Written by Marla Hardee Milling | Photos by Evan Anderson
No Evil Foods’ Sadrah Schadel and Mike Woliansky aren’t just selling plant-based products—they’re hoping to make the world a better place in the process.
In April 2014 Sadrah Schadel and Mike Woliansky set up a booth at the Asheville City Market early on a Saturday morning and displayed trays of their plant-based meats for potential customers to sample. That’s where they made their very first sale and gained a devoted following.
Now, five years later, they are transitioning their company, No Evil Foods, into its own manufacturing facility at the old Arvato Digital building (aka “The Axis”) in Weaverville—an impressive feat for a business that got its start in the basement of Schadel’s parents’ upstate New York home.
No Evil Foods delights customers with full-flavored plant meats. Their products include four year-round choices: Comrade Cluck (“no chicken”), The Stallion Italian Sausage, El Zapatista—a fiery sausage, and Pitt Boss, which is slow smoked BBQ; plus, during the holiday season they serve up The Pardon, a roast turkey alternative. Their products are 100 percent plant-based, non-GMO, and free from saturated fats, antibiotics, hormones, soy protein isolates, nitrates, and dairy. They craft the “meats” from beans, wheat berries, yeast, organic herbs and spices, and other simple ingredients.
Capital at Play first introduced readers to No Evil Foods in its annual Sweet & Savory feature in December 2014. We caught up with Sadrah and Mike a few weeks ago as they inspected the construction process at the new facility. At that time, they were still maintaining a four-day a week, two-shift (7AM to midnight) production schedule at Blue Ridge Food Ventures in Candler to keep up with the demand. They have since transitioned production to their new facility.
“We had no expectation of any of this,” says Sadrah, a life-long vegetarian. “We didn’t even know if anyone would buy it. We just wanted to do it because we thought it was important and it made us happy to make good food for people and feed people in our community. It took off beyond our expectations. The business has had its own plans for us and we’re just following along.”
From the modest tailgate market beginnings, No Evil Foods products are now sold in retail locations in 48 states. Sadrah explains, “We have been servicing all of those 48 states from Blue Ridge Food Ventures, which the kitchen space there is about 800 square feet, so the fact that we’ve been able to continuously revise and create efficiencies there to keep our production at the level we’ve been able to and continue to grow it in that space has been remarkable. I can only imagine what we’re going to be able to do in this new space.”
Their products are currently sold in Whole Foods, Ingles, Earthfare, French Broad Co-op, West Village Market, 250 locations of Walmart, a few Publix, Wegmans, and others. In 2018 they grew from 350 stores to almost 2,500 stores, and their goal is to double that number in 2019. They’re preparing to move into more Walmart stores this year and say they are bringing in a lot of new conventional retailers that they can’t disclose just yet.
“We’ll be launching into some big hitters in the grocery world that we’re excited to partner with,” says Sadrah.
They also distribute products locally through Mountain Food Products and many restaurants including those at Biltmore Estate, Blue Dream Curry, and Bonfire BBQ have incorporated their products into their menus.
“Bonfire BBQ is unique because they are such a meat-heavy concept,” says Sadrah. “They feature our BBQ because people go in mixed company and some eat meat, and some don’t. They can all get a meal that’s on par with each other. That’s really important to us because we didn’t want vegetarians or vegans or people looking to eat more plant-based meals to have a lesser experience than anyone else. We wanted to elevate that, and our chef partners in the area are really helping with that.”
Growth has been so rapid that they made the bittersweet decision late last year to discontinue sales at area tailgate markets. They hated saying goodbye to the venues that helped them grow and expand, but it’s a necessary transition to keep up with demand.
“A lot of people ask why we just didn’t open a storefront here in Asheville. Rather than being the local vegan butcher here in Asheville, we decided to cast our net broadly and become everyone’s butcher and make those options to a far greater amount of people, which helps further our mission. People have more access to more products, which means more environmental benefits as a result, improved health as a result, and lessened cruelty and animal welfare.”
The process of finding a suitable manufacturing site, securing a lease, and going through a thoughtful process to create the best process flow and efficient build-out began around February 2018. The Axis space is situated on Monticello Road in Weaverville—an easy commute from Sadrah and Mike’s home in Barnardsville.
The site is especially appealing because even though they are in a small section of a very large building, they get the benefit of the infrastructure of a much larger manufacturing facility with plenty of loading dock space, easy access from highways for trucks, utilities, and empty space for future growth.
The design phase took longer than they expected, but they wanted to get the process flow just right. Along with hiring an architect, engineer, and contractor, they also tapped into some resources in the plant-based industry to help them consider all the possibilities—not just for building out the space, but also for future expansion.
“There was no blueprint for what we are doing,” says Sadrah. “We had to really think about it. Even in the plant-based industry, people aren’t making their products exactly as we are making ours. So, figuring out how the process flow of how our space might come together took a lot more planning and thought than it might have ordinarily.”
The actual build-out began in mid-September 2018 and lasted into April. Capital at Play toured the building at a time when an imagination was necessary to envision the result, but one of the things that stood out is the inclusion of an Innovation Kitchen. Since the products were first created in a home kitchen, they wanted to have a space mimicking that the look and feel of a home kitchen for their small batch testing and new product development.
“I did all the recipe development for our products, so I will continue to be the main person,” says Sadrah. “I did bring in an innovation anager to help me with that. She’s someone who comes to us from Fern—a restaurant in Charlotte. She’s really interested in learning. She’s my practical hands and will execute a lot of the concepts I’m coming up with.”
They have also planned out a flex space with a big table for weekly team meals and couches to relax on break.
Mike leads the way through other partially-finished spaces being transformed into a gowning room, mixing room, making room, and dish room. There will be windows to allow people to see into the production rooms without stepping inside. There’s also a separate entrance and separate gowning room leading into the packaging side of the facility. Finished products go into big freezers, but they are quickly removed and headed out the door to keep up with demand. The products are currently cycling out almost immediately.
By the end of the year, they estimate they will employ 50 people, which will double the number of workers from before they moved into their larger facility. They are also very mindful about continuing to use a lot of handmade processes in the creation of their products.
“We’re bringing equipment in, but it’s still very hands on and artisanal,” says Sadrah. “There’s a person behind every step of it. That was important to us as we got bigger. We wanted to maintain that personal touch and the people part of the puzzle.”
“In adding new equipment,” explains Mike, “the focus is really about making the job better for the people doing it. It’s not so much about taking people out of the equation but thinking about things we do that people don’t enjoy or is physically impactful on a team better. We think about how we can bring equipment in to make that a better, more enjoyable job rather than taking the job away.”
They realize that many companies use a co-packer or co-manufacturing facility that’s often located in a different state than the company headquarters, but they wanted to be a vital part of the local community and employ local people.
Funding a Dream
Growing a business takes a lot of capital and Sadrah and Mike credit a devoted investor pool that includes a mix of their family and friends, angels, and institutional investors. No Evil Foods is set up as an LLC and it has a board that includes three founding members and two outside members.
“We’ve been focused on sustainable growth for a couple of years now,” says Sadrah, “and that’s right in line with our mission statement. We want to build a company that not only produces food that is good for us and sustainable for the environment, but a company culture that is inherently good for our team, which includes our investors. Our seed round in 2018 was focused on finding a small group of like-minded, mission-oriented investors to help us fund both the new facility, as well as start building the team we needed to support our growth.”
The couple received an N.C. Idea Grant in 2017, which they point to as a highlight of their early success. Other recognition has also flowed to the company. In 2018 at the inaugural Venture 15 Awards, Venture Asheville ranked No Evil Foods as the third fasting growing company in Asheville. Sadrah Points out that their Compound Annual Growth rate over the past four years has been 144 percent.
In 2018 they also became living wage certified and certified as a woman-owned business. (Sadrah: “We supported our transition to The Axis through our successful seed round in 2018. We’ve invested in the upfit as well as our community by creating 20+ new living wage certified jobs in Buncombe County.”) And at Expo East in Baltimore, Vegworld Magazine named No Evil Foods best in show for plant meats; locally, they were named food maker of the year by the Stoobie Awards, created by well-known local food writer Stu Helm.
In addition to retail sales, they offer online ordering with free shipping nationwide and comparable pricing to what the items sell for in stores. Products are fully cooked at the facility, so customers only need to re-heat and eat at home. They are also easy to freeze and then break out when you have a craving or need to whip up a quick meal.
They don’t plan to offer walk-in sales of their products the manufacturing facility just yet, but that may be an option down the line.
“We want to get the manufacturing up and running before we divert attention elsewhere, but I would love to have a tasting room,” says Sadrah. “We do have a space sort of visually set aside that could be our tasting room one day where we could hold, kind of similar to a brewery, where they come in and get a flight of plant meat, or something similar where we can welcome the public into our space.”
“I’ve had the idea in my head that I would like to create the feel of what it’s like to go to a brewery, but in a food manufacturing space,” Mike adds.
Speaking of breweries, Mike and Sadrah think it would be a fantastic fit if a new brewery and other food-based businesses moved in to some of the empty space in the same building.
“We’d love to see it become a community food hub because it does have all of that existing infrastructure,” says Sadrah. “We hope our presence here will help attract other people here and make it a lively place. Weaverville is a great town.”
Sadrah grew up on a 13-acre farm in upstate New York and Mike grew up in New Jersey. They started crafting their plant-based meats in New York, but they kept their eyes open for a better culture fit for their lives and business.
“A lot of people kept putting Asheville in our ear,” says Sadrah. “My brother lived in Charlotte, so we came down for a visit and, like everyone else, we really fell in love with the craft beer, the mountains, and the nature of the food scene. The fact that Blue Ridge Food Ventures existed was influential in our decision to move here because we had this business idea in the back of our minds at that time.”
They arrived in Asheville in 2011 and began selling No Evil Foods products in 2014. Along with the growing business, they also have a growing family. Sadrah gave birth to their second child in December. (Their first child is three years old.) She cradles the infant in a wearable sling as she and Mike talk about their vision and future plans.
“I don’t want to say we’ve figured out the balance because there is no balance, but we’ve come to terms with how our lives are,” says Sadrah. Her words elicit a knowing chuckle from Mike.
“Some days that’s harder than others,” she continues, “but generally, Mike does more of the day-to-day and I’m still very involved with more of the behind the scenes work. That’s also just by nature of the way our positions break down in the company. He’s more focused on operations and finance, and certainly with the building-out of the facility he’s much more present and here every day. I focus more on innovation, sales, and marketing. A lot of that happens behind the scenes, but also front and center when I’m giving interviews and podcasts and doing more of the publicity side. I can work those opportunities in with a sleeping baby bouncing on my chest.”
They’ve hired a plant manager and additional production staff, but they are committed to remaining extremely hands-on with steering the direction.
“We want to drive what the company is, what it does, what it’s about, what the mission and core values state, and stay present throughout everything we are doing,” says Mike.
“We never got into this to sell something. We got into this to do something,”
Adds Mike, “Getting the product out there to more people is about making a difference, whether that’s in their personal life, in their personal health, or in the greater environmental sustainability of food choices or in the animal welfare aspect of what we do. It’s about getting the product to more people and making it accessible to more people. It keeps me passionate and energized, when I probably shouldn’t be for lack of sleep, because there’s a reason we’re doing it more than just for the product itself.
“We’re doing it because the product helps make this a better world.”
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