In conversation with Restaurant India, Harry J M Brouwer, CEO at Unilever Food Solutions – Global, talks about the company’s recent acquisition of the start-up Vegetarian Butcher, its plans to expand in India, and how the company is providing solutions to the emerging dark kitchens in India
Could you elaborate about the innovations that Unilever Food Solutions – Global (UFS-G) is engaged in considering the many disruptions being triggered by young start-ups and food technology companies?
I think there are many different kinds of innovation. You have innovations in products, business systems, and via digital disruption. You have combinations of all of these and so, there are many different kinds of innovations we can talk about. One of the most recent innovations on our part is that of the acquisition of Vegetarian Butcher. It was started by a ninth-generation farmer, Jaap Korteweg. There was a time when Holland witnessed the outbreak of swine flu and Jaap was asked if he could keep the cadavers in his cold storage facility. From then on, he started keeping cattle in an organic and animal-friendly way until it was time to take it to the slaughterhouse. This impacted him so much that he decided to become a vegetarian.
But then he loved eating meat and thus decided to meet his cravings for meat without actually killing any animal. He met a likeminded person who became a co-founder in his venture. They started a company and named it the Vegetarian Butcher. They said there’s nothing wrong with a person’s need to eat meat. We got in touch with them at the end of last year. We offered them our global network of contacts with different food operators and discussed how we could pool our resources and do something together. So, to come back to your query about innovations at UFS-G, we are looking closely at such start-ups that have proved themselves and are providing high-quality products. We reach out to them and it makes for a great combination.
Is acquiring new start-ups an activity that you do at UFS-G very consciously?
Yes, I must say so! Since we have critical mass, we can use the capacity and the capabilities of the Unilever Group to help them get bigger and better.
You have also acquired a cosmetic brand called Plum. Could you elaborate?
Yes, acquiring Plum was a very well-thought out strategy since we found that the start-up held a lot of promise for growth. However, whether it is Plum or Vegetarian Butcher, we are very selective because there are hundreds of start-ups and not all hold out scope. Our selection of a start-up is based on whether it fits our sense of purpose and long-term objectives.
What is the role played by Unilever Ventures?
It is the investment vertical of the company that looks at various start-ups and then takes a decision about which companies we should invest in.
How do you plan to expand in India with these global brands?
I think India is a fantastic market. In my view, what’s happening now is not even the beginning. It is poised to kick off in a big way. Once the right infrastructure in place, there will be many multinationals from across the globe who will be keen to establish a base in India. Therefore, our growth plan for our acquisitions is based on this huge expansion we see happening in the future. For Unilever Food Solutions – Global we have started out on a smaller scale because we are after all competing with very huge brands but we are now confident about taking bigger steps.
Do you visit India very often?
I was here three weeks ago. I am amazed by the developments taking place here, especially the huge disruption that is happening in dark kitchens. I was in Bangalore and I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing. I met an entrepreneur who has started 100 dark kitchens already and was opening up another 60 units just in the middle of an apartment building somewhere in a residential area.
Does Unilever Group have solutions for dark kitchens in India?
Yes, we have Unilever Food Solutions which is supporting chefs with dish solutions, training, inspiration and connection. The dark kitchen models appreciate our professional approach. Why do I say it? Because of very limited space, there are very concentrated hours within which you need to perform and without compromising on quality. To differentiate themselves, they need consistent quality and they don’t like to waste products and resources. These elements fit very nicely in our portfolio of products and services.