that describes itself as “Chatroullette without the pervs.” He speaks with a faint Aussie lilt, and is lanky to the point of scrawniness.
How did Pasternak decide to make the leap from social apps to food? “I was surrounded by VCs who told me the best way to have an impact on the world was to connect people” through social media, he explains. Metrics like “daily active users” and “time spent on social products” dominated his waking hours. He quickly grew disillusioned. “Nowadays, you can tell that that’s a really toxic thing. It’s like brain hacking,” he says. After Monkey, the video chat app, was acquired by Holla in early 2018, he decided to reassess his life. He considered various good causes — AI safety, education — before settling on the elimination of factory farming as the goal most worthy of his attention and talents. And he would do it by creating the most advanced and best-tasting animal-free nugget on the planet.
It makes sense to get into the meat-alternatives business. Plant-based substitutes for meat and dairy have shown explosive growth over the past few years. US sales of plant-based meats rose increased by more than 40% between March 2016 and March 2019 according to Nielsen research cited by the AP, in what seems poised to soon become a billion-dollar market. And analysts still see plenty of room for growth.
But in a world where big, heavily capitalized, research-intensive companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are breaking ground and building new markets for tasty plant-based burgers and brats that taste like the real thing, what can a scrappy start-up like NUGGS bring to the table? According to Pasternak, while competing companies make pretty good products, they fall short at capturing the imagination and desires of most Americans, especially younger people.
“The founder of Impossible foods” — Pasternak struggles to remember his name, then gives up — “he’s old. They make great products, it’s not that the brand is bad, but… since we’re young, we know how to make brands people like.”
Dini von Mueffling — who handles PR for NUGGS and Pasternak’s other ventures, and, as one of the few people in the office over the age of 30, has been a sort of surrogate mom-figure for him he arrived in the US — put it this way: “This is the first time nuggets have been created by a target audience for that target audience.”
“This is the first time nuggets have been created by a target audience for that target audience.”
NUGGS isn’t aiming to preach the benefits of a meat-free lifestyle or make a nugget for the already converted. The company is aiming to make the animal-free option seem a bit less virtuous, and a lot more cool. Pasternak, who says he has kept to a mostly animal-free diet for several years, spurns the “V words” and the “PB word” — vegan, vegetarian, plant-based — as elitist, confusing, and alienating. He favors the term “clean meat” — clear, direct, emphasis on “meat.”
The people Pasternak really wants as NUGGS customers are people he calls CMV — clean meat virgins. That is, people who have never tried an Impossible Burger or ever thought they wanted to.
“My core skills are virality and growth hacking,” Pasternak tells me. In other words, he not only knows how to make what people want, he knows how to turn that desire into a social phenomenon — how to make things that people want to share, brag on, make memes about, take selfies with.
Let’s be clear, NUGGS are not the only animal-free nuggets on the block. (And at $24 for a box of 40 nuggets — eight servings — they are far from the most affordable.) Morningstar Farms, Applegate Organics, and Boca are just some of the companies offering chicken-less nuggets available in supermarket frozen food sections. But squint at the packages, and they blur into one continuous gentle haze of leaves and peas, greens and soft browns. All of them present a similar aura of wholesomeness, wellness, healthy choices.
NUGGS is, well, different. Anthony Salazar, NUGGS’ Head of Engineering who helped develop the packaging, says he was going for the antithesis of “crunchy granola vegan” — no barns, no happy veggies, absolutely no green.
The NUGGS box is fire-engine red with bright white blocky sans-serif lettering, evoking cult streetwear brand Supreme® or the artwork of Barbara Kruger. The front of the box features that rooster that first caught my attention on Instagram, looking just as perturbed. A space on the back of the package is reserved for a (user-submitted) featured meme.
And NUGGS probably won’t appeal to clean-eating devotees. Although a five-piece serving has 22 grams of protein and is gluten-free, the ingredient list includes MSG, as well as sodium pyrophosphate, titanium dioxide, and methylcellulose. (To NUGGS, of course, these additive technologies are part of the solution to creating the best-tasting nugget, rather than scary chemicals.)
NUGGS’ social media presence, handled by Alex Michelle, 20, the company’s Head of Growth, is eye-catching and edgy. Recent Instagram posts have included a nugget in a condom wrapper (now removed) and golden doodle puppies that resemble nuggets baking on a wire oven rack. Pasternak enthusiastically shows me a post that he says was “banned by Instagram”: an image of a nugget in a dime bag. There’s something appealingly unpolished and undisciplined, like the @steak_umm Twitter account — a tone that reads as authenticity.
This capacity to engage with, appeal to, youth Internet culture — a segment of the market that can seem baffling to the point of obscurity for most older people — is certainly part of the appeal for an investor like McCain Foods.
There’s another thing that sets NUGGS apart: its product development process.
Plant-based meat companies like Beyond, Impossible, and Just Foods have made their mark by positioning their products as eminently technological achievements. NUGGS pushes this a step further, hyping nuggets as software.
Just as the apps on your phone are continually updated with bug fixes and new features, Pasternak sees creating a better nugget as a fundamentally iterative process, one where the product is constantly tweaked in response to user experience and feedback. Where most traditional CPG companies go to great lengths to avoid reformulation, NUGGS are meant to be constantly “updated.” The version of NUGGS you order today may not be the same as the ones you order three or four months from now.
NUGGS users – the term seems more appropriate than consumers, somehow – are invited to submit their feedback via the web or Instagram. There is even a phone number, if you prefer to text. The NUGGS website includes already includes release notes for its several prototypes.
“I think when we’re on version 9.6, people will flex that they had, you know, 1.3. Weird flex, but okay.”
This may remind you of something: Soylent. Since its early days, the meal-alternative published release notes with each version, with users enthusiastically flooding Soylent message boards with testimonials, feedback, and hacks. “Soylent is definitely very inspiring for us,” Pasternak admits.
But mass-producing food is very different than building an app. You can fix a line of code in an afternoon, or an hour; altering the formula of a food product can be much more complex and time-intensive. Scaling-up production presents its own problems. Pasternak tells me that while they had a “pretty good” prototype in the test kitchen within four months, making the jump from lab to factory was a different story.
“The first run was like a nightmare,” Pasternak laughs. The flavor was all wrong, the nuggets were “sad little lumps,” the packaging – custom bags they had waited 12 weeks for — was “scary and deformed.” Their soft launch this May also caused problems, as an unexpected number of orders exceeded the supply they had on hand. But Pasternak assures me that they are now prepared for anything.
As we talk, Liam Mullen, 20, Head of Product, walks in carrying a tray of various nuggets. Mullen is in charge of the NUGGS test kitchen. He comes from a culinary background that included a stint at Daniel, the posh Manhattan Michelin-starred restaurant, and is introduced as a “self-taught molecular gastronomist and food scientist.” (Pasternak found him on Instagram, of course.) He brings out the current NUGGS release, as well as two prototype nuggets with different pH levels. We sit around the table chewing thoughtfully, assessing relative textures and chickeniness — one of the prototypes is notably more chicken-like, in taste and texture.
Although this product development process is non-traditional, it is part of the appeal for investors. As Mauro Pennella, Chief Growth Officer at McCain Foods, said in a statement: “At McCain we believe NUGGS has developed an incredible product that uses plant based technology to uniquely simulate a high quality chicken nugget. A significant factor in achieving this is their approach to generating product trial through social media influencers and their unique approach to fast and iterative innovation, which is based on constant consumer feedback.”
My NUGGS arrived at my door one hot morning in June, packed in dry ice in a reinforced cardboard box. (Though one of the stated goals of the company is to create a more sustainable food system, this strikes me as a rather resource-intensive mode of distribution.
A bright red card announces:
WELCOME TO THE SIMULATION
I turn it over and read:
DOWNLOAD COMPLETE – To complete your installation, put your NUGGS in the freezer.
That night, I preheat the oven, and pop in NUGGS, version 1.3. Ten minutes later, they are done — looking very much like the real thing.
They’re a bit dry. A bit underflavored, more like elementary school cafeteria nuggets than the gold standard, McNuggets. But this is just version 1.3. Who knows what these things will taste like, once version 9.6 rolls out of the oven?