New Thinking

Can upstart European contenders unseat Soylent?

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Is anything more American than Soylent? Since it launched in 2013, the drink that seeks to meet the human body’s every nutritional need has come to serve as a shorthand for Silicon-Valley utopianism, in turn praised as an alternative to traditional “fast” foods and pilloried for taking an anachronistic view of the American food system. In its essence, it promotes the values that have become synonymous with the American workplace—hard work, efficiency, focus, optimization—allowing its adherents to streamline their productivity without slowing down to eat, either occasionally or on a daily basis. The motivations of its founder are vigorously articulated: “Nevermore will I bumble through endless confusing aisles…while the smell of rotting flesh fills my nostrils and fluorescent lights sear my eyeballs and sappy love songs torture my ears,” Rhinehart wrote in 2015, on the occasion of the release of Soylent 2.0. “Grocery shopping is a multisensory living nightmare.”

The Valley vibe is palpable at the headquarters of Mana, a Soylent-esque brand produced halfway across the world by the Czech Republic-based Heaven Labs. After a lingering winter, today is one of the first irrepressible days of spring, and it’s difficult to imagine the doors and windows of Heaven Labs’ open-plan office, built out of a converted warehouse, sealing out the California sunshine. As I sip on a cold glass of Mana—oaty, salty, and thick as paint—Heaven Labs co-founder and CEO Jakub Krejčík explains how his employees use a padded contraption in the middle of the workspace to hang themselves upside down, which has the effect of relaxing their muscles. Adjacent to this setup is a whiteboard detailing Mana’s next few quarters—including a tentative plan to begin manufacturing in the United States.

On this idyllic afternoon in mid-May, Krejčík (CRAY-cheek) wears a black t-shirt with Mana’s minimalist logo, black jeans, and a beaded plastic bracelet with the letters M-A-N-A. Salt-and-sand hair crests boyishly over his forehead like he’s just come in from a day at the beach. Like Rhinehart, Krejčík doesn’t drive; he selected the location for Mana HQ and its main warehouse to be within easy biking distance of his home, he explains, here on the fringes of Prague in the city’s Uhříněves district. (Miss the local bus, and you can expect to wait a half hour or so for the next one to come around.) Krejčík tells me that the whole operation began in his kitchen two and a half years ago as he tried to unravel the “problematics” of food by mixing up powdered protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals and customizing blends for his friends. Then he discovered Soylent, and he said to himself, “Well, that’s exactly it.” To date, Mana has been available for purchase in three different formulations, each an upgrade on the one before it—much like Soylent, or your device’s operating system.

drink-mana.com

Mana has been in the local media a lot recently, thanks to the rapid growth of the brand, both in the Czech market and abroad. The company is in the midst of setting up its second outpost in Spain with a small team of employees and even a minimal local production arm. Krejčík hasn’t been shy about vocalizing his plans to continue expanding westward. Nothing is set in stone—importing food and drink into North America is an expensive, bureaucratic process, so Heaven Labs would need to source local ingredients and begin manufacturing on the left side of the Atlantic, too. But Krejčík has a cousin in the U.S. who is helping him get the ball rolling, and Heaven Labs have already registered a business there. Krejčík estimates that they’ll commence operations sometime in 2018.

One lesson to be learned from Mana and its European competitors is that reluctance to take time out of the working day for a hot meal is hardly an American phenomenon. In Austria, there’s Saturo; in Finland, it’s Ambronite. The British sip vegan Huel; the Germans, organic Bertrand. In the Netherlands, the Dutch are spoiled for choice: Jimmy Joy (formerly Joylent) came first, followed soon after by Jake, Queal, Nano, and Nutrilent, among others. Onno Smits, co-founder and COO of Queal, says that a hot midday meal isn’t ingrained in Dutch culture, and anyway, “We’re quite simple with our food, we copy a lot—I think the most popular foods in the Netherlands are all Italian foods, like pizza, lasagna,” which might explain Dutch open-mindedness in the face of ready-to-drink meals. “I must say, there was a period in time when there were like ten new competitors every month,” Smits says with a laugh.

I asked Julian Hearn, founder of the UK-based Huel (pronounced like fuel) to what degree cultural preferences guide Europeans’ willingness to try nutritionally “complete” powders and shakes. “America’s obviously pretty open to convenient food. UK too, but parts of Europe are less so,” he conceded, adding that his team in Germany is witnessing a slow shift away from traditional, sit-down lunches. “So yes, I think certain countries—the traditional countries that are very focused on foods, like France or Italy, may be slow in the uptake. But I think we’ll all get there eventually.” (For the record, both countries have already arrived: just ask the founders of Bivo in Italy or Feed in France.)

On Reddit and in Soylent’s own online forum, European consumers trade notes about their experiences with these beverages, many of which are remarkably similar. There was nothing new about meal-replacement drinks when Soylent arrived on the market several years ago, but Soylent’s futuristic nutrition-first, flavor-second approach set it apart from dieting products like Slim Fast, protein shakes like Muscle Milk, and even “complete” nutrition products like Ensure. Just as the Soylent brand leaned into its space-age sensibility, so, too, have many of its European counterparts. Feed’s plain plastic milk-bottle packaging, Huel’s black-and-white Helvetica branding, and Mana’s astronaut ad campaign all appear to have been borrowed, affectionately, from their California counterpart. Several brands approach the question of sustainability by touting their products as organic, GMO-free, and vegan. Others, like Queal, differentiate themselves from the pack with a host of alternative flavors. A comparison table at BlendRunner.com helps consumers sort from the abundance of options for nutritionally complete foods, according to factors like price per day and relative percentage of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins.

blendrunner.com

Despite their similarities, these European brands may find that the timing is ripe to make moves into the United States. Soylent has cornered the American market since it launched in 2013, but the brand is still recovering from a spate of Soylent-induced illnesses reported by customers last year and multiple rounds of recalls. (After a period of speculation, Soylent placed the blame on an algae-based ingredient supplied by TerraVia Holdings Inc. TerraVia denies responsibility, claiming that the widely used algal flour had never made people sick.) Like Krejčík, Hearn and Smits have their sights on establishing American production outposts for Huel and Queal, respectively, rather than importing European products overseas. Smits says that meeting FDA guidelines is fairly straightforward but that the paperwork processing time has lagged on longer than the Queal team had anticipated; the brand expects to begin to ship across the Atlantic within a few weeks, but overseas production is “not something that’s bound to happen within a couple months—it’s going to take a lot of time.”

Westward expansion aside, Mana has its hands full at home in the Czech Republic, where the majority of its customer base still resides. In a story in the Czech news magazine iDNES this February, Krejčík said that just the concept of a nutritionally complete meal-replacement beverage had “pissed off a lot of schnitzel-eaters.” The Czech Republic’s path to the “multisensory living nightmare” of the contemporary western supermarket has been expedited in recent years, delayed as it was by forty years under Communist rule. The country has had to move quickly to catch up with Western Europe and North America both technologically and economically. To boot, convenience foods in Central Europe’s Visegrad Group—the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary—are themselves in the midst of an image crisis; governments across Central Europe have accused food companies of selling their countries sub-par products, compared with identically branded foods in Western Europe. But that’s something Krejčík believes Mana’s transparency and wholesome ingredients can help combat, as he explained this March to the English-language Radio Prague.

Convincing the schnitzel-eaters may be a thankless task in Europe’s geographical heart, but where he’s encountered resistance, Krejčík says he’s found only opportunity. The CEO says that two groups of people “made it happen” for Heaven Labs. “There was the group who said, ‘Well, it makes sense, it’s backed up [with data]…why not?'” Krejčík recalls. “And the other group was saying…’We like our social food and we like our cuisine. And don’t touch our habits, and don’t tell us what to do.'” But that collision of opinions, Krejčík says, proved to be of great benefit to the brand. “The great thing was that there started to be a conversation, and that conversation created some kind of impact, and that impact was the energy that was starting to spread the word to both groups, actually. And that’s what’s happening up to today, [in] different markets.”

What’s more, Krejčík says that by taking time to engage with the second of these groups, he could convert many into customers. Transparency has been a priority for Heaven Labs since its inception; like Soylent, which invites users to share tips for customizing the drink and building their own, Mana prides itself in making ingredient and nutritional information easily available to consumers, and responding to critics has bolstered that decision. “People started sending us emails and calling us and asking us various questions, simple questions and really hard questions, and we said, ‘Well, let’s do this, let’s give support to the people,'” Krejčík recalls. Today, Heaven Labs provides bilingual, on-demand customer support from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., seven days a week, and Krejčík says he hopes representatives will be available 24 hours a day beginning next year. That may be uncommon for a beverage company, but Krejčík believes that directly engaging with people who are “hungry for information” wins the company new converts. He says he found that the people who wanted to argue against the concept of a nutritionally complete beverage just “want to get into position to be answered.”

A clinical study of Mana is currently in progress, Krejčík tells me, and of course, all of the company’s research efforts make their way back to the product recipe. Unlike many of its European competitors, Mana is only available for purchase in two forms—powder or “drink,” a ready-to-consume beverage in a shelf-stable tetra pack. Krejčík says that the next version, to be released towards the end of the summer, will go “a level deeper,” based on Heaven Labs’ latest research into vitamins and minerals. The differences will be vast between Mana Mark 3 and Mark 4, Krejčík says. But don’t expect anything radical. “We’re planning a major improvement. But maybe it’s going to be minor,” he pivots. “But still it’s going to be really a big leap forward.”

“They all say it about Porsche,” Krejčík, the committed bicyclist, says. “I’m not a fan of Porsche,” he adds, “but I heard that. They say about Porsche Carerra that they make the one car, but they keep making it better and better and better and better. Exactly the same thing we do.”

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