Serving Up Delicious Change with Nil Zacharias of Plantega

June 27, 2024

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Plantega’s founder and CEO Nil Zacharias is an entrepreneur, author, and strategic advisor with a passion for food systems change. He created Plantega, a company that’s on a mission to make plant-based food easier to access everywhere. He also hosts the Eat For The Planet Podcast  and co-authored the Eat For the Planet books. Nil has previously co-founded a number of startups and continues to advise organizations in the climate solutions space. 

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John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact Podcast. Yes, this is a very special edition because I’ve got my longtime dear friend with us back for the third time. He’s named Nil Zacharias, founder and the CEO of Plantega. You can find him at Welcome back, Nil, to the Impact Podcast.

Nil Zacharias: Thank you, John. I feel like this has been, I think I was on your podcast maybe for the first time back in 2014.

John: You were.

Nil: It’s a 10-year anniversary, of course. I hope I got that date right, but it feels like it’s been a long time since we first chatted.

John: You’ve been so kind. You’ve been a great friend, and you’ve been one of the real changemakers in the plant-based industry for a long time, and we’re going to get into that. Talk a little bit about the journey. Where did you start on the plant-based journey that you’re on, a long time ago, and how did that evolve to where we are today?

Nil: I started back in 2010, so it’s been about 14 years since I’ve been on this journey. Prior to that, I had a whole decade in the corporate world. I used to be an attorney and then worked in tech and media for a while. But that feels like another life now. So the last 14 years I’ve been, the best way to describe it is that I have this insane curiosity about food and everything that has to do with food, from how it’s produced to how it’s distributed to how it’s consumed and why it’s consumed. So I feel like in the last 14 years, I’ve been on a bit of a journey to try to figure out how we can make food a positive impact on the world. How can we actually make it a positive force in people’s lives and for the planet? My initial interest in the whole food space and the food system was largely driven by the fact that I got aware about the massive environmental destruction being caused by industrialized agriculture, particularly the production of animal-based foods. So livestock farming is a leading driver of deforestation and resource use, and we can get into all of that. So my initial interest in the space was because I read the facts, I learned about what was happening, and I kept asking the question, why aren’t more people aware about all of this and doing something about it? So I decided to do something. So my first few years, I would say, maybe I’m in my third phase of my journey, and who knows where this journey ends. But my first phase was to educate people. Let’s tell people about the facts. Let’s inform them. It was largely using media. I used to run a media platform, and then I wrote a couple of books. The idea was if more people knew the facts than I knew, more people were aware of the realities of large-scale industrial farming, we could do something about it, whether it is changing our own personal diets or perhaps working together to come up with better solutions to crafting a more sustainable and just food system. So I think my first phase was largely education and then informing people, and soon I realized that you can’t put all the burden on consumers. You can’t just say, “Hey, listen, you’ve got to change because you’re making the wrong choices, and you’ve got to learn how to eat plant-based and eat better.” So I started to examine the systemic sort of challenges that we have, and a lot of this in some cases, has nothing to do with people’s choices. It has to do more with a system that’s designed to favor cheap, mass-produced food that is essentially destroying the planet and making people sick. So I would say my second phase of exploration started to get into how can we influence change in the system? I started to advise a lot more companies. I have my own podcast where I would talk to a lot of entrepreneurs who are starting companies that have now become big names in the plant-based food space. The idea was really, how do we kind of re-architect this thing that we call the global food system to be something that actually doesn’t drain our natural resources, doesn’t harm the planet in a way that is detrimental to future generations, and doesn’t produce foods that are actually killing us and the planet. So that phase eventually led me into where I am now, which is I would say at the point of consumption. My recent exploration in the last 3-4 years has been, you can tell people everything. You can try to change the system. But at the end of the day, you’ve got to convince people to make the right choice. Part of that is influencing food culture, is developing the right kinds of foods and concepts that are going to entice people to try something that is better for the planet. In many cases, make them want to try it without having them to think about the health or the planetary impacts, and really get them excited about something that tastes good, that looks amazing, and that they feel that they can eat on a daily basis. So I would say in the last 3-4 years, I’ve gotten a lot more obsessed about food itself, which may sound strange because it’s always been about food. But sometimes we can get so esoteric about theoretical issues and systems change and food tech and all that stuff that we actually forget that food is such a natural thing that we all do multiple times a day, and we’re very irrational about those choices. The more I think about it, I’m fascinated about why people are so irrational and how can we find ways to work around that to help them make better choices. So I hope that sums up my journey so far but…

John: But I love what you’re doing. Instead of having to change minds on an intellectual basis, and obviously you’re highly intellectual, you’re a longtime friend of mine, I know how smart you are, but intellect and ideology sometimes doesn’t click with people. You’re going to go attack it.
You’re going to change hearts and minds one stomach at a time by just going right to the food part of it. That’s I think brilliant. I think it’s brilliant what you’re doing.

Nil: Yes, and you know, food has to be fun. It has to be exciting. It has to bring people together. It has to remind you of something that you hold dear, whether it is something you ate when you grew up or something that’s very culturally relevant. So increasingly I feel like a lot of us who are very, myself included, for many years, who are very theoretical about these issues sometimes forget the obvious answer that’s right in front of us is that it’s food. I think you’ve kind of been aware of this. I know you and I have eaten at restaurants in L.A.

John: [Inaudible] Many meals at many great places together.

Nil: It’s right there in front of us. How do we get people more excited about choosing things that are more plant forward? It’s not about making people go vegetarian or vegan. It’s more about dispelling these myths that people tend to have about plant-based food, whether it’s nutritional ones or whether it is ideas about it not tasting as good or being too hard to make and making it easier for people to make the right choices without them having to really think too much or learn too much or worry about food systems changes that we sit and geek out about all the time. So it’s kind of fun. It’s now, I think, we’re at the point where I pay a lot more attention to culture and habits and consumer behavior and behavioral science. So that’s my latest obsession and finding ways to architect that in a way that feels authentic and kind of blends seamlessly into people’s habits.

John: Obviously you mentioned the books and the podcasts. Eat for the Planet podcast is your podcast. Eat for the Planet books. I’ve enjoyed all that. I also enjoyed recently when I was on a plane on the way over to South Korea, I watched you on the Netflix special, You Are What You Eat. You make an appearance there because you are an important person in the whole vegan plant-based world and it’s always wonderful to see you out there doing what you do, and leading this movement in a very important way. But you are now the CEO of Plantagenet, and for our listeners and viewers, I’m on your website now. It is first of all, visually delicious. My eyes are loving it, and there’s so much great information here. It’s Eat Plantega., but you are the CEO of Plantega. Talk about the advent of Plantega. How did you come up with that idea? I know your backstory. Our listeners and viewers heard your backstory. But where was the aha moment for Plantega?

Nil: Yes. Thank you, John. I appreciate that setup. In 2020 I was living in LA at that time and I had actually moved from New York to LA in 2018 with no plans to move back until the pandemic hit and life changed for a lot of people including myself. I found myself in LA, I was advising a few companies, still working on the podcast and I had launched an initiative in 2019 that was more focused on events and bringing people together. As you can imagine, with the pandemic, events were shut down and that was all put on pause. So I was itching for something to grab my attention and started to brainstorm some ideas with a few folks around what we could do to meet the moment and how could we rise up to this challenge that was being widespread across the country and was affecting so many people. I remember reading about New York City especially, which was hard hit by the pandemic early on. Restaurants in New York were shutting down obviously because of COVID. But I read that bodegas were deemed essential businesses during the pandemic. And that kind of caught my attention. It really started to get me to think about the importance and the relevance and the essential nature of bodegas or corner stores in New York City. For those who are not aware of what that is or haven’t been to New York City or lived here, a bodega is essentially a corner store that you can find in literally every neighborhood in New York City, sometimes multiple on the same block. They are a few hundred square feet. Lately, you can find a few bigger ones. But the typical one is pretty small and it’s stocked from floor to ceiling with every possible item you can imagine. Plus many of them, in fact, half of them tend to have deli counters in them as well that make fresh sandwiches and fresh food. Bodegas in New York City are ubiquitous because a lot of people in New York don’t own cars. If they do, they don’t want to move their cars because they lose their parking spot. So the idea of going grocery shopping for a few things far away seems too much. So people just run to their local bodega and grab a snack and grab a drink. I also knew, having lived in New York for several years at that point since 2003, that bodegas were the last place I would go to find anything plant-based. I started eating a plant-based diet in 2010 and basically stopped looking at my local bodega as a source of a sandwich. I would go there to grab a drink or a snack. No more bodega sandwiches for me because nothing there was plant-based. So the initial spark of the idea was, could we find a way to bring together some of the leading brands in the plant-based space and find a way to distribute that product into corner stores in New York City? That was the spark of the idea, and we ended up launching a little pilot in late 2020, and I moved back to New York to help launch that. That eventually became what Plantega is today.

John: Talk about now we’re four years in almost. How is it going? Then from what you originally envisioned to where you are today, talk about the progress and the climb and the scaling of Plantega.

Nil: When we first launched, the initial idea was that we would put a refrigerator into the stores with retail products and the refrigerator was branded Plantega. The idea was, let’s try to encourage people who walk into these stores to pick up plant-based burgers and cheeses and other items. While we were thinking through that process, I thought it would be really fun to also launch a little deli menu that would be sold alongside the deli counter with the existing sandwiches that are there. Because frankly, I had been craving a sausage, egg, and cheese for nearly a decade at that point. That was my favorite thing to get from my local bodega prior to going plant-based. Finally, we’d reached a point in the plant-based movement that you had products out there that you could pull together and create an all plant-based sausage, egg, and cheese. So obviously, I set out to do that to solve a problem firstly for myself and then hopefully for others. So we launched a tiny menu and the idea was people might be interested to try the sandwiches. The barrier to entry to trying a sandwich is much lower, and if they liked the taste of the sandwich, they’d be like, “What’s this egg and what’s this cheese? Let me look at the Plantega fridge and buy those products.” So that was the initial idea. We did that in a couple of stores. Very quickly we realized that, and partly because of the time we were doing it in the middle of the pandemic, that people weren’t really coming to the bodegas to do grocery shopping. They were coming to grab sandwiches, but they weren’t really trying to fill up their tote bags with plant-based burgers or cheeses because either they were rushing back to work and they were on a lunch break and no one wants to carry a frozen item back to work, or they were just on the go and really were not there to stop and fill up their grocery carts. But we realized that people were very excited about the sandwiches. So that was our first pivot, really. We very quickly abandoned the refrigerators and realized that the real action was in the deli counter, that people were really excited about the sausage, egg, and cheese sandwich that we had and a chopped cheese sandwich that we had. That was the first realization that we were onto something, that we were really more of a food service model than a retail model, and that set the course we launched in 2021, we went into 12 locations across New York City. Ever since then, we’ve doubled the number of locations every year. So, 2023, we ended in 64 locations in all five boroughs of New York City, plus Yonkers. Let me explain the concept, is our mission is really to make plant-based food easy to access everywhere, and the way we do it is that we offer New York’s bodega, we empower them to sell 100% plant-based menu. That includes all your deli classics, like the chopped cheese, the bacon, egg, and cheese, and much more. So we’re currently in about 64 locations across the city. You can find us in-store, plus on all major delivery apps. So, essentially think of us as a fast food brand that currently does not own and operate a single kitchen. We exist out of bodegas across New York City. You can walk into one of the bodegas, look at our menu that exists and is physically present there, and order a sandwich from the deli counter, or you can sit at home or at work and pull up your phone and order from a delivery app.

John: So, I can order it from DoorDash. If there’s not a bodega that has it close to me, I can just order it from DoorDash?

Nil: 100%. You just pull up the UberEats, DoorDash, GrubHub, and search for Plantega, and depending on where you are in the city, multiple locations will show up.

John: I’m on your website now, which again, I love. It’s We’ll put it in the show notes. I want all our listeners and viewers to be able to find it easier. I see all your in-store menu here, and these sandwiches are bodegas for, as a native New Yorker, bodegas are what fuels New York City and the denizens of New York. I mean, it’s the fuel behind the energy of New York. But I mean, loaded cream cheese and bagel, fried chicken sandwich. These things look delicious. The wicked meatball sub. I mean, I’m getting hungry, Nil. Tell me, how are these 14 of these delicious looking sandwiches here or burritos, how are they selling? Both in the 64 bodegas and on the apps, how’s it going? I mean, in terms of volume.

Nil: Yes, it’s been a fascinating journey, and our model has also evolved over time. As we learned what was working, we paid attention and we made changes pretty quickly. So in the beginning, we were supplying all the products to the stores ourselves. We were doing the distribution ourselves. We were basically training the cooks, doing all that heavy lifting. And as we started to scale, we quickly realized that we needed to refine our model and partner with a few other entities to make this possible. So we now have an exclusive distributor, and from the bodegas perspective, the distributor is really handling the last mile distribution of the wholesale products that they need. So I like to tell the store owners that we are the easy button for getting plant-based food into their locations. They work with us and we do everything for them. We supply them the products, we train their cooks, we tell them how to store the products in the deli cases and in their freezers and fridges. We supply them with physical signage inside and outside the store. We market and promote the stores. We do quality checks to ensure that the sandwiches are being made consistently across all our stores. Lastly, of course, we onboard them onto delivery apps, and when they run out of certain products, all they do is they text us or call a number and we process those orders to them that is delivered by the distributor. So from the store owner’s perspective, the reason they’ve adopted this and are excited about this, and it has grown so fast, is because we have solved a problem that they’ve always had. Customers were asking for more plant-based options, but most of these bodegas didn’t know where to find these products or the products were too expensive or the minimum orders were too big for them, and we fixed those problems for them. Plus, we created a branded concept that made it really easy for them and we kind of hand-hold them through the whole process. We tell them exactly how to do it and we help promote it and we help them make money. So in most of our stores, we’re doing about 20% to 25% of the daily counter sales are coming from our menu. Many stores report that on the weekends or later at night, that number can go as high as 60%. So that essentially means we’re shifting consumer behavior from the typical sandwiches that they would buy to choose the plant-based options that are on our menu. That’s super exciting. What that really means is that in any given time, right now, there’s hundreds of Plantega sandwiches being sold in-store and on delivery apps as we speak. In terms of the mix of what’s sold in-store and in delivery, we didn’t really do delivery for the first 2 years. It was a big, big project we launched last year since we’re getting into all the delivery apps. Last year, we were doing about 25% delivery and the rest of it was in-store. But in Q1 already of this year, we’re seeing a significant… The growth is really coming from delivery. We’re now up to about 33% coming from delivery. We project that by the end of this year, the majority of the sandwiches we’re selling are actually going to be through delivery. On delivery, we have a much more expanded menu because there’s no space constraints. We can analyze what’s selling and see what’s popular and make changes to the menu on the fly. We can customize menus based on neighborhoods and what’s popular in neighborhoods. So the tools that are available on the delivery platforms really have enabled us to really unlock the potential of what we’re doing in the city. Plus the delivery radius is pretty wide. That’s really exciting. The bottom line is we wouldn’t be in so many stores if we weren’t making the store owners money. We weren’t delighting the customers in their communities. So most of the stores we got last year were through word of mouth. It’s one store owner telling the others, “You’re going to get Plantega in your store. These guys are killing it. They make it really easy. They’re good to work with, and they make you money.” That goes back to what I was saying earlier about you’ve got to understand the system. If there’s flaws in the system where your corner store cannot get access to healthy, sustainable foods, the ripple effect of that is the communities that are dependent on the stores. Because in some neighborhoods in New York City, bodegas outnumber grocery stores. There are large populations that are dependent on their local bodega to grab breakfast, lunch, and dinner sometimes or snacks. If those stores, because of systemic issues, don’t have access to the sustainable, healthy products or not at the right price point, they’re going to take years to embrace the future of food. We’re acting is like the shots with short circuiting the whole thing. We’re essentially saying, you can leap into the future of food now. We’ll be the catalyst to enable you to do that, and we’ll bring it to life in your stores, where all you have to do is do what you do best as you prepare the sandwiches, and you delight your customers, and we will provide the rest for you. As I say in my three-phase journey and where I am, the best part about this recent experience and Plantega has been to watch people who’ve never eaten something plant-based, eat a bacon, egg, and cheese from Plantega or a sausage, egg, and cheese, and basically be blown away by the fact that it is plant-based to begin with, or that it tastes so amazing. This is important to understand, and you mentioned it too. Bodegas in New York City are a cultural phenomenon. It is as iconic as the skyscrapers in the cities or our parks or our subway system. It’s like a lifeline that every New Yorker depends upon, and for us, we love bodegas. We don’t want to change bodegas. We don’t want to change their food. We just want to help them evolve. All we’re doing is taking the amazing food that they already do and changing the core ingredients. The reason for that, of course, is the environmental benefits, the health benefits, and we can talk about that as well, is fulfilling this goal that I think we all need to have, is how do you get more people to choose plant-based foods most of the time or eat in a plant-forward way? How can we make it easier in more places? Our solution is go to the place where people buy food. Bring these options into the environment in which people consume food. Make it familiar. Make it friendly. Do it in a way that our bacon, egg, and cheese tastes like a bacon, egg, and cheese. We’re not telling the customer who’s walking in for a bacon, egg, and cheese that, “Hey, you need to eat a kale salad.” Yes, you probably should eat a kale salad, but let’s start with a plant-based bacon, egg, and cheese, and maybe once you realize that that’s great, you might be intrigued to try a kale salad someday. So it’s all about access. It’s all about availability, and it’s all about making it seamlessly fit within the culture that exists for food in New York City as a starting point.

John: If you’ve just joined us, we’ve got Nil Zacharias with us today. He’s the founder and CEO of Plantega. To find Nil and his great menu and the food and the bodegas that carry this great menu, please go to So where do you go from here? Obviously, you have a business model that works, and you’re great at this stuff, and you’re great at scaling things. I’ve seen you do it over and over and over again. You’re a recognized thought leader, and you’ve made a huge impact on this whole plant-based industry over the last 15, 14 and a half, 15 years. How do you scale this? Is this something that you foresee taking to every city?
Because every city has DoorDash. Every city has these delivery apps. Can you replicate and scale this across America?

Nil: Great question. The big question for us, and especially one that we’re spending a lot of time thinking about this year because we’re a few years in now, and we’ve sort of proven the model in New York City. I think the way I look at our phase growth, I think the last three years, in addition to fine-tuning our core business model in New York City and making sure we were in every neighborhood and had sort of established a pretty big footprint in the city, we’ve been working really hard in building our brand. For us to be successful, we need people to understand what it is that we’re doing and what makes us unique. What we are doing is bodega-style sandwiches, which is something that I think has relevance beyond New York City. It is a very New York City phenomenon, but it is… What is a bodega sandwich, and why is it so iconic? I think it’s the culinary symbol of New York City, and the reason for that is that New York City has this relentless pace, and it needs a food that matches that rhythm. The bacon, egg, and cheese or the chopped cheese, it answers that call. It is quick to prepare, it’s easy to eat on the go, and it’s super satisfying. It can fuel your day around the city. So in a city like New York, people grab a sandwich on the way to work or late at night, and it matches the relentless, nonstop nature of city life. That sandwich and that food we think has bigger meaning outside and that can be built into a brand beyond New York City. Just like the slice pizza from New York is popular around the country, or New York City bagels are a thing everywhere. I think we can build a brand because no one has done that. Build a brand around these kind of sandwiches and take it beyond the bodega, obviously, because outside of New York City, you don’t have the bodega phenomena, but people want great food and great, super quick, convenient food that tastes delicious. I think we solve those problems. So our focus has been brand building, fine-tuning the model. There’s a few ways we can scale this idea outside of New York that we’re considering. A few different options. One of them is potentially licensing the concept because we’ve ended up, I would say inadvertently, I would say organically ended up developing a pretty turnkey concept that is low footprint, low cost, very little equipment required, very simple mix-and-match menu that uses… Because we’ve had so many limitations. Limitations of space in the bodegas, limitations of ingredients that they carry, that our menu is built to be lean, cost-effective, and profitable. We’ve tested it in the toughest places on earth. So imagine taking that concept and plugging it into a cafeteria in a college campus. So we’re in discussions with big entities who are food service operators that run cafeterias and college campuses or event menus. We think Plantega can be a compelling concept in those areas, especially the cafeterias that are skewed towards younger demographics, because we find that most of the people consuming our sandwiches tend to skew younger. The whole brand and the image of the brand, the association with New York culture really resonates with the young demographic. So that’s one route to scale. Those might take a little longer because we’ve got to work with bigger entities that move much slower than we do, and that are very thoughtful in their approaches to licensing specific brands. So that’s one route. But there are other routes that we’re exploring that maybe we can do this on our own by taking Plantega as a standalone concept that we can deploy out of so much existing restaurants, but as a cloud kitchen using delivery apps. So we could run it in a virtual kitchen setting and launch the Plantega brand in any other city where we are running out of a cloud kitchen operation, where you can order Plantega through delivery. We bring the brand to life through activations and events that we tend to do in New York City. So there’s a lot of exciting new plans. Of course, with any business, you’ve got to be mindful of not trying to grow too fast, too soon, and being mindful about how to do it in a sustainable way that builds, not just builds our presence and our footprint across the country, but that puts us on a good path financially as well. Brand building, it takes a long time. So a lot of this comes down to building a good brand. We’re a baby in that sense. Obviously, we’re just 3 plus years in right now. So very early stages. Luckily, we’ve gotten some great attention, good press, and it’s really resonated with people because it’s something different. We’re not a vegan restaurant. We’re not a fast food chain. We are built on this idea of empowering small independent businesses that have been like the heartbeat of New York City. A city where change is constant, but somehow the bodega survive every year on year, decade on decade, and thrive. So there’s a lot over there that I think that makes us unique and special. But the bottom line is we’ve come up with a really exciting menu that includes amazing, high quality products, and it tastes amazing. I have to say that because if it didn’t taste good, what was the point of all this? It’s food at the end of the day. I’ve seen meat eaters try it. I’ve seen people who would never try something plant-based, give it a shot, and have just been all blown away by the fact that we’ve done it.

John: Typically, and again, I don’t know your numbers, but I’m going to make a statement here. Typically, the amount of people eating your delicious Plantega sandwiches and wraps are probably going to be 60% to 70% just regular meat eaters. They’re not going to be 100% plant-based eaters.

Nil: I would say, in fact for us, our number of sellers, it’s more than 90%. That our regular meat eaters are just… We are very intentional about attracting them. We want to be welcoming to meat eaters. We don’t preach to them. None of our menu says anything about how this is saving the world or helping your health, even though we know both of those things are true. It’s all about making the plant-based choice the more attractive, the most fun choice. So a lot of that we do through very intentional placement of our menus in stores. Our signage is very attractive. We have great food photography. We also bring the brand to life through events and sampling. We do sampling outside several of our bodega locations. We do collaborations with social media influencers. We host community events where we invite people and we just give out free Plantega sandwiches for 2 hours. We usually do it at a brewery or somewhere else. So we’ve been very intentional about engaging the community, welcoming people in, and making them excited about the idea of trying our food that just happens to be plant-based. So everyone’s looking for something exciting and new to try, especially in New York City where there’s no shortage of food. We know we have something that has got some inherent advantages. We’re run out of several locations that are 24-7. Some of the best social media messages we get are sometimes late at night when people have had a little too much to drink and have a good time. But then they stumble upon a location that has Plantega or pull up their delivery apps and nothing’s open except Plantega. It really has been amazing to see people embrace something new and different, but yet seems familiar, and I think that’s really the trick here.

John: As you and I know, and because we’ve shared so many great plant-based meals together, people don’t think of plant-based eating as an all or nothing proposition. That’s just not true. Even if they just incorporate some plant-based eating into their regular diet, they’re going to feel better and the science shows they’re going to be healthier.

Nil: The reality is, let’s just get to the hard truth. One of the reasons why we are doing this, and I’ve been asked the question many times, why are you trying to make bodega sandwiches plant-based? What’s the point of all of this? Is it just a fad? It isn’t really. The bottom line is most of the core ingredients in sandwiches that people buy in bodegas or fast food chains, or most of the things that are the most popular foods in the U.S., unfortunately, whether it’s the burger patty in our chopped cheese sandwich or the bacon in a bacon, egg, and cheese, those ingredients, the ones that are popular across this country are derived from animal sources. The reality is that, that’s causing significant harm to the environment. So the food sector alone contributes to one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions, and 60% of that is from livestock farming. So it’s very clear that if people move towards a more plant-forward direction, we could have a significant positive impact on the planet, both in terms of resource efficiency, like we’ll use less resources. We could also have more biodiversity because we’re not tearing down rainforests and destroying ecosystems and killing species. But then there’s also these economic benefits. By creating an industry where maybe there’s more jobs in the plant-based food industry, and then there’s the savings of the healthcare costs because of less diet-related diseases. So let’s get to the health part. I mean, even look at a bodega. A lot of the processed meat sold there, whether it’s the ham, the salami, the bacon, the health organization has classified them as a group one carcinogen.

John: So all the nitrates they have, all the nitrates and everything else, it’s just not good for us.

Nil: Yes. So basically, we know the health risks and we know that choosing plant-based is lesser impact on the planet, less pollution, resource efficiency, less risk of antibiotic-resistant bacteria because of the prevalence of antibiotics in animal farming. Then on a health standpoint, we know it lowers the risk of heart disease, of certain cancers, of strokes, it improves digestive health, it helps regulate blood sugar. There’s so many benefits of eating plants, or at least eating mostly plants, that you can’t help but think, we’ve got to find a way to make more people do this. So that’s the mission we’re on. I don’t believe in all or nothing.
I think that one meal a day, if that’s what you can do, try it, or just have this at the back of your mind, that the more plant-based foods you incorporate in your diet, the lesser your footprint on the planet, and the better you’re going to do for your own health. What more can we do with food choices that is better for us?

John: You and I have had some great conversations over the years. I know it’s not always about food or about plant-based eating. You’re a big thinker, talk a little bit about your theory of change.

Nil: I’ve been sort of touching on that in the last few minutes. I do think that the big, it hasn’t really changed. Since 2010, I’ve been on this journey to figure out how we can shift our food system and food consumption habits in a more plant-forward direction because of all the numerous benefits of doing so. With the work that we’re doing with Plantega, I think that we have a very direct way of making that change. Of course, we’re small. We’re in New York City. It’s sort of a microcosm of the food system, but a very important one. If we can prove that by creating culturally relevant foods in the place where people buy those foods and building an exciting, engaging brand around it, you can get more meat eaters, hardcore meat eaters to choose something plant-based. That definitely can be done at scale and it can be done in other settings. It doesn’t have to be done by us, but it’s really how do you engineer food choices to help people make the better ones? I think that’s really where we’re getting to is that how do you make someone choose the plant-based option? How do you make it the simple choice, the more attractive choice, the cost-effective choice, the satisfying choice? If you start looking at food from that lens, we could really bring about a cultural shift because I think that’s the last step remaining in what’s happened in the plant-based food space in the last few years. Beginning, we were all worried about the fact that there weren’t good products. We don’t have products that imitate meat and cheese, and of course, companies are going to be on a continuous journey to improve those products. Then it became like, we need to scale those brands. We need to get into distribution. We’ve done fairly well in the last few years on that front. I think now we’re in the, I don’t know, maybe it’s the final phase, but I think it’s the most impactful phase where we are slowly bringing about a cultural shift. I think that it’s the last thing that people are holding on to. I think a lot of that is generational too, and I think we’ve talked about that in the past, is that the younger generation doesn’t think plant-based is something strange. It’s totally normal. They may not identify as vegan or vegetarian, but for them, choosing something plant-based is pretty common. They’ll go eat in plant-based restaurants. They’ll buy almond milk or soy milk or oat milk. They will try a plant-based burger. They know the environmental facts. They know that it’s not good for your health. And so that cultural shift is going to only accelerate in the next 10-15 years. We’ve got to ask ourselves as people, as part of the industry, is what are we doing to enable that shift besides making great products? How are we changing the cultural zeitgeist around this? Because I really strongly believe you’ve got to change culture to change food. You’ve got to change the culture of food to change our food system. You can’t do that by talking about food like it’s technology and by preaching to people about saving the world. You’ve got to do that by slowly chipping away at people’s food habits, by making this familiar, making it exciting, and creating delicious food. Just like we’re doing it in the bodegas in New York City, and hopefully we’ll do that beyond New York in a scalable way. I think a lot of other people are doing similar things, whether it’s in restaurant chains at a smaller scale or local restaurants as well that are doing unique flavors from different parts of the world. I think the way you get to people is through their ballots. It all starts there.

John: You’re right. Here we are in the second quarter of 2024. There’s a lot of external things that you and I can’t control, but there’s a lot of things we can, such as what you’re doing on this new and fascinating entrepreneurial journey where you’re making the world a better place. What keeps you up at night now, as an entrepreneur, and also on the externalities that are going on around us?

Nil: I have learned to not worry about the things that I can’t control and to be aware of them, but accept them that those are things I can’t control. So I take note of them, then I park them for later. But I think the thing that I tend to focus most about is how are we creating a team at Plantega and a company culture that supports our growth, that gets us to not just fulfill our mission in New York City, but take this idea and help it achieve its true potential. So I think that’s why most of my focus tends to go these days.

John: Honestly, because of my business, I get to travel the world, and plant-based eating has become very popular in Asia and in Europe. There’s no reason. I mean, obviously, things take time, great things take time. But this is probably something very scalable in the United States and way beyond the shores of the United States.

Nil: Yes, and I think it’s coming from so many different people and voices. It isn’t some sort of singular one flavor movement. Just like food, it has multiple flavors. People need to understand and appreciate it through different perspectives. I think we’ve got to learn to create a business environment, but also a cultural environment that respects and acknowledges the unique ways in which people are coming at it. People are doing some fascinating things with food, not just on the manufacturing side, but on the culinary side. There’s so much fun, exciting new work being done to craft recipes, to create experiences that are going to help people embrace the idea of eating plant-forward. I think that effort to normalize it is really something I spend a lot of time thinking about. Because I do think that we have to acknowledge the realities. We have to acknowledge there are a lot of forces acting against us. The entrenched system is firstly supported by government subsidies. We are fighting an uphill battle to begin with. Plant-based products are more expensive, and there’s just no way around it until we bring about some policy changes. At the same time, there are no incentives. You look at the system and how it works. There are very little incentives for people to choose to buy plant-based products. I’m talking more on institutional food service level. They’ve got incentives to buy more dairy. They’ve got incentives to buy more meat because they get rebates and other incentives from those companies. We have to now find a way how to get into that space. I think a lot of it is going to require collaboration as well. I think I haven’t mentioned that in the context of plant takeover. Plant takeover wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for collaboration. We are nothing on our own. We partner with brands that manufacture the products. They’re amazing brands that create really game-changing plant-based products that allow us to craft recipes for the sandwiches that we have on our menu. We partner with a distributor that does the warehousing and the last mile delivery. If they didn’t do what they do well, we wouldn’t be able to succeed. Then, most importantly, we partner with the bodegas who have hardworking cooks making our food, who are working with us and learning how to make plant-based sandwiches and follow the quality standards that we put on them. And it’s this mutually beneficial relationship that we have. I think we need a lot more of that in the plant-based food industry, but probably in business at large. Because that’s the way we can really shift systems. I think so far in plant-based, everyone’s tried to go at it alone, frankly, and try to do what, say, Tesla has done or Apple has done in other areas. But I think food is much more complicated than technology. Food involves centuries of history and habits and culture and emotions and back to the irrational brains. You cannot fix it with just a single product.

John: I agree with you, and even our company, collaboration is what has gotten us to where we are today. You can go alone, but I think the days of the sole entrepreneur just going it alone and putting his blinders on and living in a silo are somewhat done now. I think collaborating is the right way, like you say, to make the greatest impact and to shift things culturally and shift the systems that are entrenched historically.

Nil: Also thinking about mutual benefit. How do we create win-win scenarios? It’s the basic rule in business, right?

John: Yes.

Nil: Is create win-win scenarios and I think that’s a big lesson that we’ve learned is that the more we’ve observed and listened to, one, what our end customers want, what do people want? Then secondly, what our partners want, we’ve gotten better in the process. We’ve done things differently. But if you go in thinking you know everything and you figured it all out, I think you’re bound to be disappointed. I think of myself as personally, and I try to put those same values into Plantega is that we’re on this journey of learning and growth. That’s it. We’re going to be on this journey. The journey never ends. We’ve got to keep learning and we’ve got to keep growing from our mistakes and from the lessons that we’ve learned. You’ve got to have that sense of curiosity and that excitement, and you’ve got to find ways to tap into what keeps you going because otherwise, you’re going to give up when things don’t work in your favor. So for me, as an entrepreneur, I spend a lot more time thinking about what excites me, what keeps me energized and putting more focus there versus back to your earlier question, worrying about the things I can’t control, the market conditions, the lack of funding, the inherent biases and barriers in the food system. If I sat and thought about the problems, I would have given up 10 years ago. I could be doing better things to make a living than this.

John: You’re very young still, and you’ve had a very storied career. You’re one of the, you know, you made a tremendous impact on the whole plant-based eating movement. As an author, a publisher, I’ve known you through all the iterations, a podcast host and an entrepreneur throughout. What is your common thread throughout? If you were to say, when you lay down at night, what are you most proud of? When you’re thinking about making an impact and what are you most proud of, where do you sit tonight?

Nil: The impact part is really tough because I always struggle with it. Like I could not quantify it and that bothered me for years, especially when I was doing media and the publishing platform. I could see the numbers, but I’m like, I don’t know if I’m actually changing hearts and minds or just I’m attracting random eyeballs because we’ve got some funny content on the website. Then the book was again done in a way to quantify more impact. So I struggle with impact and I don’t worry about it too much anymore. I think I’ve evolved from worrying about it to really starting to think more about the fact that I need to do something that I feel truly makes me come alive and that I feel like it’s worth spending most of my day and sometimes my weekends on. I need to be true to that and do something that firstly makes me feel alive, that makes me feel like I’m contributing to the world in the little time that we all have over here. That’s just my journey. So for me, I’ve in the last few years gotten more and more clear. I always doubted it for many years. Why have I chosen this path in food? Maybe I should pivot and try something else. Over the years, I’ve just gotten comfortable with it. I have accepted that I’m obsessed with food. I am obsessed with everything that has to do with food, why people eat, how it’s made, how it’s sold. It gives me nothing but satisfaction to know that I’m spending my time working on that and also working to make it better. Any day’s work I do, if it’s making it slightly better, I think I’ve helped and hopefully made an impact. So for me, I don’t need measurable numbers anymore. For me, it’s a sense of, am I excited to work today? Okay, let’s just do it. Am I happy to go to bed tonight knowing I did a good day’s work? That’s all that matters. Then of course, showing up for people around you who matter the most.
That’s obvious, but needs to be stated.

John: You’re the best. This is the third time you’ve been on the Impact Podcast. You’re always making an impact on this planet. I know this personally, as do many, many others. You’re always welcome back. Like you said, the journey’s never over. So I want you to keep coming back on and sharing this fantastic journey. I know Plantega is going to continue to scale, and I want to cover that scaling and that growth because I’m so proud of what you’re doing, and I’m so excited that you’re going to be bringing it to other parts of this country. I can’t wait to come back to New York and order some of your great products. For the listeners and viewers to find Plantega, please go to You are saving the world one bite at a time. Like you’ve said, and we’ve said, if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. I know you’re going to bring these great products everywhere one day. You’re just a joy to talk with, and I’m just honored to have you as my friend. Thank you for spending time with us today on the Impact Podcast.

Nil: Thank you so much. You’re very kind, and I appreciate everything you said, and I appreciate spending time with you. We don’t do it enough, but this was a joy, and I look forward to catching up with you in person soon.

John: This edition of the Impact Podcast is brought to you by Engage. Engage is a digital booking platform revolutionizing the talent booking industry. With thousands of athletes, celebrities, entrepreneurs, and business leaders, Engage is the go-to spot for booking talent for speeches, custom experiences, live streams, and much more. For more information on Engage or to book talent today, visit This edition of the Impact Podcast is brought to you by ERI. ERI has a mission to protect people, the planet, and your privacy, and is the largest fully integrated IT and electronics asset disposition provider and cybersecurity-focused hardware destruction company in the United States, and maybe even the world.
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