Until recently, Blair Crichton didn’t know he was going to found Karana, Asia’s first whole-plant based meat brand. In fact, it was only after leaving a career in banking and pursuing an MBA that Crichton, a proud Hong Konger, decided to focus on a project that could address the global climate crisis.
After successfully launching in Singapore earlier this year, Karana recently landed in Hong Kong and unveiled its first product: meatless pork made from young jackfruit sourced from small farms in Sri Lanka. In the city, the brand is partnering with restaurants of the likes of Chaat at the Rosewood, Sip Song by Maximal Concepts, Elephant Grounds and many more.
We spoke to Crichton about his background, founding Karana and what’s next for the Asian brand.
How did you come up with the idea for Karana?
If you’d asked me 5 years ago where I saw my career going in the future, I definitely would have not answered being a founder of a plant-based food company. I started my career in banking working for HSBC in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and New York. Whilst I learned a lot from those years, I was never fully satisfied as I wasn’t doing something I was passionate about. I left banking to get my MBA at Dartmouth and it was during this time that I made the decision I wanted to do something that helped address climate change and environmental issues. At first, I was mainly focused on renewable energy, but I was also keeping tabs on the emerging food and ag-tech space. I was fortunate to then spend some time working for Impossible Foods and that totally launched me onto the food-tech path. Not only was the potential impact for positive change massive, but it’s also a large and fascinating industry, plus as a long time vegetarian and recent vegan it aligned with my ethical views too! During this time, I was doing some work on international expansion strategy, and I realised there was so much room to do something more Asian focused, concentrating on the most commonly consumed meats in my home of Asia and so the seed was sewn.
As Dan Riegler, my business partner, and I discussed how we wanted to approach things we came to a realisation that there were not only limited options focusing on Asia, but also for whole plant-based meat alternatives. We founded Karana out of a shared passion for sustainability and wanting to make the food system better. So we set out on our simple mission to make delicious whole-plant food, that you can feel good about eating more of.
What was the process to create the brand?
Karana has been three years in the making. Initially it was just Dan and I experimenting a lot in my kitchen at home that we converted into a ‘lab’ and we made some early discoveries and inroads into what it takes to deliver a commercialised jackfruit product that is irresistibly meaty. Luckily, we’ve since hired a rock-star team and they have made invaluable contributions to taking our early discoveries to the next level, both in marketing and product development.
We hope that the brand reflects our deep held belief and passion in creating a better food system without compromise for taste, health, or sustainability. We are proud to be making the next generation of plant based products that prove whole-plant can be mouth-wateringly tasty.
What are your main goals for the brand?
We want to be a leader in the next generation of plant based products, showing that we can use under-appreciated and highly sustainable ingredients to make great products. Our focus on whole-plant based and minimally processed products is a key differentiator from many of the players in the market. We hope others are inspired to innovate more around the ingredients used in this category, currently we only commonly consume 150 of 300,000 edible plant species and 12 crops makeup 75% of what we eat. In the future we will tap into this biodiversity to bring more products to market beyond our Jackfruit platform, to say create alternatives to fish or chicken.
Moreover, along with the entire plant-based sector, we hope to make it easier for consumers to reduce their meat consumption and bring an end to the destruction of animal agriculture. In the next 5 years we hope to be synonymous with whole-plant based and delicious plant-based comfort foods. We have plans to expand beyond our launch markets of Singapore and Hong Kong, both within the region and more globally. Finally, we will look to offer a range of ready-to-cook and ready-to-eat whole-plant based products, starting with our dim-sum line that we are launching later this year.
Do you see Karana as a lifestyle brand part of a wider movement?
This is a hard question to answer, in reality, it’s both. In one way, we are a lifestyle brand offering plant-based and better-for-you (and the planet) versions of foods we know and love; on the other hand, we are part of a wider movement to create a better food system and help address the huge destruction that industrial animal agriculture causes.
What makes Karana’s products different from other popular plant-based meat alternatives?
Karana is a whole-plant meat company, our meats are minimally processed and have short ingredient lists. Our focus is on leveraging what nature has given us and enhancing these amazing biodiverse ingredients to create delicious products whilst using the whole plant, rather than stripping away all the fibres and nutrients to create a protein isolate for example. Our first ingredient is Jackfruit that we transform into a whole-plant pork, in the future we will launch products using other regional ingredients that will enable us to expand beyond pork. This is a real differentiator from other companies that are by-and-large relying on commodity crops, like soy, in processed forms. Moreover, our initial focus is on Asian applications, we’re starting with pork products because pork is the number 1 meat consumed in Asia. We’re also turning our meat into indulgent ready to cook dim sum products such as our soon to launch dim-sum range, creating the comfort foods that consumers know and love here. We hope this will make it easier for them to eat healthier and reduce their meat consumption without having to compromise or stop eating the foods they, and we, love.
How you do you achieve the balance between sustainability, taste and versatility?
When developing our products, taste and experience are a key driver, and we know that consumers won’t be interested unless they have a great experience. However, we won’t compromise on our mission to get there, which is why we invested so much time in our R&D to get the most out of what nature has given us.
As Asia’s first whole-plant based meat brand, what’s your strategy to tap into local markets and cuisines, and most importantly, change perceptions on meat alternatives?
We’ve designed out product to be highly versatile and to work across different cuisines and cooking methods. By working with some amazing restaurants, such as our launch partners in Hong Kong and Singapore, we let the chefs we work with do the talking for us. For example, Manav at Chaat has replaced lamb in his signature samosa with Karana, and that is helping change perceptions. He’s told me that he got some push back from some of his diners and colleagues but told them to taste it first and then make judgement, and there have been no complaints after that! Beyond our restaurant partners, we are obviously doing a lot in digital marketing as well speaking to great publications to help educate consumers.
How does it feel to have your products available in Hong Kong and partner with leading dining establishments?
Its awesome! As a Hong Konger, I’m so excited to be able to take many of my friends to fantastic restaurants and see their reactions as they try the product. I’m especially happy at the diversity of the restaurants too from Cantonese to premium burgers, as it means I can try all the different cuisines and never get bored!
Are you a vegan or a “reducitarian”?
I follow a fully plant-based diet (vegan), I believe passionately in the need to change our food system for the better and so I walk-the-walk!
What’s your background?
I’m a born-and-bread Hong Konger and will always call HK home, I have however lived in a number of places both for work and education. Prior to starting KARANA I was a banker for HSBC in both Asia and the US, I left banking to go to Business School in the US and during that time moved into the meat alternative space with stints at Impossible Foods, New Age Meats, and the Good Food Institute.
What’s next for Karana?
We’ll be launching our retail products later this year, which will be a range of dim-sum products, which gets me up in the morning as I love my dim-sum! We’ll also continue to expand the restaurants we’re in and look at additional markets.