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Interview with Isabelle Steichen, Co-Founder of Lupii


 



Are lupini beans part of your regular diet? For most Americans they aren't, but they should be. Isabelle Steichen at Lupii is setting out to change that, with Lupii protein bars that will put lupini beans at the front and center. Lupini beans have three times the protein of eggs, and all nine essential amino acids like meat, but without the terrible impact on animals and the environment. I'm Betty, the founder of Upright and you're listening to the Upright podcast, where we interview thought leaders and innovators like Isabel, who are making a positive impact in health, sustainability and inclusion. Upright’s vision is a world where health and sustainability are accessible to all. To get there, we're launching a high protein instant oat milk that's as nutritious as dairy without the cow, as well as this podcast series where we can highlight the amazing things that other founders and brands are doing to make the world healthier and more sustainable. In this conversation, I talked to Isabel, the co-founder and CEO of Lupii, which makes plant based, whole food protein bars using a small but mighty lupini bean. Isabel's from Europe, where lupini beans are a lot more common. When she first moved to New York, she found it easier to be plant based, but found that everything on shelves was so heavily processed. She realized there was an opportunity for snacks that were higher quality, more functional, and more nutritious, which eventually led to the launch of Lupii. In our conversation, Isabelle shared her journey starting from her early days of creating lupini bean bites in a commissary Kitchen, and talked about what makes lupini beans so great. We also talked about the challenges of sustainable packaging and her advice on the importance of staying even-heeled. With that, here's our conversation. 

Betty: 

Thank you so much for joining me today. I was wondering if we could start with you sharing your story. I'm so curious to hear, what was the key insight that inspired you to start your own sustainable food company and create Lupii? 

Isabelle: 

Thank you for having me, Betty, I'm so excited to be here. I can totally dive into that. Basically, I had moved to the US in 2013, and I had transitioned to a plant based/vegan diet for myself at that time. And in some ways, it felt easier than where I grew up in Europe, because there wasn't so much cultural stigma around it. I have a French grandmother, so it's very hard to explain to her why I would ever in my right mind give up cheese. That wasn't too much of an issue in New York, but what stood out to me was that every single person I was talking to about my plant based diet was asking me where I was getting my protein from. I quickly understood the US consumer is very much driven by functional nutritional benefits. Especially when eating plant based, people want to feel better, but they're really concerned that they're not getting the right nutrients, and protein is top-of-mind for consumers. I took that insight and started thinking about it. I worked for startups in my daytime jobs, some food-related, some more tech software related, but in my free time I really started immersing myself and ended up getting certified in plant based nutrition. I started a podcast, where I was interviewing plant based changemakers, across different industries. As I was learning more, I really understood that protein was a real concern for consumers. I found it super contradictory when I looked at the options that were on the market, because I thought they were also processed. It was basically two main sources of protein, soy and pea, which both have their challenges with GMO and flavor related challenges. Pea is actually not that nutrient dense, so I thought that's kind of mind blowing that among all the plants that we could use in this world to fuel ourselves with, we're relying on just a few. We're hyper processing all these foods, so that we mimic an original version of something that ends up not making us feel that much better. So that was really the insight. I started researching ingredients and became absolutely obsessed with lupini beans. I knew them because I grew up in Europe. As I mentioned, I'm from Luxembourg originally, and there's a large Italian and Portuguese community. They've been eating lupini beans in those cultures for centuries because of their health benefits. I was learning more about the unique functional benefits that it has, and the incredible environmental benefits. I just saw a real vision to introduce it to the US market and build a brand platform around lupini beans, and that's how Lupii was born.

Betty: 

I love it. I mean, similar insight for me with starting Upright as well, recognizing the importance of protein and that's why we're doing a high protein, oat milk not using a soy or pea based legume protein that a ton of people are allergic to, and that have their own environmental challenges. I would love to dig more into that. Tell me more about lupini beans, I feel like it's not a super utilized protein right now or an ingredient in the US market, despite so many advantages and benefits to it. Can you talk to us about what makes lupini beans so great?

Isabelle: 

Totally. Lupini is an ancient ingredient, right? We're not bringing something new to the table here and forcing people to eat something that nobody has ever eaten before. As I mentioned, it has a long culinary and agricultural history based in the Mediterranean region of Europe. There are some stories around the Romans and gladiators eating lupini beans, those were mostly actually plant based, and they would eat up because they already knew at that time that they were so nutrient dense and made  the gladiators strong for their fighting, so there was already a recognition around the protein piece. It has a long history over there. Now, it's always hard to penetrate a new market. The US, as we know, is very much based on monoculture growing that has been highly subsidized over the last decades. It's hard to introduce new ingredients, but the tides are shifting, and we can see how consumers want novelty, they want better, higher quality, plant based foods. Farmers want to diversify their growing, we need soils to be revitalized and to put nutrients back into our soil, so that we actually feed ourselves nutrients. There's a real opening there and lupini is so outstanding because for one, it's a complete protein which is pretty rare in plant based foods, and it has all nine essential amino acids. It also has more protein than any other legume that's out there, and it is even slightly higher than soy, which has long been considered the legume with the highest concentration of plant protein. It is packed with prebiotic fiber, something also that consumers are starting to recognize as so essential for their general gut health but also overall immune health. It is naturally low in carbohydrates, which is really unique for beans. It's really checking these main consumer claims that consumers are shopping for. And for the environmental piece, we know that consumers' main drivers are still their personal health, but more and more it is also about the environmental piece, the sustainability piece. The eating for the planet piece becomes important and lupini beans are nitrogen fixers, they are used extensively in regenerative agriculture. I already touched on that slightly here, but especially in the States there is a real need for crop biodiversity, and for nitrogen fixers to be reintroduced to U.S soils. Lupini beans also flourish in really harsh climates, like colder climates or hotter climates, and it doesn't need a lot of water to grow. From that perspective, it's really very sustainable as well. For all these reasons, it is really poised to take over the US market.

Betty: 

What a miracle ingredient. I can see why you would want to start a product using this incredible ingredient. When you did come up with this insight, and realized that lupini beans had so much potential and so much opportunity in the US, how did you get started? What were the first steps that you took towards bringing your vision to life?

Isabelle: 

I was still working full time at my last startup job, a software company based in Brooklyn, fantastic company, totally unrelated to food. I had started research on the lupini, I had started talking to some farmers and growers over in Europe. In Germany and France, mostly, I started talking to some policymakers over there, and some other entrepreneurs that were using the ingredients and thinking that if we're introducing new ingredients, what is the best format to do that in and knowing American consumers, especially younger generations, they love to snack and are looking for more nutrient dense snack options throughout their day. I quickly landed on snacking as a really interesting category to go into. I also started researching, what can you actually make out of the lupini beans? A lot of that research was testing products that I found when I would visit family in Europe, but also trying stuff in my own kitchen. I had come up with these little bites that were actually using whole beans in them, and I started making them in my kitchen and ended up getting a food handlers license and scaling it to a commissary Kitchen. A friend of mine owns restaurants here in New York, and so he let me use his commissary. I started selling that in two local stores down the street from me, like super tiny, small scale, just to test and people loved it. There was such curiosity about the ingredient and obviously the product was different than what it is today. But it was a way for me to get some insights and to see that there's a real interest in the format for the ingredients. That then led me to flushing out what the actual first product would be, and the bites became bars. At a time when I was doing this, the company wasn't called Lupii. I don't think we had a name for it actually. I started at that time thinking about how I could sell this and ended up leaving my job. Coincidentally, I was introduced to a startup studio at a time that was looking to build something in a plant based space. It felt like the timing was just perfectly aligned. I also started looking for a co-founder around that time, because I had seen the most successful businesses and teams that I've worked for, were teams of co-founders with complementary skills. I went on a real co-founder dating journey, and literally had a Excel spreadsheet with people in there, like probably over 70 contacts in my network. I was at the point already thinking, it's going to be really hard for me to actually find this perfect unicorn person who wants to do this with me. And then I was introduced to Allie, my co-founder through a common connection. She doesn't only share a passion for plant based eating and holistic health, but also has a really incredible food and beverage background. It just was meant to be and then we started joining Forces and taking Lupii to the next level.

Betty: 

It's amazing to hear how much work went into this, but it's obvious that it all paid off with the two of you founders coming together and the product becoming the bars that they are now. The bars are getting rave reviews online, I was taking a look there, and it’s such amazing feedback. How did you land on the right, complementary ingredients and formulation? I know that dates are a big part of it, I'm just curious if you could talk about that a bit.

Isabelle: 

For one, I started doing a lot of research around the space, bars specifically. A real challenge that the category has is that most of them are really over-processed, or they're very simple and don't actually deliver on functional nutritional benefits. It's kind of either/or. You have Larabars, which were probably the only bar that I consumed before Lupii was born, because I love the simplicity, but I never found them to be particularly nutritious. They're not that high in protein and not that high in fiber. And then you have all the very processed bars, like the Quest bars, which for a long time were the go-to bars for a lot of consumers, but they are highly processed and have a ton of added ingredients. They use protein isolates usually, and are stripped of all the nutrients, usually depleted of fiber, and then they have all these additives to mask the taste of protein isolate because it doesn't taste good. I was looking at a space and I saw the real white space to combine both, to have functional benefits that I can achieve through using lupini, but also the simplicity of the nutrition label. As a consumer and when I started doing research and talking to other consumers and doing survey work, I realized a lot of other people had left the category because of exactly the reason that they felt like they weren't eating food anymore. So how can we bring the food back into the bar category by keeping nutrition labels really simple and clean and using whole ingredients. I have kind of those golden standards when I was thinking about recipe development. We don't believe in discriminating macronutrients, so we're believing in a nice combination of carbohydrates, protein, fiber, and fats. We landed quickly on dates as a great sweetener. Dates are lower glycemic than a lot of other sweeteners, they are packed with fiber, they have lots of other micronutrient benefits, and they're just a great way to add natural sweetness to bars. I was playing around a lot in my kitchen. In my very first startup job, I worked for a food startup and had worked extensively with chefs and learned a lot about recipe development. So it was a lot of trial and error, it was a lot of taking samples to focus groups and getting feedback and improving. Finally, we landed on the first recipe and we found a fantastic co-packer. We literally went into their factory, scaled the recipe together, and then launched the first iteration of the bar. Over the last two years, we've gotten tons of great feedback and we've already made some tweaks and changes to the packaging, and a little bit to the formulation. It's always important to listen to consumers and to really continue to iterate and make the product even better.

Betty: 

Amazing, a ton of work went into it, but it clearly has paid off. On that note of packaging, you spent all this time iterating on the right ingredients and the right format and all that, and so once you came up with the bar format that you had now and the formulations for those, how did you decide on what packaging to use, especially right now in the CPGs and for such as sustainable ingredient based product? Packaging sustainability is also a very hot topic, so how did you decide on what packaging to use for your bars?

Isabelle: 

It’s such a difficult topic. I have probably researched packaging before we launched for over a year. I came to the conclusion that unfortunately, there's a lot of greenwashing out there. I knew I needed packaging that preserves my product for at least 12 months, so I could land on retail shelves. At the time, I was looking at recyclable packaging, which was very challenging. A lot of plastic doesn't actually get recycled correctly, because there's no infrastructure in the States for that. Then I was looking at compostable packaging, and unfortunately, all the food-safe packaging that I found that would preserve the bars and the texture and moisture, was not backyard compostable. It was only compostable in industrial facilities, which I don't even know where to find an industrial composting facility down the street from me here in Brooklyn. I realized that there was really no great solution for bars, specifically that were able to preserve the product and reduce waste, but also were sustainable, or in my opinion, as sustainable as they should be. So what we ended up doing is we went with this plastic wrapper, and we do have some partners that can upcycle the wrappers. TerraCycle is a great organization. I personally like to collect my wrappers and drop them off at a TerraCycle drop off location. But that's not easy and convenient, and we recognize that. While we're waiting for better options that are truly sustainable to come to the market, we decided to work with CleanHub, a really amazing organization. We take responsibility for the waste that we create as a business and started a plastic offsetting program. So we are plastic neutral, meaning that we commit each year to collecting the equivalent of plastic that we emit into the system for our bars, from the most polluted areas in the world, so that they don't enter the oceans, which is one of the biggest problems of plastic waste. It's not a perfect solution, and we're eager for the first truly compostable packaging to launch and for us to use that. In the meantime at least, we're offsetting some of the waste that we're creating. Luckily we have cardboard boxes and master cases that can be recycled, so on that front we are able to deliver on more sustainability. Hopefully that will happen with the wrappers soon as well.

Betty: 

I think the fact that you're already doing all the offsets for your plastic and making it plastic-neutral is huge. And I agree, it's such a challenging topic in CPG. I think you're already doing a lot, and I'm hoping that there'll be more sustainable options in the future. I'm looking towards the future then, so what's next for the brand? What is your vision for Lupii? Where do you think it's going next?

Isabelle: 

We're coming out of two years out of the pandemic. We launched in January 2020, crazy timing, we had grand visions to go after retail first, totally threw that plan out the window in March of 2020, and started focusing on direct consumer and Amazon. We made some exciting progress on the retail front. Last year, we actually just launched in Erewhon, in LA, which is huge for us, we had been working on that account for a long time. And then we have some really other exciting retail launches that we'll be announcing soon. So finally, getting on those shelves of some of the major US retailers regionally is really exciting. That's what we're focused on for 2022. We have a new flavor that is going to launch shortly. I'm going to say it has chocolate chips in it, and it's delicious. We are definitely excited about that. And then we're working on some other product lines as well. We really see Lupii as a platform for lupini beans. Bars were a first way to introduce the ingredient to consumers in a format that is already accessible and has a wide variety of applications throughout the day. But we're also working on some other product ranges that we'll hopefully be able to launch later this year. So yeah, lots of exciting things.

Betty: 

Very, very exciting. Well, I'll definitely be keeping my eye out for sure. It's so impressive to see how far you've come now with the brand and with the sales channels and the products. Looking back on your journey up until now, what is the best piece of advice that you've received that you would give to other founders who are early on in their journeys?

Isabelle: 

I think there's a lot of advice and a lot of helpful insights that people share. One thing personally, and I don't remember who said that to me, but when you start a business, and especially when you're so emotionally involved, and you care so deeply, the highs can be really high, and the lows can be really low, and it can literally feel like a roller coaster. So the best advice that I could give is, make the highs a little less high, and the lows a little less low, so that you can just even it out a little bit and know that whenever you're down, there's going to be another success waiting around the corner. It truly is a marathon. There's no quick wins. It takes all a lot of time, it takes waking up every morning and putting on a clean uniform and doing it again. Endurance is essential. In order to have that endurance, it's really important to just stay emotionally even-heeled as much as you can. I think that's definitely what I'm trying to live by.

Betty: 

Really good advice. Thank you. To wrap up for our listeners who are interested, where can they go to learn more about your brand and your products?

Isabelle: 

Yeah, totally. The website is a great place to go, getlupii.com. We have an Instagram account @getlupii. I personally think we're putting out some really fun, accessible content on there, so that's another great place to find out more. And as I said, stay tuned about some retail launches. We have a newsletter list where we always announce new retail launches. For Erewhon in LA, if you're out there, go support us. We're in a lot of independent stores in the Northeast, some small chain accounts. We’re also in the Pacific Northwest, Metropolitan Market in Seattle, if you're out there, come and check us out.

Betty: 

Amazing, thanks so much. I will personally vouch for your Instagram account in particular, I love the memes that I get. Thank you so much again for joining us today. Wishing you the best of luck as you continue your success and growth!

Isabelle: 

Thank you so much for having me!

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