Pioneering The Plant – Based Revolution: Wally Fry
Co-Founder and CEO of The Fry Family Food Co Wally Fry explains how he and his family built a vegan food empire inspired by his own food journey.
When you look at redefining the food production industry and "creating shifts in the public consciousness", Wally Fry is a perfect example. The CEO and Co-Founder of The Fry Family Food Co (Fry’s) is often described as the grandfather of the alternative meat industry, rightfully so, having launched the company three decades ago.
At first, Wally, a South African-born goat trader turned builder, was a meat-eater who gave up animal protein in support of his wife and daughter who were lifelong vegetarians. They inspired him to experiment with turning plant protein into a "meat-like" product.
What makes Wally’s vegan journey so compelling is the sheer grit and determination, as well as innovation, it took over the past 30 years for him to turn a home-based food solution into a thriving, plant-based food giant, with customers all over the world.
His vision and foresight paved the way for Fry’s to become a pioneer in the alternative meat industry, producing environmentally conscious, delicious and sustainable food choices for consumers. However, not only were there years of trial and error, experimenting with soy protein to find ways to make it look, act, cook and taste like meat, Wally also had to invent the machines he needed to create the product.
This was years before the advent of Google and smartphones – he had to depend entirely on his own intuition when it came to figuring out every step of the process. "We were the pioneers of this, and we had to investigate everything, from the types of raw materials we could use to how we could mix them, heat them, what proportions to use and so on, to create a product that had the look and taste of meat," he recalls.
"Soy is a miracle food; it’s very functional and you can do so many things with it." When they were first starting out, Wally and his wife Debbie were the only ones on the factory floor, usually covered in ingredients, making products by hand and stacking shipping containers themselves because they couldn’t afford to hire staff to do it. "I could never have done it all without Debbie – she’s a machine," he smiles.
"When we were beginning, I had no technicians because I couldn’t afford them. I ran the factory and Debbie did the bookwork. We ran 24 hours a day from the start, so I would get calls in the middle of the night any time one of the machines had broken down, and I would have to go in and fix it.
Soy is a miracle food; it’s very functional and you can do so many things with it.
"I had to become an expert on how food ingredients and raw materials functioned under different conditions. For example, we had to work out how to make an emulsion to make the ingredients bind. Because emulsions are usually made from egg and animal protein, we had to come up with a vegan-friendly way to bind our proteins together so that they would act like meat."
Wally reveals this type of work ethic went on for years until he could finally afford a top-quality technician to whom he had to teach everything he knew. He admits that those early years were tough, to the extent that due to working such long hours, he only averaged about four or five hours’ sleep each night.
On top of playing a major role in the production of Fry’s goods, Wally and Debbie worked tirelessly to promote their products, attending countless food trade events where they could spend days cooking and giving out samples to show people how good plant-based eating could taste. "People who tried our food were blown away," Wally says. "They would tell us, ‘This is really good, I’d actually eat this!’"
The company started by supplying one supermarket chain, although being a new brand – and at a time when vegan eating was virtually unheard of – sales were slow. Eventually though, the supermarket decided to discontinue stocking Fry’s. "About six weeks after that, we got a call from the supermarket chain asking how fast we could fill the shelves because they were getting a huge backlash from the customers who had tried and loved our products, and wanted to buy them," Wally explains.
While the workload was tiring, Wally reveals it was an exciting time because he could see Fry’s products and philosophies were starting to create some shifts in the public consciousness. It went from producing 50 kilograms of product a day to now producing around 36 tonnes in a single 24-hour shift. The company now encompasses a much larger scale of production run by a fleet of experienced staff to keep up with the demand.
Scaling up to its current capacity to meet consumer demand has been a long process because many of the operations were originally performed by hand, using homemade equipment and second-hand machines that Wally had re-engineered. "At the end of the day, it is a sacrifice for people to become vegan and vegetarian. It’s not easy," he says. "We believe that if we can give them a good solution, it will be easier for more people to enjoy a meat-free diet."
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