Planet A Foods: An interview with Dr. Maximilian Marquart, Co-Founder and CEO of Planet A Foods

  • Planet A Foods An interview with Dr. Maximilian Marquart, Co-Founder and CEO of Planet A Foods (mbo00688.jpg)

Planet A Foods focuses on producing cocoa free chocolate. Why?

Chocolate is many people’s favorite snack and guilty pleasure. The global chocolate consumption keeps growing and has reached over 7 million metric tons by now. However, there are several challenges in the chocolate supply chain such as deforestation, water consumption and child labor.

We took the chance to speak to Dr. Maximilian Marquart, Co-founder and CEO of Planet A Foods and discussed a multitude of topics. Read this part I of our interview to find out more about why we need an alternative to conventional chocolate, the technology Planet A Foods uses, their current range of products and how price competitive they are.

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    Photo: Pablo Merchan Montes

Hey Max! Thank you for taking the time to talk to us. Let's jump right in with a short introduction of yourself and your startup.

Sure! I'm going to start with my startup because that should be the center of today's interview, right? I'm the CEO of Planet A Foods. At Planet A Foods, we are producing the world’s first cocoa free chocolate which we call Nocoa. I refer to our Nocoa as a chocolate with a plus. It tastes as delicious as conventional chocolate, it's smoothly melting, it's sweet and it has the same tenderness as conventional chocolate. It's also 100% natural. Only seven ingredients on the label. The plus with our Nocoa is that it is 90% more sustainable than conventional chocolate. My name is Max. I have a background in material science and worked the last seven years in innovation management where I helped big corporations and startups to collaborate. I founded Planet A Foods together with my sister Sara, who's a renowned food chemistry scientist which helps to get the flavor right.

Thank you for the introduction. How did you come up with the idea for Planet A Foods?

That’s a good question. After I sold my last company, I had some spare time around Christmas 2019 and read a book from Rob Dunn, an American biologist, called “Never out of Season”. I highly recommend reading it because it's describing how the food system that we created threatens our food supply of the future. Amongst other topics, he writes about the cocoa production and that climate change severely threatens the cocoa supply of the future. If we experience the 1.5-degree Celsius increase in temperature, 50% of the harvestable area for cocoa will disappear. A shortened supply paired with the constantly high demand in cocoa and chocolate is a crazy scenario. What if there's no more chocolate on this planet? What do the big confectionery companies do? How do they solve that? At this point, I discussed with Sara: Hey, why don't we tackle the problem of chocolate and why don't we try to create a chocolate without the cocoa bean? Based on that ignition, I did some research on cocoa in general and the impact of cocoa on our environment. A lot of cocoa is farmed in a good way, but there's a big chunk of it that is harvested in a damaging way including severe deforestation in Ghana and Ivory Coast. Over 3,000,000 acres have been cut down in the last decade just for cocoa. Not talking about child labor or water consumption and all the other negative aspects in the supply chain. We are trying to mitigate these supply chain risks and want to substitute all this cocoa that is produced in a harming way. Personally, I think there will be a big market for cocoa produced in a sustainable way.

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    Photo: Rodrigo Flores

Production is a good keyword. Let's talk a bit more about your fermentation process. Can you explain it to me?

Happy to! Fermentation is something humanity uses for 200 or 300 years at least. It is one of the oldest processes to increase the shelf life of food and also alter the flavor. It is also used in one of our most beloved products: beer. At least speaking as a Bavarian, I love beer. Our process is quite similar to a beer brewing process. We also have big tanks in which certain yeasts ferment a sugar like substrate into fats. The only difference is that our yeasts are not producing alcohol but instead are producing fats. Simply said, we brew chocolate using fermentation. It's a traditional process just thought newly and implemented a little bit differently.

Fascinating technological approach. That makes me wonder: Do you see yourself as a tech or a food company?

Would you ask Bitburger whether they are a tech company or food company? Jokes aside. I would say we are definitely a food company. Tech and science are in every food that we eat, even in traditional production methods, but for us the most important thing is that we produce food that is indulgent, that is delicious and that is attractive for consumers. The processes that lead there are quite old, we just use them in a different way.

Now that we understood that you use fermentation for brewing chocolate, I would like to dive deeper into the products you have. What range of products or ingredients do you currently produce?

At the moment, we are focusing on cocoa and all related derivatives meaning cocoa butter and cocoa powder or concentrate. Our cocoa concentrate can be used as an ingredient for every product where cocoa powder is normally utilized such as ice creams and drinks. Our cocoa butter is an alternative for the normal cocoa butter and its applications. Mixed together, we can produce our Nocoa which is the finalized chocolate. We have different versions of our Nocoa: For example, a Nocoa that is baking proof, one version that is perfectly suited for enrobing and one for chocolate chips. There's also sugar free Nocoa and an organic version. Our current base Nocoa resembles a milk chocolate, but we also have a white version. Additionally, we are in the early beta stages for a dark Nocoa which is a bit more complex but will be ready end of this year. Next to cocoa, we have different fat derivatives such as palm oil or coconut oil in our pipeline that we're going to introduce to the market in the near future.

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    Photo: Planet A Foods

So, you offer the whole range! Who will actually use or buy your product?

Our products are B2B ingredients especially tailored for the whole confectionery industries like snack bars, baking applications, cookies with chocolate chip and pralines. For the current partnerships, we're targeting food service, cafeterias, restaurants, but also catering companies. Don't wonder if you will find our chocolate as a small gift in an airline or a train very soon.

How seamless is the integration of your cacao concentrate into existing production processes? Do the manufacturers have to change the processes or is Nocoa the perfect alternative?

Thank you for asking that question. I love it. Actually, they don't have to change their processes because it works plug and play with the same machines. For sure there's a short transition phase to scale up the process but that is it. In October, we will produce the first batches in a bigger scale with a partner in their production plant to prove that it works not only in the lab but in an industrial setup as well.

Yeah, that's nice. What quantities do you currently look at in production?

We are currently looking at 400 kilograms per hour. We bought a production line near Nurnberg that we are now setting up together with a partner. We expect it to be ready in September and in October we will hit those 400 kilograms per hour. Everyone is happily invited to come by to take a look and put their heads into our big chocolate melting pot. At the moment, we have a small production line in Munich that can produce 15 to 20 kilos per day which is a lot lower, but 20 kilos are still enough for a chocolate party.

I will take you up on that invitation! Last question regarding the product is a price point. How price competitive are you at the moment?

I think price competitiveness is crucial. People are not willing to pay a premium. We want to enable our B2B consumers to sell their products at the same price with the same margin when using our products. If you look at how the cocoa prices are evolving currently and at how we can scale up our processes, I dare to say that we might even be cheaper than conventional cocoa in the future. I'm not talking about now, but I'm confident about the future. This also links to our plans with other fat derivatives. The challenge with palm oil is that it is rather cheap and we currently cannot produce it for the same price point. However, if you introduce new products to the markets, you want to start where you can really be price competitive early on. That's why we started with cocoa butter. Our fermentation process for sure allows to also produce palm oil and other oils in the future but it's a question of when to introduce which product.

Stay tuned for part II to gain more insights on Planet A Foods' go-to-market approach, how they will reach end consumers but also tackle B2B partners, how you can participate in their journey and what their next steps are!

If you want to try Planet A Foods' chocolate, mark your calendar:

Eismeer, Munich: 5-Aug / 6-Aug
Delabuu Ice Cream, Berlin, Friedrichshain: 19-Aug / 20-Aug
Oktoberfest/ Bits & Pretzels, Munich: 25-Sep / 27-Sep
Chocstar, Amsterdam: 4-Nov / 5-Nov

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