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Behind the Scenes at GTFO It’s Vegan

GTFO It's Vegan founder Marc Pierce dishes on the booming vegan foods space that is turning his company—the world’s largest online vegan grocer—into a household name.

Posted on July 27, 2021

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With thousands of grocery items on offer at his online outlet, the Newport Beach, California-based GTFO It’s Vegan, Marc Pierce has become an accidental authority on all things vegan. His own journey started when his wife, Tanya, signed them up for a vegan diet, and he found that his previous heart-health problems disappeared with this new lifestyle.

“We were already moving into flexitarian, but when we moved from Chicago to California, it was much easier to get access to vegan products, and we made the full conversion to vegan over a couple of years,” Pierce recalls. “My wife wanted to do something entrepreneurial, and she came up with the idea of launching an online wholesaler/retailer focused on vegan and plant-based. Our mission is to offer vegan everything for everyone in the world, while making a meaningful impact on environmental sustainability.”

Pandemic Potential

Just as the husband-and-wife team were ready to introduce their concept, COVID-19 upended the world in early 2020. But the pandemic also proved something of a boon to the Pierces’ new business: With everyone stuck at home, they accelerated the launch, bringing on a small team to build out a retailer website and connect with vendors.

On May 15, 2020, GTFO It’s Vegan made its debut—and soon found incredible success. As traditional food shopping felt fraught with uncertainties and consumers grew increasingly comfortable with getting their groceries delivered, they were also reevaluating their lives and changing their lifestyles in the face of a worldwide pandemic.

Simultaneously, immunity-conscious shoppers were seeking healthier and more sustainable options, restaurants and slaughterhouses alike were slowing or halting production, and the vegan food space was skyrocketing. It all added up to a perfect storm for success. “It’s been a crazy, wild ride,” Pierce says. “We’ve grown significantly in the last year, and I think now we’re the largest player in our space—starting off in retail, now with wholesale growing, and even launching our own private-label line. We ultimately want to get into other vegan categories, like cosmetics and clothing. Our audacious vision is to be like a Walmart or Amazon, in terms of infrastructure, retail, distribution, etc.”

Of course, it has also helped that the vegan products industry has bloomed right along with consumer demand. “I don’t think we could have launched this business, as successfully as we have, three or four years ago,” Pierce says. “Companies like Impossible and Beyond definitely paved the way by introducing these products in mainstream places like fast-food outlets and Starbucks. They really opened people’s eyes.”

Pierce calls them “explorers”—those consumers who do eat meat but are open to trying vegan foods (and are often pleasantly surprised by the taste). They may have also seen documentaries showing how plant-based eating can reverse disease (What the Health) and offer up an edge to high-performance athletes (The Game Changers), or how our food choices impact the planet (Seaspiracy). “Eating vegan is not going to be a phase or a bubble—it’s an evolution in how we think about eating food and how we treat our planet,” Pierce asserts. “They’re projecting this will be a $75-billion market in a couple of years, and I don’t doubt it.”

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Tracking the Trends

As an online nationwide retailer, Pierce has a front-row seat to the areas of growth within vegan food—both in terms of consumer demand and manufacturer innovation. For example, in alternative proteins, there have been “a lot of great enhancements to flavor, texture, look and feel,” Pierce says. “We’ve seen phenomenal growth in gourmet cheeses, and I think we’ll continue to see a lot of growth in that space. As people try to replicate dairy cheese, now they’re paying more attention to different kinds—from nacho dips to the stringy pull you need for Chicago-style pizza.”

Pierce notes that seafood is another rapidly growing category, with a plethora of suppliers offering everything from shrimp and scallops to sashimi. He’s seeing a lot more plant-based meats that go beyond pepperoni and deli slices—new formats like ribs, steaks and chops. Then there are the genre-bending innovations in engineering, with brands such as Brave Robot, which makes ice cream out of milk enzymes, no cow needed.

In fact, these kinds of never-before-seen strides have raised controversy. “People are talking about engineered meats and other engineered enzymes—is that going to change the definition of vegan?” Pierce asks. “We paused before launching Brave Robot on our site and spent a lot of time talking about it, but there was still a lot of backlash from traditional vegans. As we see some of these innovations, I think they will change the way that vegan is defined.”

Furthermore, as vegan products improve, Pierce observes that customers can be bolder with their demands, ushering in a new wave of higher-quality ingredients and examining things like sodium content—underlining that vegan doesn’t always equal healthy. Pierce, meanwhile, harbors concerns over products’ packaging, as earth-damaging elements like plastic are still widely used over more sustainable solutions like home-compostable materials.

“We’re not yet big enough to control our vendors’ packaging, but we’d like to get to the point of putting standards in place, or maybe start a preferred vendor program, with products that are good for you and for the planet—to try to drive vendors to be more thoughtful about their ingredients and their packages,” Pierce says. “Our goal is to have zero carbon footprint in our delivery. We don’t use Styrofoam, instead using environmentally friendly materials: recyclable cardboard and liners, dry ice and fully recyclable ice packs. We’ve also thought a lot about options like reusable totes or a drop-off/collection program. We may start locally in California and see how it goes.”


Selecting Vendors

From day one, Pierce says his wife, Tanya, has spearheaded efforts to land the best vendors for GTFO. “She is the ultimate in knowing what customers want—or may want,” he marvels. “Very early on, she knew all of the vendors we needed to get on the site.”

In the beginning, some vendors were more apt to respond, “Who are you?” versus “Sign me up,” but in the short amount of time since GTFO’s launch, how the tables have turned. With almost 66,000 followers on its Instagram page, now vendors are coming to them—Pierce estimates 10 to 15 inquiries every day—to nab a spot on the online retailer’s site.

After starting with a third-party logistics company, GTFO quickly outgrew it and shifted to its own facility in October 2020, then into a second facility in December, which was again almost outgrown by the summer of 2021. “We’ve sold close to half a million items since we opened, so we have really good data on what sells and doesn’t, and how fast,” Pierce says. “When someone approaches us, we’ll look at the category and how saturated it is—every other day, I’m getting introduced to another jerky! We’ll taste a product, and if it’s fantastic, we’ll add it. If we don’t think it’s as good as what’s out there, we don’t necessarily take them on right away.”

However, Pierce is looking to add a drop-ship option, like Amazon does, since he hates turning vendors away based on capacity limitations at his facilities. “There’s only so much we can buy and hold,” he notes. “And then we look for categories that are growing. The three biggest categories are cheese, meat and seafood, and there are probably the least amount of options, compared to snack and pantry categories. We place a lot of emphasis on what I call the power categories—the reasons why people come to the site and buy—and Tanya’s always looking for great stuff to round it out, like chocolate or gummies. We see a lot of growth in the vegan candy category.”

Another fast-growing part of the GTFO business is wholesaling to operations like food trucks and restaurants. “It’s one thing to offer vegan, but it’s another thing to make sure that your ingredients are very thoughtful,” Pierce tells his foodservice partners. “Be thoughtful about the ingredients you use, as well as the packaging.”

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Pizza Perspectives

When it comes to America’s fave food—pizza—Pierce is a passionate fan. Accordingly, pizza offerings on GTFO are plentiful, with choices from Blackbird Foods and Tricycle Pizza proving popular. But Pierce believes there is still room for improvement in the vegan pizza category. “I’m a big pizza guy—breakfast, lunch and dinner!” Pierce laughs. “The vegan community nailed pepperoni early with good substitutes, and some of the sausages now are so fantastic that they taste better than traditional sausage.

“But cheese is the last frontier—a great meltable cheese," he continues. "We see that on vegan pizzas, cheese is more an accoutrement; they aren’t covered in it. When you put a lot of cheese on, sometimes you get a gummy taste, and it becomes very apparent: I’m eating a vegan pizza. Follow Your Heart just launched a shred without that gummy feel.”

Recently, GTFO added pizzas from Chicago-based Kitchen 17. “They make an awesome vegan Chicago pizza,” Pierce says. “There’s a big demand right now for regional pizzas—pizzas in the style of Detroit, Chicago or the Midwest. But with cheese, there are a handful right now that are close. And because there’s a big demand for it, there are a lot of people spending a lot of time on it. I think within the next six to nine months, somebody’s going to nail it.”

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