In recent years, food technology companies have brought diners increasingly diverse non-meat meat options — since its launch in 2016, Impossible Foods has introduced “beef” burger patties and faux chicken nuggets, most recently debuting its take on pork alternative. Nestle’s gotten into the game with “vrimp,” it’s odiously-named shrimp substitute, which followed the development of its fish-replacement product, vuna. Now, one Bay Area company is introducing the very first plant-based lamb, and it will be unleashed on the world via San Francisco’s favorite fast-casual Greek mini-chain, Souvla.
The product is from Black Sheep Foods, a two-year old company that says its the first to bring plant-based, “heritage breed” lamb to market. Beginning Wednesday, October 20, Souvla will offer Black Sheep’s lamb as an option alongside pork, chicken, roasted white sweet potato, and of course, its popular spit-roasted (real) lamb, to be served on any of its salads or sandwiches. It’s the brand’s first menu addition since opening its Hayes Valley restaurant in 2014, a step Souvla’s founder and CEO Charles Bililies says is “very much a big deal for us.”
“We’re fortunate — so much of this innovation is happening right here, where we’re based,” Bililies told Eater. “We first were exposed to [the technology] years back with Impossible, and we did some experimenting with it on our end. But since we didn’t have beef on our menu to begin with, we kept looking out for new opportunities that were a better fit. Black Sheep came to us last year with this idea that they had been working on, and with lamb being such a signature part of the Souvla menu and being so synonymous with Greek cuisine, especially here in the States, it seemed like a great fit.”
The hugely popular mini-chain is in good company in the Bay — famed chef Dominique Crenn is set to serve cell-based chicken at her three Michelin-starred San Francisco restaurant Atelier Crenn, while chef Traci Des Jardins was one of the first in the Bay to put an Impossible Burger on her menu at the former Jardinière, and now serves as a culinary advisor for the company. While Souvla’s current vegetarian option, the roasted white sweet potato, is what Bililies calls its “sleeper hit,” the company has seen a growing number of requests for additional plant-based or meat-free options from its “loyal, very vocal fanbase,” Bililies says. “We’ve seen such a rise in the general consumer demand and appreciation for alternative meats, we thought the timing was right for us.”
Black Sheep Lamb is inspired by New Zealand’s Tunis breed, co-founders Sunny Kumar and Ismael Montanez say. Kumar, a tech entrepreneur, and Montanez, a biochemist, say it was a dearth of “lesser-known, bold tasting meats — both plant-based and not” that led them to the creation, one they say they hope will “democratize heritage breeds and wild game with the added intent of being environmentally conscious,” given that game meats are often too “scarce or costly” for consumers.
The end result for Souvla is a flavor profile that mirrors “how we cook and marinate our existing lamb,” Bililies says. “It’s done in a way where it’s sliced in cubes very similar to how we cut our lamb, texturally it has that game-specific, meaty texture to it, and from an aroma standpoint, it smells just like lamb, which is such a distinct smell,” says Bililies. “We’ve put it in front of many people on both of our teams and we’ve gotten to a configuration that we’re both super happy about. And for us, it really needs to be right in order to make such a significant change. And it is.”
Black Sheep’s lamb — a permanent menu addition at Souvla — will be available exclusively at all four Souvla restaurants in San Francisco or for Bay Area delivery for six weeks following its debut, after that the company will begin rolling out more restaurant partnerships.