a tuesday with wally
If I think back roughly ten years ago to my first ever experience with the Fry Family Food Co, it was during a spirited three-week long youth camp that was bursting at the seams with overly-excited, pubescent school kids. Despite not being vegan at the time, I was adamant on avoiding meat, for the kitchen's grubby and greasy tabletops and hasty meal prep did not sit well with me. In my mind, opting to be vegetarian for three weeks meant I would be less prone to falling ill.
Back then, Fry's was mainly known for sausages and burgers. With their simple flavours, they worked well sandwiched between two soft buns, with a slap of tomato sauce. Perfect camp food. Fast forward a few years, and Fry's is currently serving 27 countries around the world, selling an impressive range of meat-free products including pies, polony, chicken-style strips, battered prawn-style and vegan ice cream.
What I could have never anticipated - as the awkward tween who was attempting to avoid weird camp food all those years ago - would be the opportunity to meet Wally Fry, the founder of The Fry Family Foods Co, and the man who revolutionised vegan food in South Africa and around the world.
With less than 24 hours notice, I received a message that I had a chance to chat with Wally, who I was told, was down in Cape Town for a few days. Not wanting to pass up such a rare opportunity, I immediately agreed, in the hope of gaining knowledge on how the company began and what it was like for Wally being vegan before it was cool.
On that Tuesday afternoon, armed with my questions, I arrived exactly at 14:00 and offered him a firm handshake and a steady gaze. What started out as an interview transformed into a therapy session, a philosophical discussion and a teaching from a mentor all rolled into one.
Here is our conversation:
Francesca: "Fry Family Foods" - the name implies a family name, a family-owned business. How have you retained its family-business ethos over the years?
Wally: Well, the whole family is involved and do various jobs in the business. Each person brings a different skill which I identified when they were young, so their position in the company is very much suited to their skills and interests. Tammy is Marketing, Stacey is Packaging, Hayley and myself are R&D and Sean, my son-in-law, is involved in International Sales. We don't get in each other's space as everyone has been well defined to their capabilities.
Our children have lived and breathed Fry's from birth. It's their passion. From the beginning, my wife, Debbie, has infused all of us with the excitement and passion of needing to create a change of what goes on our plate. I believe all children are born with consciousness but parents are quick to overrule it. Debbie and I were already on the path of living a more conscious way of living by being vegetarian and thus were able to allow our children to express that truth of living a more conscious and compassionate life.
Francesca: Tell me how Fry's began.
Wally: I worked with my dad as a sugarcane farmer in rural KZN. Zulu was actually my first language. I then started selling goats to the Zulu people for their ceremonies. Buying and selling - that's what I did. First with sugarcane and then with livestock. The money I earned from trading goats went to my water skiing career. I was actually a Springbok boat skier at the time. Then I moved into construction after meeting Debbie. She helped make me conscious of what I was contributing to by eating meat.
But I was struggling to make the transition to vegetarianism. I realised that in order to be vegetarian I needed to make food I like to eat. At the same time, I began doing personal research into the animal agriculture industry. As someone who traded animals for a living and who saw animals as things to trade and exchange, I started seeing them as sentient begins. Then I learnt about the environmental impact the meat and dairy industry has on the planet. So I closed down the construction company in order to succeed as a vegetarian. And that's how Fry's began in Pinetown, Durban. Those 30 years have gone past in a blink!
Francesca: How did people respond when you began?
Wally: People didn't know what I was doing. I was really doing it for myself and my family. I didn't care about what other people thought. Then a marketing guy met with me who wanted to taste the product. He really wanted to get the word out. He saw people struggling and pointed out the gap in the market and said I needed to get into supermarkets. "You owe it to the people", he said. Only then did it occur to me that more people needed this product. It was an epiphany for me. He helped me with the marketing and putting together a business plan. And the only form of payment he wanted was to be able to buy it in stores.
Francesca: How difficult was it to get the product into retail stores back then? What were some of the strategies you used to get the retailers to try the product?
Wally: I only went on gut feel. I had no strategy and I didn’t know the rules. But I knew going into supermarkets was the right thing to do. So I would walk in with a platter bigger than this table we are sitting at with all the products, and I made them try the food even if that wasn’t the supermarkets' way of doing things - which it wasn't! They needed to be convinced that the food was good and they needed to buy into my ethos.
Francesca: What happened if they didn't eat it?
Wally: Then I left. But I didn't need to do that. Everyone agreed and ate and listened.
Francesca: And now, in contrast, you sell around the world with ease. How much % of the international market makes up the company’s business?
Wally: We are getting bigger and bigger - and fast. It’s now reached 40%, and is getting to 50%. 4 years ago it was 10%! But I'm so involved in the making of the product, I forget how many millions of people Fry's touch on a daily basis.
Francesca: Have you ever experienced any corporate pushback (e.g. Just Mayo not being able to be called mayo or various plant-based milks not allowed to be categorised as milk)?
Wally: I was told I couldn't call our sausage "sausage". But I said, "thanks for that", and carried on calling it sausage. I simply ignored it. People said I can’t call the burger a "burger". But it goes on burger buns. It doesn't have to be meat to be called a burger. And how do I describe our chicken product to my customers if I can't call it "chicken-style"? What else would you like me to call it?
Francesca: When did you know things were about to get big? What was your big break?
Wally: There wasn't that "aha" moment. It's like Adele - no one knew her 10 years ago and now when she performs she closes down cities. Does she realise it? I don't think she does. When things get bigger you don't realise it; you are just going with the flow. It was never how big we could be. The vision was to make Fry's globally available to people who wish to stop eating meat, to make a product that tastes good and to meet expectations so it's easy for them to make decisions. I don't stop to count how many people eat our products. In my mind, we are not big even now. In the World of Big, like McDonalds or McCain, we aren't big. In the World of Vegan, then yes, I would say we are big. People know who we are and our products are on trend globally.
Francesca: What is your personal favourite Fry’s product?
Wally: Polony. Without a doubt. I put it on sandwiches, or slice it thinly with a potato grater and fry it. I put it on pizza too. It's the family's favourite but not our top selling product. There's always a fight when a box comes in as to who gets the largest share.
Francesca: What I find fascinating, as someone like myself who only really starting cooking after I went vegan, is the learning curve you must have faced when developing recipes! You moved from construction to cooking, with no formal training, and mastered the taste and texture of meat products! What was the process like of testing and developing?
Wally: Phew. Total dedicated focus. I lived and breathed this thing. When you invest that much attention stuff happens. You get inspiration from outside yourself. Looking back, I've wondered how on earth I ever thought of that recipe. It requires an intense and passionate focus. It was hard but it was exciting. And no one was making it at the time. I couldn't phone anyone for help; I had to figure it out for myself. The knowledge of meat-making or baking have been done for centuries but what I was doing, no one had done. I made up my own rules. I would play with the ingredient itself and fully understand its properties, inside and out, before using it in the recipe. It really was all about trial and error.
Francesca: When you were developing these recipes, who was the customer in mind who inspired the early products? A meat-eater? A reducer? A vegetarian or vegan? And who do you think your main target market is now?
Wally: The vegans are already converted. They don't need any convincing. If they buy a Fry's product, that's great, but I'm not targeting them ever. The drive is to go for people who are lining up at KFC and The Hungry Lion. Meat eaters are the market. If they stop eating meat once a week, it's a start. They need to know they won't be disappointed eating our products and that it meets their expectations.
Francesca: How has the world, and market for vegan options, changed since you went vegan, and in particular, what are your thoughts on the spread of veganism in South Africa?
Wally: Don't worry about veganism globally or in South Africa as a whole. Worry about making a person stop eating meat once a week, and go from there. That's when change happens.
Francesca: Given how cheap meat is (and in many people’s opinion, how delicious it is too), how can you convince meat eaters to start making the switch?
Wally: It starts with taste. There are people who are starting to think about making the change and when they try this product they realise it tastes good - and resembles meat too - they are more easily convinced. Taste and sight are the most powerful in terms of desire. Our products will bluff your desire brain! Yes, that's it! It will bluff your desire brain!
Francesca: What have you learnt from the process of marketing Fry’s that you think is important for animal activists to know when spreading the message of veganism?
Wally: We don't do any confrontational marketing. The attitude is to join us, not to be against us. The one thing I do not stand for is when people start creating separations. When we classify people and their beliefs, division begins. Vegans vs vegetarians vs meat eaters... we are the best bla bla bla. The idea that vegans and meat eaters can't mix is wrong. We must rather be inclusive. That's the way to invite people into the vegan lifestyle.
The only thing we confront people with is a solution, and Fry's is that solution. Taste has such a strong effect in changing perceptions. Showing people, with food, that they won't miss out on anything and then to allow them to make the changes by themselves, week by week, without force. Remember, all vegans were once meat eaters too. Have a look at Animals Australia - I think they have the right approach.
Francesca: When you spoke at the World Preservation Foundation Conference in London in 2012, you spoke about the link between diet and climate change. Can you offer some thoughts on South Africa’s current drought and how going plant-based can help reduce the impact of the current drought and future climate change issues?
Wally: Get used to it. Fast. There are going to be more floods and more droughts. It’s not a secret. It’s happening. And we must embrace the change. Nature is fighting back and will destroy what it needs to destroy. Nature is just cleaning up our mess and if I get taken out with the clean up then so be it. But we can't get upset and angry. Anger won't help or solve anything. I've been speaking about this for over 30 years and it's got to the point where I just can't get angry anymore. I've become philosophical about it now because it's the only way to really deal with these changes. But ultimately, there are simply too many of us on the planet. The meat industry and its impact is huge, and it's got to the point of no return. But I believe Fry's is making a little difference every day, and so can you. The only way to make a difference is to embrace what is with love.
Learn more at: http://www.fryfamilyfood.com/