Author: Tamar Sternthal
The former Sabra hummus executive leverages his experience to get Americans to trade in animal-based pizzas and sandwiches for Vgarden’s plant-based fare
A driven executive responsible for the transformation of Israeli hummus into an American and global household staple, Meiky Tollman is no stranger to building new categories.
It’s the ability to be relevant to the American consumer needs and culture which drove the sweeping success of the Sabra hummus company, said Tollman, who was a leading executive at the company starting in 2004, when it catered to the niche kosher market with low single-digit household penetration, until 2019, by which time it emerged as a mega-brand, with its products in 30 percent of Americans homes, commanding 63 percent of the total category sales.
“Food is culture and to change, to bring new food into people life’s, you need to be tasty and relevant, to answer consumer needs in a way that is right for the consumer,” said the native-born Israeli who has spent the last 18 years living in the United States.
That’s the important mission at hand for Vgarden, the Israeli manufacturer of plant-based cheeses and deli meats which recently engaged Tollman to lead the company’s strategy and business development as it expands into the U.S. market.
Will these vegan products, developed in Kibbutz Gan Shmuel in northern Israel win over the vast American market, as Sabra hummus did, or will they remain in the tiny single-digit niche in which plant-based alternatives are now stuck?
Tollman is confident that Vgarden is perfectly positioned to successfully endear its plant-based goods to American consumers.
“Vgarden will see great success,” Tollman explained. “The product is in a strong position to win over customers and the leadership’s pragmatic approach is on target.” There are few companies working in the plant-based space with nearly 10 years of experience, he pointed out, citing also the “right structure, right funding.”
“You want your product to be relevant for the masses,” advised Tollman, who studied sociology and anthropology as an undergraduate, passions which greatly inform his business outlook. “Make it accessible and see that it is answering consumer needs at the right demand moments and consumption occasions.”
While Israelis eat the chickpea dish by the plate-full, Sabra introduced hummus to its U.S. customers as a dip, tapping into a beloved American food category. The eponymous Sabra Dipping Company thus bridged the cultural divide from the Mediterranean to the American palate.
“We disrupted the dipping category, which was in the billions,” added Tollman, speaking with In the Garden via Zoom from his Richmond, Va, home. “Until then, Americans were dipping into sour cream and things like that which are not so healthy.”
Similarly, Vgarden is prepared to meet Americans exactly where they are, by providing, for instance, plant-based cheese and pepperoni at local pizza and sandwich shops. Vgarden is “not asking them to change, learn or compromise,” Tollman said of American consumers.
“You need to have the solution that works for the operator and for the consumer,” said Tollman, noting that the company’s first American customers will be distributors working with small chains of pizzerias and sandwich shops, along with independent eateries.
“And it has to be translated to the consumer,” added the veteran food industry leader, whose “answering their needs” mandate places the buyer’s shopping cart as the ultimate test. The most impressive R&D developments and slick boardroom presentations are irrelevant if the consumer is not buying.
Tollman’s vision for Vgarden’s American growth mirrors Sabra’s successful journey: starting small, proving “the tipping point,” and scaling up.
The founder of The Tipping Point, an executive management company that provides business coaching from startups to global market leadership, Tollman commented that the food tech industry differs from the high-tech industry. High-tech entrepreneurs follow a set track, with a “playbook in place,” Tollman maintained. In contrast, “the food industry sets obstacles in front of entrepreneurs. It’s a very challenging industry to understand and navigate.” But once you prove your success, you can scale up very significantly, he said.
“In food, one of the main business challenges is to remain disciplined and focused on strategy,” added Tollman. “Most tracks into the food industry don’t lead to the tipping point,” that golden moment when the consumer proposition proves itself, enabling scale up and ultimately achieving household item status. As a result, most American food entrepreneurs subsequently “disappear,” in the sense that their businesses never grow more than a modest $5 million, he noted. When Tollman left Sabra in 2019, the company’s revenues topped half a billion dollars.
“Going step by step with boots on the ground in the pizza and sandwich shops” is the systematic approach needed to reach that tipping-point, said Tollman, invoking Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. As Gladwell wrote: “The tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.”
Tollman credits his service as a pilot in Israel’s air force for the laser-focused, mission-oriented discipline, blinkering out the food industry’s endless distractions.
Referring to his military stint in the cockpit, he reminisced: “It instilled in me a lot of passion for what I do. When I let my heart and passion lead, results follow.”
In his business career, he found passion with Sabra. “Delivering a better-for-you food, one that is benefiting and enriching the consumer life, is a great reason to wake up and go to work every morning,” he recalled.
It’s that same passion and shared vision that brought him to Vgarden. “People try it, they are blown away and it is better for them,” he said of the company’s plant-based quality products.