Coco & Lucas: making change happen

12th November 2021 | Alison Turner
Coco & Lucas

From butcher’s daughter to plant-based pioneer, Diem Fuggersberger is on a mission to bring better tasting, more affordable plant-based meat products to Australia’s plates. Fuggersberger is the founder and CEO of Coco & Lucas, which produces Junior Foodies frozen meals and a plant-based ready-to-eat range called Earth. This includes vegan alternatives to favourite family dishes such as spaghetti, lasagne and cottage pie.

While she’s now a powerhouse of the plant-based meat industry, Fuggersberger has had to overcome some enormous challenges to become such a success. When she was just seven years old, she was forced to flee war-torn Vietnam with her family, who then had to establish a new life in Australia. Fast-forward to 2009, and the GFC led to the collapse of her husband’s business. This left her family homeless and more than $900K in debt.

Diem Fuggersberger of Coco & Lucas
Fuggersberger’s secret to success? “Trust your intuition and always have purpose or passion in what you do.”

Staying on the ball

Not to be daunted, five years later, Fuggersberger launched her Coco & Lucas range of junior frozen meals. But after learning more about the environmental impacts of animal agriculture, she changed her business model, and her Earth range was born.

“Since we embarked on the plant-based meat sector, I believe it’s the hardest job I’ve ever had to do,” she says. “It’s 10 times harder to flavour plant-based meat compared to conventional meat. So it’s something we work on in our laboratory, every day.

“It’s an industry where you have to be on the ball. And like a tennis player, you have to work harder and harder; you can’t just relax. Because plant-based meat is still very new as an industry. And so we’re constantly doing trials and improving our products.”

Fuggersberger is also the founder of Berger Ingredients, which supplies seasoning and flavour concepts for meat and smallgoods products. This experience in the ingredients and flavour industry has helped her to develop better-tasting plant-based products.

“People are not just going to be interested in in converting to plant-based because it’s good for your health or the planet,” she says. “It has to taste delicious, too.”

Coco & Lucas chickenless schnitzel
Coco & Lucas has invested heavily in R&D to produce better-tasting plant-based meats.

Working together

For plant-based meat to satisfy consumer expectations, it needs to have the right taste, texture and aroma. But as plant-based meat is often quite bland, a lot of research, development and creativity is required. You can’t just throw in a bucketload of sodium if you want to offer healthier alternatives to meat. So as well as working with biotechnicians and food scientists in her own lab, Fuggersberger is collaborating with universities and the NSW government on research and development. She believes that collaboration is key to a more sustainable and successful Australian plant-based meat industry.

“I’m supportive of other Australian plant-based brands, because we have all the attributes to be among the best in the world,” she says. “I’m also supportive of our farmers, because I respect their work. But we need to work together. In order for the plant-based industry to progress further, we must work collectively with Australian agriculture.

“In 2050, the world population is going to reach 9.7 billion. That’s an extra 2 billion people to feed. Every day, three meals a day, you’re looking at 29 billion meals. I don’t think our agriculture systems can raise enough animals to feed all these people. Something has to change. I believe plant-based meat can be complementary to animal agriculture.”

Coco & Lucas meatless mince
If the industry is to succeed, the next generation of plant-based meat products need to be more accessible.

Accessibility is key

If plant-based meat alternatives are to become a realistic part of the everyday Australian’s diet, the products need to be more affordable. Currently, most plant-based offerings are more expensive than meat. This is something else Fuggersberger is working to change.

“A lot of plant-based meat is more expensive at the moment because of the cost of the technology that’s required to produce it,” she says. “So I’m contributing to the work to make it cheaper than meat, so it’s more accessible to more people.”

Fuggersberger is also working on an “ambient” range of products that can be used by people living in regions where refrigeration isn’t available. She’s also looking into making her meals available through vending machines in hospitals, schools and universities.

 “A lot of these places have food that’s sterilised,” she says. “There’s a big gap in the market where we can provide nutritious meals that are also convenient.”

Fuggersberger is also currently exploring the logistics behind selling plant-based meat alternatives in butcher shops alongside meat. This would have the effect of making plant-based meat less polarising. It could also make shopping for a family a lot easier.

“If you go to a butcher’s shop and you’re buying normal meat for three people in the family but there’s one person who’s vegan, you can just grab 200 grams of plant-based mince or sausages or meatballs. I think it makes it easier for the person shopping for a family.”

Diem Fuggersberger and family
Fuggersberger’s teenaged daughters share her passion for a more sustainable future.

Making Australia shine

As if she didn’t already have enough on her plate, Fuggersberger is also part of the Alternative Proteins Council working group that’s looking for a solution to the hot-button issue of the terminology used on plant-based meat alternative product labelling.

“I think the terminology – calling it chickenless, meatless, etc – is a contentious topic,” she says. “I think that we should have our own language. But it takes time to make these changes, and we are all working collectively to make these changes. I love the plant-based industry, but I also love farmers. We want to respect the farming industry. So we’re working towards making sure that everyone’s happy. But we need to work together.

“We have the intelligence, we have the funding, we have the innovation to make change happen. I know I’m only a small person, but I really want to bring about change towards a more sustainable future. I really want to contribute and let my Australian shine.”

Coco & Lucas Junior Foodies and Earth products are available at Woolworths stores nationally. For more about Coco & Lucas and to check out the full range, click here.