How Vejii plans to help vegan go mainstream

The B.C.-based food marketplace offers products from big name brands and local startups to capture a growing consumer base.

CanadaBannerHiRes (1)

As the grocery stores and QSRs that offer a growing selection of faux meat and protein alternatives can attest, plant-based lifestyles are no longer a fringe Canadian interest. But for Kory Zelickson, a West coast-based serial entrepreneur with three young kids, sticking to a vegan diet still requires his family to do a lot of running around.

“While there has been a lot of growth in grocery stores for plant-based products… we always end up having to go to like two or three different stores to get everything we need,” he says.

It’s one of the reasons the founder and CEO launched Vejii, an online marketplace offering a range of plant-based products from category-leading brands like Yves Veggie Cuisine, Beyond Meat and Greenleaf Foods’ Lightlife and Field Road, as well as local startups. “Our goal is to help mainstream vegan products,” he says.

While there are a number of smaller vegan vendors already selling products locally (including Natura Market and Thunder Bay’s Compass Foods), Zelickson (pictured below) hopes Vejii will capture the growing number of Canadian vegans and “flexitarians” – people who go meatless part of the time or are cutting down on their consumption of traditional proteins – by serving as a one-stop-shop that delivers an online experience akin to what they might find at a major retailer.

Kory Zelickson

In Canada, Vejii currently lists products from 13 different brands specializing in meat and dairy alternatives, from Gardein to So Delicious and Tofurky. But, Zelickson says, it soon hopes to add fresh produce to the assortment and expand in other areas, such as plant-based cheese. “We’re working on developing on a regional basis across Canada by working with local brands and even farmers who have produce that can ship to consumers within a defined area.”

By bringing together local startups and more established brands on the Vejii platform, Zelickson believes Vejii can provide national exposure for the former, while helping the latter connect and target new customers.

Joel Gregoire, associate director of food and drink at Mintel, says the industry can expect to see more niche marketplaces like Vejii sprout up as plant-based diets become more mainstream. Not only have brands like Beyond Meat and Oat Milk convinced consumers that their products are “better substitutes for the real thing than they used to be,” but the space continues to heat up with innovation from startups looking to get their products into consumers’ hands.

For brands, partnering with a platform like Vejii can build credibility in the space as “this would be a stop for die-hard plant-based consumers,” says Gregoire. But for companies like Beyond Meat that are more likely to go after flexitarians – which represent a broader slice of the market – the question becomes: “Will its appeal extend beyond vegetarians and vegans?”

Gregoire also notes brands stand to benefit if the cost of getting “on shelf” is lower on platforms like Vejii than entering traditional channels. “This could be a good space to test concepts with plant-based diehards,” he says. “This may also be a good space for smaller, less well-known brands to get exposure.”

Before debuting in Canada in April, Vejii first launched stateside in November, where it offers a much larger selection of products across a wider array of categories, from wine to personal and home care products, vitamins, supplements, cosmetics and fragrances. The decision allowed Vejii to target the much larger U.S. market first, Zelickson says, but it also had to do with the company’s distribution model.

As a marketplace, Vejii enables vendors to sell direct to customers. It also has a Veggie Express offering, consisting of the “high velocity skews that are highest in demand,” with inventory shipped directly from Vejii’s warehouse. But it also has relationships with large-scale distribution partners, who list and sell products directly through the site. “The availability of the distributor partnerships that we had in the U.S. was much more significant than what was available in Canada. So it was easier for us to launch in the U.S. with a much larger variety of products,” says Zelickson.

On the marketing side, the startup has so far focused on digital marketing to acquire new customers. But at the North American level, it does a lot of work with influencers, both vegan and non-vegan, including vegan pro surfer and brand ambassador Tia Blanco (who has also served as a brand ambassador for Beyond Meat.) As part of the partnership announced in January, Vejii launched Blanco’s brand of vegan and cruelty-free cosmetic products, Dear Self Skincare, on its platform in the U.S.