One Cary-based family is looking to bring something more to the plant-based food market.
Dojo Fresh Founder Oliver Pau spent most of his career in environmental management consulting, but as he looked ahead to his future more than a year ago, he started to think about what the next chapter could hold. He wanted to try something new, something he really enjoyed—and see if he could make a business out of it.
The business he decided to launch, Dojo Fresh—which is currently a part of Launch Chapel Hill’s accelerator cohort—came to fruition in September 2020. Dojo Fresh was a passion that Pau and his family brought forth together, as something that could take the meat-alternative space by storm.
“It’s just something we have always enjoyed as a family,” Pau said. “We like sharing food. That just gives us pleasure, and that’s sort of the genesis of the business. We just wanted to make food that we liked. We wanted to share it and hope [other people] enjoy it as well.”
Pau said Dojo Fresh’s typical customer is someone who is mindful about what they eat. They want to see simple and natural ingredients on the nutrition label while experiencing a greater range of flavors.
That’s what Dojo Fresh aspires to be. The Doutan plant protein food mix—it makes seitan—Dounai soy drinks and silken tofu kits Dojo Fresh has unveiled all cater to customers who are interested in plant-based options that do not just merely imitate meat, like many of the existing options in grocery stores.
Dojo Fresh products give a base for customers to create whatever shape and flavor they want, which can be more appealing to more families and people of all ages, Pau said.
Dojo Fresh’s products are already in four grocery stores, the majority of which are located in the Triangle. [Currently only the seitan mix is in production for online purchase, while the soy drinks and silken tofu kits are coming soon.]
At the start of Dojo Fresh’s journey, the Pau family was just going to farmer’s markets, which were suffering from historic low attendance levels because of the pandemic. What’s more, Covid prevented any sampling from taking place, making introducing a new product more difficult than before.
“It’s tough because this is a new product, a new product category, where people didn’t quite know what it was, and the only thing we could do was show them pictures of what they could do with it,” Pau said.
Initial customers were those who took a leap of faith. It wasn’t until mid to late summer when markets started allowing sampling, Pau said, and that’s when Dojo Fresh’s sales momentum truly occurred.
At first, it was the vegetarian and vegan events that produced the most customers, which made sense as a seemingly natural audience for Dojo Fresh’s products, Pau said. They were the most likely to have heard of seitan, the high-protein vegetarian food made from cooked wheat gluten. Consequently, these were the customers who could see the appeal in the Doutan plant-protein mix, which Pau calls essentially “Bisquick for seitan.”
But as time went on and they collected customer data, Pau said vegans and vegetarians ended up comprising less than half of Dojo Fresh’s customers. The other customers are people just trying to eat less meat or try something new.
As interest in Dojo Fresh’s products grew, Pau said the company added online ordering options so customers didn’t have to rely on seeing them at markets or grocery stores. Growth has generally been crowdsourced from customers, who have pointed Dojo Fresh in the direction of stores they might fit.
Several organizations across the Triangle including the Piedmont Food Processing Center—which supplies Dojo Fresh’s kitchen—alongside Orange County Economic Development and Launch Chapel Hill have helped in a widespread community effort to get Dojo Fresh to where it is today, Pau said.
As a solopreneur, that community is what had Pau eager to be a part of Launch Chapel Hill’s accelerator program to begin with.
“It gets lonely sometimes,” Pau said. “It’s just nice to be able to talk with other people and understand that they’re going through the same challenges that you’re going through and you can help each other solve problems.”
“Even though we’ve only been selling for less than a year right now, I just feel like our experience is something that we are able to share with others who are going through the same process,” Pau added.
Dojo Fresh is clear about its mission: they want to make meatless meals easy, healthy and enjoyable, Pau said.
It became clear over time that customers prefer the simple recipe ideas over complexity, and that is something Dojo Fresh is taking forward in the brand’s growth.
“Our product is simple, but it is thoughtful,” Pau said. “We’re in an area that I think is a little bit neglected from the meatless standpoint. But I think it’s also going to be really important because at some point, more and more people are going to start turning around and looking at the label on your products.”
While a lot of media attention has gone to meatless products that have complicated technology or proprietary ingredients, Pau said Dojo Fresh very carefully developed an alternative that will appeal to customers.
“We want to be really thoughtful about what goes into our products and how it’s made,” Pau said. “At the end of the day, our customers’ enjoyment of our product is our ultimate goal.”
Dojo Fresh started selling in stores at the end of last year, and they hope to expand the number of grocery locations to 10 in the next year. Pau said the startup is also looking forward to introducing its products to a wider audience at vegetarian and vegan festivals this year, since the majority were canceled the prior year over Covid concerns.
“You just never know when that opportunity will come about,” Pau said. “What we’re trying to do is just be prepared for whatever comes next.”