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Deborah Torres appeared on the reality show Shark Tank in 2019, competing for an investment from the show’s resident “sharks.” But, when celebrity investor and billionaire Mark Cuban offered her a $1 million deal to invest in her vegan fried chicken start-up Atlas Monre, she shocked viewers by turning him down.
Atlas Monroe was founded just two years prior to her appearance on the show and, Torres has said in interviews about the experience, she felt the deal she was offered on Shark Tank would have required her to hand over too much control of her company to the investors. Instead, she went forward on her own, doing more than $1 million in revenue in 2020 and becoming the first Black- and female-founded plant-based company to be carried in retailers across the U.S.
Unlike most plant-based chicken alternatives, Atlas Monroe focuses on emulating the parts of the chicken that you’d find in a high-end restaurant rather than on a kid’s menu. The brand moves away from the typical ‘chicken nugget’ style, in favor of dark and white ‘chicken meat’ pieces, and has expanded to make items like turkey, ribs, and even a classic lasagna described as “beefy and cheesy” (though, of course, it has neither beef nor cheese).
We caught up with Deborah Torres below to get to know exactly what inspired her award-winning brand – and find out the secret sauce of her success.
What inspired you to start Atlas Monroe?
Atlas Monroe was founded on providing equally delicious, healthier alternatives to traditional meat products.
My father was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and my whole family went on a raw vegan diet for 90 days in an effort to heal him and induce a lifestyle change. In addition to walking with him for an hour every day, we started having smoothies, salads, and fruit salads, and although it sounds, and is, refreshing, we were all at each other’s throats with hunger pains and cravings by the end of the week. So, I started researching plant food textures and flavors. I started developing recipes and making flavorful meals like raw vegan tacos, lasagna, nachos, pizza, burgers, and even chick’n nuggets. At the end of the 90 days, he was completely healed.
My best advice to anyone struggling with eating healthy, is to just try to incorporate as many raw fruits and vegetables into your diet as possible – it is truly the best thing you can do for your own body. After we learned that he was healed, we returned to eating cooked foods, but vowed to stay all-natural and plant-based. As I kept experimenting with cooked plant food, Atlas Monroe was born.
What has been the most surprising or rewarding part of your business venture so far?
Acquiring our own multi-million dollar manufacturing facility and finally being able to meet our demand was one of the first fulfilling moments after putting years of blood sweat and tears into the company. But I would have to say the thousands of messages of love, support, and appreciation to not cut corners and continue to offer non-GMO and organic ingredient products to people who are not only vegan for the animals, but for health. The messages of support have been one of the most humbling and beautiful things for me.
What sets Atlas Monroe apart from other vegan/plant-based alternatives?
What sets Atlas Monroe apart is that we offer innovative vegan extra crispy fried chick’n that truly matches its real chicken counterpart and is not just an extruder-printed mass, breaded like a chicken nugget. We offer gourmet, flavor-bursting matches of both dark and white meat chick’n and are so proud of what we have created because to date it has not been matched.
What do you think the secret to your success has been?
Secret sauce to success? I would have to say my faith in God first. Just knowing that all things are possible because of my faith has seen my family and I through many miracles.
Secondly, I have two parents that are both immigrants not born in America, who have achieved great feats so that I could have a better life. They both have Bachelor’s degrees and I watched them both go to work at 4 a.m. every day to support my family. I want to leave behind something they are proud of because it was not for nothing. My mom and dad have had some of the worst things that could ever happen to anyone happen to them, so that I could be alive today and change the world. Honestly, I just want to live a life worthy of them.
Third, I would say, is investing in the people who have invested in me. People who have supported me from Day One are still here and giving back always pays it forward. I have surrounded myself with a dream team that is willing to get back up each day and try again with me.
What is your personal favorite Atlas Monroe product?
This is a good question because no one knows it. I don’t think I’ve publicly said it because I’m secretly eating it all myself: our vegan chicken curry. OMG with some roti or even a good fashioned tortilla, please don’t talk to me for the next 30 minutes! That and our stacked vegan cheesy, beefy lasagna is to die for. So freaking delicious and decadent and, dare I say, downright sinful.
What’s next for Atlas Monroe?
We opened 2022 with a bang: being carried at the world’s largest vegan chain restaurant, Copper Branch, with 40-plus international locations. We are really excited about that! We are currently getting ready for a launch at a major retail grocery chain, and are already at Bristol Farm’s Newfound Markets.
We also just created and released a game-changer product: our brand new all ‘white meat’ extra crispy fried chick’n breast, strips, and grilled chick’n line, which we call the “Atlas Monroe 2.0.” This is in addition to our original ‘dark meat’ style juicy fried chick’n. I’m especially excited about this product launch because we created it in alignment with our brand’s mission by including many organic and completely non-gmo ingredients, yet still remaining unmatched in authenticity in comparison to real chicken. This new chick’n has a firm breast-like texture and is moist and bursting with flavor, while still winning on providing an unparalleled extra crispy coating.
In addition to the retailers and restaurants mentioned, Atlas Monroe products can be ordered for nationwide delivery in the U.S. and in-person pick-up in San Diego, California.