One of the biggest global forces in food is trying its mightiest to get ahead of one of today’s biggest dietary trends. And it’s coming to Monterey County to do it.
Behemoth Swiss corporation Nestlé has acquired Moss Landing-based Sweet Earth, which specializes in convenient vegan meals—ranging from basil pesto lasagna bowls to curry satay—and other snacks made from plant-based proteins.
Co-owners Kelly and Brian Swette (pronounced “Sweetie”) acquired the company from longtime Pagrovian Caren Hicks and Pebble Beach’s Ken Silveira after Hicks, her husband and, later, Silveira, ran Sweet Earth out of a modest spot tucked between Juice and Java and Grove Market’s parking lot in Pacific Grove, from 1978 to 2011.
The Swette husband-wife combo brought high-powered corporate experience to natural foods: Brian spent years directing Burger King (and felt compelled to make up for selling so much cheap meat); Kelly directed marketing at Calvin Klein, among other places.
They overhauled Sweet Earth packaging and messaging, and stripped down its product line to focus on seitan (aka “wheat meat”), tofu’s protein-packed cousin, and opened a shiny, 37,000-square-foot production kitchen and shipping facility in the former Diamond Organic plant.
Today Sweet Earth employs about 200 people locally and its products include everything from teriyaki seitan patties to premade burritos with quinoa, sweet potato, goat cheese and spirulina blue-green algae. At places like Perfectly Pressed Juice Bar ‘n’ Cafe in Seaside, Cornucopia Market in Carmel and Cherry Bean in Salinas, breakfast sandwiches like the meatless sausage sandwich (with egg and gouda) and burritos like the protein lover’s (with “Benevolent Bacon”) prove popular.
Sweet Earth items also appear in more than 10,000 U.S. stores, including Whole Foods, Target, Kroger, Walmart and independent natural-leaning grocers.
Nestlé, the largest food company on the planet (by revenue and other metrics), first contacted the Swettes about a year ago. Last week, USA Chairman and CEO Paul Grimwood acknowledged in a statement that consumers are eating less meat and that’s affecting Nestlé’s holdings.
“One of Nestlé’s strategic priorities is to build out our portfolio of vegetarian and flexitarian choices in line with modern health trends,” the statement reads. “Sweet Earth gives Nestlé a leading position in this emerging space.”
Sweet Earth will continue to be led by the Swettes from its Hilltop Road headquarters indefinitely. “They put value not just on us but our team,” Brian says. “They want that California innovation, and know we might have something in the DNA out here that’s powerful. They were passionate that the team stay intact and act as independently as we can.”
He adds the deal—whose financials both sides are keeping secret—comes down to Sweet Earth’s core values, laid out on its website: “We nourish lives by making smart food choices that honor and sustain the land, cultivate a curious mind and palate, and sustain a healthy body.”
“The decision was that [Nestlé] would be super-helpful in advancing the mission,” Brian says, citing Nestlé’s reservoirs of technology, engineering, ingredient procurement and “systems thinking.” “They’re a large sophisticated company and we’re very innovative.”
Kelly points to opportunities to access more sales outlets and for employees to gain more training and advancement.
But a natural foods audience won’t be thrilled with a family business selling to a massive corporation, particularly one with a track record like Nestlé’s. (Starting in the 1970s, their aggressive marketing of baby formula to third-world countries sparked years of international boycotts. Dangerous levels of lead detected by government tests in an instant-noodle brand popular in India, Maggi, led to public outcry and, in 2015, a temporary ban.)
“We actually think it’s positive that the world’s largest food company wants to buy a flavor-forward, plant-based, sustainable company that’s in the health and wellness space,” says Kelly, who is CEO and directs marketing and product development. “It’s recognition and validation that consumers want more wholesome, sustainable choices.”
Brian adds this: “For those questioning a big company being interested, Nestlé’s decision is a validation of those doubters’ belief systems. This is Nestlé following them. I’d ask people not to pre-judge. They didn’t buy us to stop our mission. They bought us to accelerate and support it.”
In addition to the health benefits of eating less meat, the Sweet Earth mission emphasizes lower environmental impacts that accompany a plant-based diet. The irony there: Nestlé has had its share of environmental drama; most recently, it has enraged activists for piping water from a national forest outside Los Angeles to be resold in bottles.
Kelly points out that the team they interact with (Nestlé USA’s food division) represents a different part of the company than the water side, and one focused on how modern consumer buying plays a role in health and wellness, whether that’s personal or environmental.
“Consumers want more choices,” Kelly says. “They want vegan, organic, non-GMO, that’s what we are and that’s what Nestlé wants to be a part of.
“They want to advance our mission and I think that’s good for food.”