Deborah Torres is one of the rising ranks of women of color leading the vegan fried chicken revolution. Her award-winning vegan food company, Atlas Monroe, was a standout brand on Shark Tank, has won awards at national fried chicken competitions (beating out traditional chicken), and has amassed a cult following. It’s featured in top plant-based restaurants in Texas and California, and its mail-order products are often on backorder.
Reflecting on her success often reminds Torres of the struggles she faced to get here. The daughter of immigrant parents—her mother hails from England; her father is from Guyana—she grew up in the predominantly white neighborhood of San Jose.
“When I think about how I grew up, the first thing that comes to mind is that I grew up Black,” she explains. “I was […] consistently reminded that I was different from my peers whether through looks, treatment from teachers, or my peers. I [felt like I] had to work three times harder than they did to receive the same recognition.”
Her parents’ own struggles growing up—they both went to work at 4 a.m. each day—fueled her own desires to succeed. “My mom taught me that you win by getting the best grades. You win by being successful. And it’s just something that stuck with me throughout my life,” she says. So, Torres focused on academics, graduating from high school at the age of 15. She went on to earn an associate’s degree in liberal arts in 2007. She earned her second degree, a BA in theatre arts, just two years later.
Torres was raised on the diverse flavors of her multicultural household. But her love for food—and cooking it—may just run in her blood. Both of her grandmothers owned restaurants. And her parents loved to cook, too. But there was one food they enjoyed most: fried chicken.
In July of 2015, her father was diagnosed with type-2 diabetes. In solidarity with his new dietary requirements, the entire family went raw vegan for 90 days. Torres set about trying to recreate a plant-based version of her family’s favorite dish.
In lieu of soy, an ingredient used in many vegan meat products, Torres opted for wheat protein. “I wanted to stay away from [soy] because soy protein isolate, a lot of the time, is genetically modified. After the raw diet, we didn’t want to go back to eating genetically modified foods,” she explains. “So, I was thinking, ‘How can I make something that’s all natural, plant-based, made with as many organic ingredients as possible and that my family is going to love?’ That was my challenge initially.”
Torres says her earlier versions resembled chicken nuggets. And it took many variations before she finally came up with a recipe her family enjoyed. “I never felt like giving up. My parents are big foodies and both of their mothers had successful restaurants, so making a replacement they would actually like and approve of were major goals,” she explains. “It took roughly two years until I was like, ‘I could sell this.’”
And sell she did. After her entire family decided to stick to the vegan diet, Torres took her vegan food to the masses. After saving up money for a year, she started a catering company—Atlas Monroe—in 2017. But the business took off before she could begin catering.
Organizers for the Vegandale Chicago 2017 festival in Grant Park, Chicago came across her website and offered her a booth at the festival. It felt like the big break she was waiting for. So, she convinced her family to drive across the country with her for the event.
“The day of the festival, our line was longer than a football field,” she says. “The owners had posted a photo from our website and by the end of the day, the whole festival—the DJs, the artists—were coming to our booth saying, ‘Everybody’s talking about this chick’n, we gotta try it!’”
But crispy fried vegan chicken isn’t all Torres makes. Atlas Monroe now carries plant-based stuffed turkey, popcorn chicken, cured bacon, apple wood fired ribs, and more—which are available to order online. Torres’s vegan meats are also available in restaurants in Dallas, Texas, and San Jose and Sacramento, California.
Business is certainly booming for Atlas Monroe. This year, the company has made $2 million in sales. Torres is on path to sell one million pounds of her vegan fried chicken this year. She also recently opened a multi-million dollar manufacturing facility in San Diego, and she plans on opening a second plant this year. After being consistently sold out throughout the majority of 2020, Torres says the plants will allow her to meet the high demand for her products.
After attending other festivals and events and gaining traction on social media, Torres appeared on an episode of the reality television series Shark Tank in 2019.
During the episode, Torres was offered $1 million for her company. She turned it down. While some may have jumped at the opportunity that has made household names out of Bombas and Cinnaholic, Torres declined it. The seemingly lucrative deal came with a 100 percent stake in Atlas Monroe, something Torres was not willing to do. She feared that losing control meant losing her brand.
“I’ve seen other vegan, women-owned companies kind of get taken over by sharks so to speak,” she explains, citing Chloe Coscarelli, a vegan chef who was pushed out of her company by her business partner less than a year after opening. After a contentious, years-long legal battle, a judge finally granted her back 50 percent ownership of the company.
“I just felt like it would be devastating to see my company just taking off and multiplying and flourishing and I’m not a part of it,” Torres continues. “So, I went into it with the attitude of like, there’s no way that I’m going to get got on this show.”
By taking that risk on herself, Torres joined the ranks of some of the most successful female founders in history, who bet everything on themselves even though the odds were stacked against them. Women founders face a multitude of imbalances but the most critical one is funding. In 2019, only 2.8 percent of venture capital funding went to women-led startups. This figure fell to 2.3 percent in 2020, according to Crunchbase. Women of color made even less. In 2018, only 34 Black women founders raised $1 million in venture capital funding for their business, Fortune reports.
After the show aired, Atlas Monroe made $350,000 in sales, selling out of all its products within two hours. And in 2020, the company made more than $1 million. “We worked extremely hard and continue to work extremely hard. We were doing festival events and a lot of our followers have been supporting us from day one,” she explains.
Torres credits her success to the diversity of her clientele. Her vegan fried chicken doesn’t just attract vegans. Non-vegans like it, too. According to a 2020 consumer goods market research firm Packaged Facts, flexitarianism—a predominantly plant-based diet—is growing in popularity. Approximately 36 percent of consumers identify as flexitarian. A niche Atlas Monroe is certainly catering to.
“More and more, I feel like non-vegans are ordering from us,” Torres says. “I think a big thing in America right now is that there’s a lot of dietarily blended families. So they’re looking for alternatives that both parties will like and enjoy. And I think that we’re that medium.”
So, what does the future hold for Torres and Atlas Monroe? For starters, she wants to take her company public. She wants to ensure that plant-based foods are readily available in all communities, especially those of color. “I think that the biggest disparity is that vegan products are not available in certain spaces,” she explains. “And it’s really weird considering that communities of color are the largest growing vegan group.”
She also wants to continue being a beacon of inspiration for other women and women of color. “I want to see people who look like me win. I want to see women and children across the spectrum win. And if they need help with that, I want to be that person to help them.”
This post was last modified on August 4, 2021 2:59 pm
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