founder

Down to Cook Founder Trishna Saigal on Food and Inclusivity

Introduction

Modern society is learning more about the negative health and environmental impacts of a meat-based diet, causing many conscious consumers to seek alternatives. Many brands have jumped onto the trend of plant-based meat. However, there’s reason to believe that these meat alternatives, which are made to resemble animal meat as closely as possible, are too highly processed and don’t yield any health benefits.

Down to Cook produces a mix-in product that can be combined with vegetables to create plant-based meat lookalikes. Simply mix a chopped or riced vegetable with Down to Cook’s Adda Veggie mix; shape the mixture into patties, balls, or nuggets; and cook like traditional meat. We reached out to founder and CEO Trishna Saigal to hear more about the personal experiences that brought her to today and why Adda Veggie is perfect for families on a budget.

Note: This interview was conducted over phone and email. It has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Léa Bouhelier-Gautreau

What inspired you to take the leap and start Down to Cook?

Trishna Saigal

Before starting Down to Cook, I worked at plant-based startups where I thought that I was making positive contributions toward protecting our environment and improving people’s health. But over time, I saw the inefficiencies and negative health implications in the way those products were formulated, over-processed, and marketed. I felt we were doing a tremendous disservice to the people that we were trying to serve.

To add to that, most plant-based products were not made with inclusivity in mind. The prices are super high, and the products don’t flex to different cultural foods and lifestyles. I was one of the only people of color (POCs) on the management team at my previous job, and the lack of diversity in natural foods in general is a huge problem. I wanted to start my own company to bring a new perspective and focus to meet the needs of diverse consumers. This became my mission. I incorporated Down to Cook as a public benefit corporation with a charter to “make plant-based diets accessible, inclusive, and equitable.”

I decided to take the leap because there are too many people struggling to access healthy food, and I believe we can make a huge difference in people’s lives. I’m using my skills and experience to bridge food science and scratch cooking – or in other words, we’re using food science to provide people the tools to transform fresh veggies into flavorful and filling meals. My hope is that with our focus on health and inclusivity from the start, we can make a big step in closing the gap between what’s nutritious and what’s affordable. 

And personally, throughout my life, I’ve struggled to eat healthy on a budget. Growing up as a first-generation Indian American, with my mom working at McDonalds and my dad as a waiter at restaurants, I learned early on how to stretch our food budget. We’d cut coupons, visit multiple stores to get what’s on sale, and honestly, eat too much McDonalds. When I was in college, I got very sick from dorm food and had to find ways to eat well. I would take my hand luggage and walk to the nearest produce store, buy what was in the damaged section, and experiment with cooking! Fast forward to today. I have this skill to make food, understand how the food system works, and really make a difference that benefits our communities. That’s why I’ve invested so much into building this company.  

Léa Bouhelier-Gautreau

Who is on your team and how did you come together?

Trishna Saigal

I founded Down to Cook in 2019. I have an extensive background in food product development. I have a PhD in chemical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, with a focus on complex fluids and emulsions. I started my career in food utilizing that expertise to develop low-fat dressings at The Clorox Company (Hidden Valley) and then in the plant-based space at Ripple Foods, where I led product development of more than 20 plant-based products (including plant-based milk, half and half, and yogurt). I am also an industry fellow at UC Berkeley for the alternate meat program at the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology. 

Joseph Richards is my co-founder, COO, and husband! Down to Cook is part of our family. He and I joined forces on this effort to manage the growing operational needs of the company. Joseph is an experienced entrepreneur who exited a company in 2016. He oversees operations, production, and finance, and he is a PhD statistician (from CMU, where we first met!). Prior to Adda Veggie, he co-founded Wise.io in 2012 and served as its chief scientist until the company’s acquisition in 2016 by GE Digital.

We also have a seasoned team of advisors in the food industry, including Kirsten Tobey (founder of Revolution Foods), Asha Datta (marketing at Plum and Cora), and Karina Martinez (digital marketing at Avana Creative). 

Léa Bouhelier-Gautreau

How is Down to Cook transforming the meat alternative industry?

Trishna Saigal

Adda Veggie is defining a new category of products that address an unmet consumer need: healthy and satisfying plant-based options that don’t break the bank.

Adda Veggie is the only plant-based protein alternative that is designed to elevate fresh vegetables to the center of your meal. It is healthier than the other plant-based meat products and empowers folks to incorporate more veggies into their diets. Before Adda Veggie, the only products that you could use for veggies were sauces and spices. Adda Veggie truly makes vegetables the star of your meal by adding protein, texture, and flavor.

We’re also lowering the barrier to access healthy plant-based food. In terms of the cost of a meal for a family of four, Adda Veggie is actually similar to the price of Hamburger Helper. Adda Veggie retails for $6, and then you have to buy a veggie and carb for $5, whereas Hamburger Helper costs $1.50, and then you have to buy ground meat for $6 plus a veggie to round out the meal. So in both cases, the total meal costs ends up being around $10 to $12. Just imagine all of the people that we can reach based on price point alone!

Léa Bouhelier-Gautreau

What does the competitive landscape look like, and how do you differentiate?

Trishna Saigal

Overall, the plant-based protein industry is growing incredibly fast (19% year over year). The plant-based protein competitors can be segmented into: refrigerated faux ground meat (like Beyond Meat), frozen veggie burgers (like Morningstar Farms), and shelf-stable protein crumbles (like Plant Boss).

Our key points of differentiation are on health, cost, and versatility. On the health front, Adda Veggie is the only plant-based protein that uses fresh veggies! Adda Veggie makes it easy to enjoy the health benefits of whole foods and plant-based eating without all the work. In addition, Adda Veggie is top-nine allergen-free, uses no added flavors, no fillers, no added sugar, and no preservatives. Plus, at $1.50 per serving, Adda Veggie is 2x to 3x more affordable than the refrigerated faux meat options. It also empowers home cooks to reduce their household produce waste since it can elevate aging vegetables (and veggie ends-n-stems) to your center-of-plate protein. In terms of versatility, Adda Veggie can be used in a variety of cultural cuisines in a variety of forms (patties, balls, or a crumble), which makes it an everyday plant-based protein option.

Léa Bouhelier-Gautreau

How do you intend to use the money you raise this round to scale the business?

Trishna Saigal

At a high level, we will invest heavily in marketing (one full-time hire plus digital and in-store marketing), research and development (hiring one food scientist and one chef and developing three new stock-keeping units and one new product line), and operations (scaling up production). Our biggest goals as a business this year are to make our Whole Foods Market launch a success and expand nationally and to re-launch our foodservice business starting with colleges and universities, healthcare facilities, and health-oriented restaurants.

Léa Bouhelier-Gautreau

What do you want potential investors to know about you and/or your company?

Trishna Saigal

I’ve worked in a variety of food companies, both large and small, and I’m taking all that I’ve learned and seen about our food system to try to make a positive impact. With Adda Veggie, I found a way to create efficiencies in the product design that allows it to be both healthy and affordable. I have developed a ton of personal resilience, resourcefulness, and passion having worked in the food industry for the last 10 years.

Léa Bouhelier-Gautreau

As you think about the business 5-10 years down the road, what do you see exit opportunities looking like? Have you set any future goals for the company?

Trishna Saigal

We are aiming to build a brand that is trusted for its commitments to health and inclusivity. In five to 10 years, I plan to have built a whole new category around products that elevate fresh vegetables. For our exit, it’s important to us that we work with a company that will maintain these core values. I do believe that the scale and resources of a larger CPG company could help bring to fruition our mission of becoming an accessible brand from both a cost and distribution standpoint.

Léa Bouhelier-Gautreau

As a minority and underrepresented founder, what difficulties have you encountered working on your company? What advice would you give to minority and women founders?

Trishna Saigal

Prior to starting Down to Cook, I worked at companies where I felt extremely marginalized. It made it hard to be heard, move up, and grow. I was told that women aren’t good at executing and that I don’t look like a leader. The aggressions and gaslighting were constant, and one of the reasons I started my own company was to create a culture where POCs can thrive. Though, starting a company in a biased system brings all the same challenges. For me, that meant bootstrapping and slow growth at first because access to early-stage capital was a huge challenge. 

My suggestion for other minority and women founders is to spend time with those who get you, your work, and vision. Move on quickly from those who don’t. I spent too much time early on trying to appease food tech investors who had one thesis: mimic meat. I wish I moved on faster and focused on the people and work that mattered.

We look forward to seeing where Trishna and her team take the company. Down to Cook is currently raising on Republic.

38
About: Léa Bouhelier-Gautreau

Léa is passionate about impact investing and sustainability. Prior to KingsCrowd, she worked for Stanford’s accelerator, StartX, helping to select the most promising entrepreneurs. She also led the first award-winning study on the Malawian startup ecosystem. In her free-time, she volunteers to help entrepreneurs in Cameroon, Brazil and Colombia. Léa holds a degree in Anthropology from France and is currently enrolled in the UC Davis MBA program.

View Léa Bouhelier-Gautreau's founders