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WITH VIDEO: Neat is going big and fast

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“This isn't meat — this is neat!”

Phil and Laura Lapp’s oldest daughter said that in fall 2011 upon tasting the pecan-and-garbanzo-based meat replacement that Laura had concocted. The description seemed apt, and they ran with it.

In March 2012, they officially formed Neat Foods LLC; by 2013, they were selling Neat out of their house, and last August Phil quit his job to focus on Neat. By late spring or early summer, Phil says, Neat will be in roughly 500 stores.

Behind that story lies the narrative of a couple identifying an opportunity, deciding it holds promise and, after deliberation, going all-in. The product itself is important, but they view the Neat brand as their biggest asset, and so they invested heavily in developing it even before they started selling the product.

“You can really only be the first or second to market with a product in order to have the consumer recognize your brand with that category,” he says. “Once you get deeper into that and you’re the fifth, sixth, 10th brand, you get lost. We wanted to get out very quickly and get in the consumer’s mind that Neat is a meat substitute.”

Phil speaks like an experienced food marketer, which he is. He had been a corporate sales director for Lancaster-based pretzel company Auntie Anne’s Inc., which has more than 1,500 locations in more than 30 countries, since 2006.

Laura also has relevant experience; educated as a neuroscientist, she has a business called Perfect Pots Container Gardens in West Lampeter Township.

The nasty surprises

For help with branding, the Lapps turned to The Infantree in Lancaster. Ryan Martin, one of two principals and creative directors there, says establishing a brand from the very beginning of a company is “an ideal situation,” although in most cases, the studio says, it’s important to establish a loyal local or niche following before trying to take a product to the masses.

But the Lapps had a vision and the domain name of eatneat.com, so the studio jumped in to help get the company ready for the big leagues it was aiming for. About that time, Phil says, they applied for a trademark on Neat and found that the Mayo Clinic was also trying to trademark the word, although not for the same product.

“Being ignorant of the process, we had our lawyer reach out to them to see if it was acceptable that we use this brand as a meat substitute,” Phil says. “They wrote back and said no.”

Distraught, the Lapps got a second opinion from a trademark attorney, who encouraged them to move forward with the brand. They did, but as progress on the business continued, so did the occasional letters of objection from Mayo.

Shortly before Neat’s first big event, they got more bad news: Some testers were reporting upset stomachs after eating Neat.

“I’m tough,” Phil recalls telling Laura, “but I don’t know how much more I can bear.”

The good news

But bear it they did. They traced the problem to white beans in the recipe, removed them, verified that the issue was solved and then stickered tens of thousands of unfilled packages with the updated information. At Natural Products Expo East, they were buoyed by the enthusiastic reception Neat received there.

Then came news that Mayo had abandoned the claim, and the next months were a bit of a blur, Phil says. They brought on some local investors and employees, and they hope to be profitable by summer, as their business plan calls for them to be. They’re busy selling four flavors of Neat, and Phil is thinking about the next round of product offerings, bouncing ideas off his advisory board at SCORE Central Pa. At this point, Phil says, things are looking favorable.

As it rises, Neat is bringing along a key partner: VisionCorps, which not only manufactures Neat in part of its food-processing facility but also orders all the ingredients.

“We fell in love with employing folks who have a very high unemployment rate nationwide,” Phil says.

Being socially responsible is a main pillar of Neat’s business model, he says, and sending work to VisionCorps’ blind and visually impaired workers fits that bill. “We started off with two, now I think we’re up to 15 or so at the plant.”

Dennis Steiner, president and CEO of VisionCorps, says in turn that Neat has gotten the organization a lot of positive attention.

“Oftentimes people come to us and they’ve got an idea for a product, but they don’t really have the vision to market it and sell it,” Steiner says. “It takes the know-how to bring the product to market, and that’s what Phil was able to do.”

Big breaks

The Neat momentum has gotten some important boosts along the way.

August 2013: The world’s first test-tube burger is fried, splattering meat alternatives all over the news.

September 2013: The Lapps go to Natural Products Expo East and hand out more than 3,500 samples to “overwhelmingly positive” response.

February 2014: Laura Lapp makes her QVC debut.

March 2014: A fellow exhibitor at Natural Products Expo West lauds Neat in a Huffington Post story.

April 2014: WGAL-TV (Channel 8) runs a story on Neat. It is picked up and aired nationally, and that Sunday, Neat gets about 500 online orders.

Growing market

Sales of meat alternatives reached $553 million in 2012, representing 8 percent growth from 2010, according to market research firm Mintel.

Only 7 percent of consumers identify as vegetarian, Mintel said, but 36 percent of consumers surveyed in March 2013 indicated use of meat alternatives.

“Health perception plays a large role in use of meat alternatives,” the report said. “One third of consumers indicate using products in the category because they are healthy, higher than any other reason measured in the report.”

Being vegetarian isn’t Neat’s only appeal to the health-conscious crowd: Neat’s products also boast being gluten- and soy-free and not containing lots of chemicals.

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