In 1987, Wally Fry decided to stop eating meat. The decision would irreversibly change the lives of both him and his family.
It was regarded as an odd decision for the builder to make in South Africa at a time when alternative diets weren’t really understood in the West.
“The paradigm was entirely different. Back then, people didn’t even know what the word ‘vegetarian’ meant,” Fry told Business Insider Australia.
Inspired by his wife and daughter – neither of whom have ever touched meat – he says he was forced to confront his own lifestyle decisions.
He recalls a moment when his daughter rejected a drumstick he was trying to feed her, and he had to explain to her that it was once a walking clucking chicken.
“I started to become conscious of what I was doing. The illusion of what we’re doing when we eat meat was wiped away.”
A different world
Growing up on a farm and slaughtering animals as a boy, it wasn’t as if Fry was ignorant of where food came from. Still, he says once he became acutely aware of mass agriculture, it was too much to accept.
He traces his Damascene conversion to the day he constructed a 4,000 sow piggery as a builder. When he went back to fix some defects in the project, he saw the reality of what he’d built.
“I saw it and I thought, ‘I can’t do this.’ I mean, I’m eating bacon, this is bullshit, I’m not going to do this shit anymore. I’m not going to do it,” Fry said.
“I just went home and I literally said to my wife, ‘I’m becoming a vegetarian, and I don’t know how I’m going to do it because I’m not going to survive just eating broccoli and pumpkin. I’m going to go off my rocker.'”
Not only did it force him to confront his own lifestyle, but it forced him to find a new way to eat.
“I knew that I had to develop something that looks and tastes like meat and feels like it in your mouth. I knew I needed to find something to fill the gap.”
A new career
He closed his construction business and converted his old office into a test kitchen.
“I started to experiment with all kinds of raw materials and put them together and add water, and add heat or cold. I started teaching myself how different ingredients reacted mixed together, or beaten, and how they tasted.”
“I’m not a food scientist but I was just organically figuring out what worked and what didn’t.”
At that time, there were very few people doing anything like it in the Western world, Fry says. Yet there was a nascent demand for plant-based meat, even if people didn’t yet know what it was.
“I started developing sausages and burgers, and they satisfied my own requirements. And then suddenly, people started to ask if they could taste it. I was making 10 kilograms of the stuff a day and I just started giving it away free.”
Word got around and spread to the Vegetarian Society of South Africa, whose chairman wanted to get the products into national supermarkets. A meeting was set up and buyers tried the food he was producing.
“They thought it was stunning and said they’d give me a chance, stocking me in 30 stores. I’m thinking, ‘Shit, 30 stores. I’m only making about 50 kilograms per day.’ So I told them I was very busy and would need about four months to backfill some orders before I could supply the supermarkets.”
“In the meantime, I went back to my wife and told her we needed to get a factory up and running.”
The next day, Fry acquired a truckload of machinery from a meat producer that was shutting down.
“I didn’t know what these machines did so I just bought all of them and took them to this 100 square metre shed I had at the time.”
In another fortuitous turn of events, his supplier of cellulose sausage casings knew just the person to help Fry get it off the ground.
“He knew there was a guy who had just been retrenched from a meat factory across town who knew how to use all of this equipment.”
Between Fry, his wife, Debbie, and that first hire, the Fry Family Food Company was born.
Within 18 months, Fry says his products were in around 1,200 stores nationwide.
“My wife and I were just loading up trucks with boxes and then going back inside and making more sausages.”
But Fry wasn’t satisfied, recognising what an enormous need there was for genuine meat alternatives.
Truly at the forefront of what would only in recent years become a global trend, the growth of the family company was rapid.
Over the last 30 years, the company has continued to expand to meet booming market demand, and now employs 450 people who produce up to 26 tonnes of food every single day.
“I wanted people all over the world to have this solution because it was my passion, and I knew what animals, especially cattle, are doing to this planet,” he said. “We have almost eight billion people on Earth, but there are 86 billion animals in captivity in factory farms right now.”
“Between 50% and 70% of all of these monoculture crops, like wheat, barley, maize and soy, are being grown just to feed animals [for human consumption].”
While Fry’s early efforts may have been among the first plant-based meat options to grace shelves in many supermarkets, those have today become increasingly crowded.
Yet none have anything like Fry’s experience. Even Beyond Meat, one of the big commercial success stories of the space, took some lessons from South Africa when founders Ethan White and Brent Taylor came calling.
“Ethan and Brent are friends of ours and they came to find out how to run a factory because they had no idea back then what to do.”
One day at a time
Fry has been around too long to expect everyone to become “a squeaky clean vegan” overnight, accepting that changing human behaviour takes time.
He says criticisms about vegetarians eating fake meat are “bullshit”, and compares fake meat to using a nicotine patch to quit smoking.
“It’s exactly the same thing. Meat is a social drug. We’re bound to it. Everything is about meat, whether you go to a barbecue or go to a Bunnings,” he said. “It’s about bringing people to the consciousness of what they’re doing and making it easier to switch.”
Although the abundance of alternatives today makes the transition much easier than it was 30 years ago.
“It’s very difficult to get people to move away from meat unless you give them a solution instead of a criticism,” he says.
“If you’re just an ordinary person, and you want to make a difference, then eating fewer animal products is a huge contribution.”
While it won’t necessarily be easy shifting global diets away from meat, Fry is optimistic. Reflecting on how much the world has changed in the last 30 years, he says it is certainly headed in the right direction.
“Humanity as a whole doesn’t like to be pushed and shoved. They have to come to these decisions on their own and we’re starting to see that happen in big chunks.
“It makes me feel vindicated, because otherwise I would have done all that bloody work for bugger all.”