When ninth-generation Dutch farmer Jaap Korteweg turned vegetarian and set up a shop selling meat-free products over a decade ago, his friends thought he was joking.
But the founder of “The Vegetarian Butcher” had the last laugh when the company was gobbled up by consumer giant Unilever in 2018.
Unilever has now put the firm at the heart of its plans to carve out a one-billion-euro (£0.91-billion) a year slice of the increasingly juicy global market for meat-free products.
“It’s a dream that comes true for me,” Korteweg told AFP at the site of a grass-roofed, eco-friendly house he has built on former farmland that has been returned to nature.
“I’m a ninth generation farmer, grew up on the countryside of the Netherlands, between the bulls and the cows for milk,” he adds.
“So it’s not logical maybe that I did it this way for the Vegetarian Butcher. But what I now see is that my family and my brother and sisters are very positive about this transformation and the new business.”
Once a self-confessed “big meat lover”, Korteweg says his conversion came 20 years ago, when he was asked to store dead pigs in his cold storage areas during a swine fever outbreak.
“For me that was the moment to stop it, I’d had enough of that system using animals for meat,” he said — although giving up eating meat was “not easy” and “like stopping smoking or drugs”.
Korteweg then created a small “butcher’s shop” in The Hague using expert chefs to come up with vegan and vegetarian alternatives to bacon, meatballs, mince, kebabs and other meat products.
“My goal was to become the biggest butcher in the world as soon as possible, and at that time people laughed at it because they don’t take it seriously,” he said.
“But for me I took it serious because I wanted to create an alternative for the industrial meat.”
The company expanded and its profile rose, producing a range of quirkily-named vegan products for sale in supermarkets, including “Little Willies” sausages, which made headlines in Britain for their risque name.
Tall and bald, Korteweg himself posed for publicity pictures holding a meat cleaver and wearing a butcher’s apron spattered not with blood but carrot juice.
And his move towards plant-based products was ahead of the curve.
Consumers worldwide were beginning to turn away from meat products, both for health reasons and also because of the climate emergency, as beef production is a major global polluter.
Now the global plant-based “meat” market is on track to be worth $100 billion in the next 15 years, with British tycoon Richard Branson investing in Impossible Foods, while Beyond Meat is part-financed by billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates.
The Vegetarian Butcher’s plant-based products are now on sale in 20,000 outlets across 30 countries, according to Unilever, which has also struck a deal to provide Burger King with a vegetarian version of its flagship “Whopper” in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
“Now the next step at Unilever is great, they invest a lot, and they have the knowledge and the power to bring it all over the world, so the team is exploding, and the results too,” said Korteweg.
“It’s a dream that comes true for me.”
He rejects criticism that Unilever has been “greenwashing” or “wokewashing” its image by publicly promoting sustainable plans including meat-free food while still being a major plastics polluter.
“I don’t think it’s greenwashing because they take it too serious. If it was greenwashing they’d sell the Vegetarian Butcher and stop the development, but they have the goal to make it 10 times, 100 times bigger,” he says.
The original Vegetarian Butcher has meanwhile taken something of a step back, with Unilever appointing a new chief executive to oversee its global expansion.
“I am the founder and it’s never going to change, but I am in the taste panel still and I’m the face of the company,” he says. “It’s a free role but I like to do it.”
Korteweg is now spending more time on the farming that he still loves, as well as on helping restore former farmland to the wild.
“I’m still a farmer but a vegetarian butcher too,” he adds.