STORY: Olin Partners with Local Alternative Meat Startup Tender Food

April 22, 2024

The college is Tender’s first-ever university partner, serving sustainable, delicious, and local plant-based foods every week

A big part of Olin’s strategic plan is a core value to engineer for impact—striving to create a community and contribute to a world in which all can thrive. One creative example of this tenet in action is Olin Dining Service’s burgeoning collaboration with local plant-based food startup Tender Food.

Tender is based in Somerville, MA, out of Greentown Labs, the largest climatetech startup incubator in North America and a frequent partner of Olin’s. This technology-meets-materials-science startup was founded by three Harvard engineers who developed patented technology for biomedical applications in muscle tissue regeneration, but pivoted to innovate within the plant-based meat space. Similar to a supercharged cotton candy machine, the technology spins plant proteins into fibers that replicate the size and shape of muscle fibers.

"As a food technology company, our aim is to elevate the quality of plant-based meats beyond the burgers, sausages, and nuggets that currently dominate the market," says Christophe Chantre, co-founder and CEO at Tender. "Our innovation allows us to simulate real cuts—steaks, chicken breasts, tenderloins—which make up more than half of the global meat market. Tender offers not only a variety and texture previously unattainable in plant-based meats, but also a healthier alternative high in nutrients and fiber and free from cholesterol."

Image of Tender Foods based meal

Image of a Tender Foods based meal using their plant-based pulled pork.

“I first came across Tender on a field trip to Greentown with my ‘Biomes, Climate Change, and Biodiversity’ (BCB) class,” says Helen Donis-Keller, professor of biology and art and Michael E. Moody Professor at Olin. “A centerpiece of all my courses is sustainability, and one of the keys to that is plant-based food. The amount of agricultural space and resources used for industrial animal production is a terrible burden on the planet, so eating less meat is a clear solution for a greener tomorrow.”

Donis-Keller brought the idea of a possible partnership to Sam Eldridge, executive chef at Olin, who vetted the company thoroughly to ensure the utmost food safety and product quality, as well as a dedication to delicious, simple ingredients that are better for the planet.

“We’re always looking for quality, tasty alternatives for our campus population of vegetarians, vegans, and meat eaters who want to try something new,” says Eldridge. “After touring Tender’s manufacturing plant and learning more about the product, we gave it a test run last year with a ‘Tender Takeover,’ which was a demo of their pulled pork product in steamed bao buns.”

The tasting was a hit with the Olin community, garnering a 97 percent satisfaction rating from participants. Now, Eldridge is committed to using Tender’s different plant-based meats—currently pulled pork, chicken breast, crab meat, and beef short rib—on Meatless Tuesdays throughout the year. Standouts include a braised pork taco bowl with Southwestern flavors and a crab cake that was so tasty Eldridge emailed the entire campus before lunchtime to encourage folks to come try it.

“One thing I really enjoy as a chef is variety, and Tender’s products allow me to experiment and come up with some delicious plant-based options for our community,” says Eldridge. “This is not about forcing people to eat vegetarian; eating plant-based foods like Tender’s helps reduce our carbon footprint, is better for the environment, and is produced locally. It ticks a lot of important boxes for us.”

“We are so pleased to be working with Olin and Chef Sam as our very first university partner,” says Cecelia Jenkins, marketing manager at Tender. “This collaboration is a great way to showcase and demonstrate Olin’s core values of institutional integrity and making the world better for people and the planet, as well as its support of entrepreneurial spirit. Tender is proud to show Olin students yet another way in which innovative solutions that incorporate cutting-edge technology can solve global problems.”

Tender’s patented technology and mission also align with Governor Maura Healey’s proposed $1 billion, 10-year bill for economic development in the climatetech sector

“This initiative could send meaningful dollars towards equipment, financing larger facilities, and emissions-reduction infrastructure with the goal of making Massachusetts the climate hub of the world,” says Chantre, who hopes climatetech may follow in the footsteps of Boston’s booming biotech industry. “It all starts with collaborating with students and local universities to foster a new generation of innovation.”