NCFIL + Barvecue: Meant to Be
July 6, 2022
Lee Cooper, Founder and CEO of Barvecue, wanted to create a plant-based meat product that everyone could enjoy and a company that would make a positive impact on the world. Once he and co-founders Zack Werner and Jeni Cooper knew they had a winning concept, they began to build their business. The NC Food Innovation Lab (NCFIL) has been a helpful partner for resources and advice along the journey.
NCFIL: How was Barvecue born?
LC: In 2017, I sold a successful industrial valve company and took some time to think about what I wanted to do next. I’m a long-time vegetarian but live in big BBQ country. I started thinking, “Could I create a plant-based BBQ product that was authentic and tasted great?”
Through a family connection, I met Zack Werner, who is a food scientist. When I told him about my dream of creating a plant-based barbecue brand and the impact that might have, he was all in. With my process equipment experience and Zack’s food science education and work experience, plus the fact that he is a vegan chef, we had the right mix for a great partnership. In May 2018, we opened a 4,000 square foot facility in Cornelius to bring Barvecue to life.
NCFIL: How have things been going since then?
LC: We built the original facility for the local market and proof of concept but wanted to build a bigger facility to become a national brand. We started construction on a 10,000 square foot space in Cornelius in January 2021 and opened in September 2021. We call it the world’s largest plant-based smokehouse.
We have nine employees at the facility plus several consultants on the sales and operation side. We started 2021 with 0 distributed grocery stores and finished with 800 grocery stores. We are currently in 1,500 - 1,600 stores and plan to close 2022 with 2,000. We are also moving into the food service market.
With the biggest market shift coming in the form of flexitarians, those consuming plant-based options one to two times per week, Barvecue is for everyone. We’re thinking about what else fits in that realm; that’s where you will see our innovation for the next few products.
NCFIL: How did you get started with NCFIL?
LC: When we started Barvecue, we had some ideas of doing innovation with different protein options that were readily available. Once we achieved proof of concept in May 2019, we were interested in looking at high-moisture extrusion and needed help with equipment outside of our commercial kitchen. I had read an article about NCFIL starting construction on their lab, so I got in touch with Bill Aimutis.
He showed me what he was working on with the plant and the equipment and expertise that we could use. Bill gave us technical guidance and help back then and continues to offer technical, equipment, and market advice, as well as training and process assistance as we grow. Zack has been to their facility on multiple occasions to run trial or sample work.
For me, making the connection with Bill and seeing the resources NCFIL was going to have gave me encouragement and “wind in my sails.” NCFIL is unique in the country and to have it 10 miles from where we are located? It was meant to be.
NCFIL: Is there a particular piece of NCFIL equipment that has been useful for product production?
LC: All of the people, knowledge, equipment, and training have been useful, but the Twin Screw Extruder has been the most interesting piece of equipment because we don’t have our own high-moisture extruder. Zack and I attended the recent Extrusion Short Course to become better skilled at using Bühler’s extruder and understanding how to take an original commercial small scale process and scale it up to production level.
NCFIL: Where can we find Barvecue products?
LC: We have three wood-smoked, plant-based meat products available for purchase in the freezer section of local grocers Fresh Market, Lowes Foods, and (soon) Harris Teeter. We have a store locator for people in other areas of the country to find local sellers.
Our products are Non-GMO certified, gluten-free, and vegan with all raw materials grown in the US. Pulled BVQ is wood-smoked with original BVQ seasoning. Just add your favorite BBQ sauce and it’s perfect for a classic pulled barbecue sandwich or as a main entree. Naked BVQ, wood-smoked and lightly seasoned, is our main food service product. You can make 4-5 different entrees with it by adding a sauce or seasoning for sandwiches or as a salad or pizza topping. Our Carnitas are seasoned with a hint of lime and are very popular for tacos, fajitas and enchiladas.
NCFIL: What is one piece of advice you can offer other food entrepreneurs?
LC: I’ve been around the process business, but I’m new to the food manufacturing industry. It’s a difficult and complex business, but one that is very rewarding. With major changes in the global food system over the years, especially with the impacts of COVID, I recommend connecting with people and resources that know what they are doing in the food business. You will want that support and help, and you’ll need it to succeed.
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