Can Adam Melonas cook up a food revolution from his secretive Fenway lab?
With a team of superstar scientists and chefs, the man who views himself as a modern-day Willy Wonka is reimagining food for the future.
IT’S HAMBURGER FRIDAY at Chew, and Adam Melonas is pleased as punch. The Australian chef and founder of the lab sits at the edge of the communal lunchroom surrounded by his team, a mix of PhD food scientists and some of the country’s top chefs.
Behind the swinging lab door is Melonas’s massive, state-of-the-art kitchen, complete with a huge orange custom Hestan range, centrifuges, freeze driers, dehydration machines, a cold room for temperature-controlled experiments, and stand mixers with bowls large enough that one’s arms can barely wrap around them. Inside, members of his team work in tandem, like pieces on a chessboard: Scientists in white lab coats and chefs in black aprons, conjuring up recipes for more healthful foods, beverages, and snacks.
Because every person who walks into Chew has to sign a nondisclosure agreement, there is a mystique one feels when entering the space; an aura that Melonas cultivates through the careful tending of his brand. His mission is a grandiose one: To transform the highly processed foods we now consume out of habit — the granola bars and yogurts stuffed with sugars, frozen dinners plied with sodium, and the cookies and pastries laden with saturated fats — into something that will actually sustain us. Fancying himself a modern-day Willy Wonka, Melonas is obsessed with boosting the nutritional value of the foods we’re already accustomed to eating by reimagining them into magical, craveable products.
The global market for processed foods was valued at over $4.6 trillion dollars in 2016, according to the research firm Frost and Sullivan. But all the components and chemicals that have gone into making those foods both cheap and shelf-stable are now, ironically, the very same things that are turning away customers as they opt for fresh foods.
Digging into his burger with a cheeky grin, Melonas speaks quickly and frankly, as is his wont, explaining how his sprawling food laboratory in the Fenway is changing the way the world eats. Towering at 6 feet 5 inches tall, with broad shoulders and arm and chest tattoos that peek out of his henley shirts, Melonas is a presence in any room he enters. And that’s before he opens his mouth, which issues forth a steady stream of blistering assessments of the food industry and boastful pronouncements about his work, all of which come couched in his signature acerbic wisecracks. But he’s dead serious when he tells you that Chew is going to demonstrably change the world one bite at a time. He wants people to experience a Wonka-esque childlike wonder with his creations. (To drive home the Wonka theme, the song “Pure Imagination,” from the 1971 film, is the music people hear if they call his office and are placed on hold.) And this summer, he’s planning to go one step further and open a new laboratory in Cambridge to develop the next game-changing food brands.
“I’m a contrarian. I love challenging this industry,” he says. “I’ve had the privilege of going into the major board meetings of some of the biggest businesses in the world, and saying, ‘With all due respect, I think what you’re talking about is complete [expletive].’”
Since its founding, Chew has spawned more than 1,300 new foods, filed for around 40 patents, and has driven more than $2.8 billion in revenue with its recipes. But here’s the rub: Melonas won’t reveal which items actually sit on grocery store shelves. That’s because we consumers aren’t Chew’s clients. Instead, Melonas works with the largest billion-dollar food companies in the world. They’re the names you know, even though he won’t say it outright, the ones with the big logos on your cereal boxes, soda bottles, and candy bars. And for them, keeping the recipes under lock and key is just the way they’ve always done business.
Until now, that is. Despite their global reach, these massive corporate brands like Unilever, Nestle, and Coca-Cola are in a panic, thanks to slumping sales and shifting consumption habits. Americans now drink more bottled water than soda. They’re shopping for fresh foods, or skipping the store altogether and ordering meal kits or restaurant takeout. According to analysts at Bloomberg, in the last three years, the 10 largest US packaged food companies have lost about $17 billion in revenue. Many of those bread-and-butter brands are losing market share to smaller upstarts.
“The revolution that’s happening in food and beverage is based on the rethinking of these old things that we took for granted,” says Nick Giannuzzi, an adviser to Melonas and the founder of the New York City-based Giannuzzi Group law firm, which works exclusively with food and beverage companies. “There used to be huge brands that dominated categories, and they didn’t change because sales were good,” Giannuzzi says. “They left those sugary, fatty, or whatever-the-formula recipes alone and effectively exposed their flanks to new young entrepreneurs.”
That means these deep-pocketed conglomerates are now eager to gobble up small food businesses in order to survive. In the past year alone, the Giannuzzi firm helped shepherd deals selling RXBAR protein bars to Kellogg’s, Siggi’s yogurt to French dairy giant Lactalis, and Chameleon Cold-Brew coffee to Nestle. The research group Food + Tech Connect tallied up that $1.08 billion was invested across 99 food startup deals in 2017, up 88 percent from the year prior. A chunk of that money is coming from the big brands themselves. Since 2015 over a dozen global food and beverage companies, including Mars, Kraft Heinz, General Mills, and Campbell’s Soup, have all launched their own venture arms to invest in up-and-coming food products.
That’s not all. Food industry stalwarts are also paying Melonas to literally think outside the cereal box. Just as many pharmaceutical companies are outsourcing their R&D operations to smaller drug companies, Chew acts as a research lab, selling its food science to corporate giants by finding ways to cut the sugar from an iconic soda or conceive of an entirely new product. But Chew is also selling the disruption game, and Melonas has a brazen, in-your-face approach to food that he’s cultivated through his career as a cutting-edge chef in some of the world’s most innovative kitchens.
“I’m arrogant enough to know that if I go into the kitchen today and I tell everyone that we’re going to put the grain amaranth into everything, I can guarantee that in 12 to 18 months it will be a global trend,” he says between bites. “I can take the future off course from wherever someone thinks it’s going to go, simply by the immediacy and the rapid nature of the innovation we do.”
It’s not in Melonas’s interest to be humble. He says that people often compare Chew to Google or the design firm IDEO, and he drops references to time spent on yachts like some of us might discuss riding the T. And C-suite executives from major brands are lapping up his rhetoric with a spoon.
“When people say why do we need you? I say a Kodak or Borders bookstores or Blockbuster probably said the same thing. They were too big to spot the technology or idea that is about to crush you,” he says. “I’m not selling on fear but that’s a part of it. Why not disrupt yourself instead of waiting for someone else to come and do it?”
For an international food company watching as the world’s taste buds shift away from its money-printing products, walking into Chew can feel like winning a golden ticket.
MELONAS’S PATH TO Boston was an unlikely one, in part because it involved a choice between octopus lollipops and IKEA.
Raised in the Australian city of Canberra, the second of three kids, he spent his childhood alternately defying his parents, who owned a small printing company, and establishing his hustle. He was the kind of child who had to touch an iron just to make sure it really was hot. At age 8, frustrated by his allowance — “it felt too structured and slow” — he started Adam’s Odd-Jobs, a business washing cars, mowing lawns, and landscaping. By the time he was 12, his small empire employed several schoolmates.
“There was a fire in him from an early age,” says his younger brother, Luke Melonas. “It’s an approach to life that he leads, he’s unafraid to fail, because he does not even contemplate what it could be if he did fail.”
Melonas fast-tracked his way through school, developed an interest in cooking and began devouring cookbooks, setting out to dissect each recipe, then master it. At 16, he was washing dishes at the Oak Room at the Park Hyatt in Canberra, which led to an apprenticeship in the kitchen, where he served Queen Elizabeth, prime ministers, and other dignitaries. It was there that he fell in love with the kitchen's “pirate ship”-like chaos and its characters. “This is going to sound chauvinistic, but I said, ‘This is a place where men can be men,’ ” Melonas recalls. “Knives, fire, everything that wants to kill you in one environment.” And yet the ballet-like choreography in the kitchen transfixed him. “I looked at that and said: ‘That’s what I want to do.’”
By 19, Melonas had landed in London, lying about both his age and experience to work at Le Boudin Blanc French restaurant (he told them he was 26). Yet as he perfected his roasts and roux, he also set out to break any rules about what could and couldn’t be done with food, seeking ways to lighten up typically heavy menu items, and modernizing classic recipes like hollandaise sauce so it could be served at any temperature. “It’s about my ego trying to disprove all of these theories,” he explains now. That brazen curiosity is how he ended up landing a gig as the executive chef at a hip London restaurant Otto’s in 2000, when the celebrity chef and molecular gastronomy were both in their ascent. Melonas’s contrarian nature and oversized personality seemed perfectly crafted for the era.
He cringes now, remembering how the menu at Otto’s was so overwrought that it took 15 minutes to read, or how he once boasted that a guest could experience 23 flavors in just three bites. But it launched an increasingly high-profile career that pinballed him around the globe over the next decade. At 22, he was chef-de-cuisine at SunBar in Brisbane, promising guests he’d never repeat a dish. He landed in Dubai at 23 and began developing creations like the octopop — a dish composed of tentacles dipped in meat glue and saffron, then arranged in the shape of a flower. A stint in Shanghai followed, working under Paul Pairet, among the world’s most cutting-edge cooks. Then it was back to Dubai, where Melonas overhauled the menu at the five-star Burj Al Arab, only to learn that the hotel’s billionaire regulars weren’t having it, and wanted it changed back.
Luckily, that’s when Paco Roncero, the disciple of Spanish gastronomic legend Ferran Adria, came calling. Roncero was helming a spinoff of El Bulli, Adria’s globally renowned Catalonian restaurant considered the best in the world for its rule-breaking experimental cuisines until it closed in 2011. Roncero brought on Melonas as the head of creation of a new lab in Madrid. For the next several years, Melonas traveled the world finding new foods, doing stints in the El Bulli kitchen, and creating a menu for La Terraza del Casino restaurant in Madrid (sample dishes: nitro corn with black truffle jelly and foie gras air). He also stumbled upon an extremely lucrative side gig: Developing a menu for IKEA. The Swedish furniture maker was struggling to attract Spanish taste buds to its cafes, so Melonas developed two dozen tapas dishes that merged the two palates. In 2009, Melonas was ready to go global: He was planning a 60-seat restaurant in New York, one of eight outposts he intended to open around the world, and was in talks with his agent about a television show. But then a billionaire Boston businessman came calling.
He wanted to talk candy.
THE SUCCESS OF CHEW — not to mention the entire trajectory of Melonas’s life, including how he met his wife — can be directly tied back to a fight over Halloween bounty. Michael Bronner, a marketing executive who lives in Brookline, was bickering with his 13-year-old son, Nicky, about the chemicals in some of the popular candy brands. Bronner wanted his son to toss half of his sugary haul. Then Nicky posed a challenge to his father: What if we make candy better?
Bronner was in a position to try. He was the founder of ad firm Digitas, which he sold for more than $1 billion in 2000, and the Upromise college savings fund, which earned him a cool $300 million in 2006. He’d never developed a physical product, but was determined to “unjunk” a piece of the $30 billion candy industry by stripping out the corn syrups, oils, and other artificial ingredients from nougat bars and peanut butter cups. Not long after the Halloween candy incident, Nicky and his older brother, Kristopher, found Melonas in Madrid and brought him on to develop the recipes as a cofounder of the new company, Unreal Candy.
Before coming to Boston, Melonas had never tried a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. Over the next two years, as he perfected his chemical-free candies, he came to better understand the role that certain junk foods play in the American palate. From talking with test subjects, he learned that most clients weren’t looking for healthier candy. They wanted the sweet stuff, they just felt bad about themselves after eating it.
“That for me was profound,” Melonas says. “We’re trying to solve a problem that nobody knows they’ve got. Nobody eats a Snickers bar and says, ‘I wish I had a better Snickers bar.’ They just wish they hadn’t eaten it . . . I realized that in order to achieve the highest rate of adoption, I needed to fit into a preexisting habit.” The key was getting consumers to enjoy his Unreal products as much as or more than the “real” thing.
But that didn’t turn out as planned, despite millions in financing and one of the most star-studded launches in the last decade. When Unreal launched in 2012, it had $50 million in the bank and a list of celeb endorsements that would make any food company salivate: Tom Brady, Gisele Bundchen, Matt Damon, Bill Gates, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, and singer John Legend all shot YouTube videos touting the stuff. Unreal rolled out in 30,000 stores at launch, paying for prime placement in the candy aisles of major retailers like CVS, Target, BJ’s Wholesale Club, and Walgreens. But those stores started sending product back after sales slumped. Tensions flared in Unreal’s offices, and Melonas grew frustrated.
“I think the frustration for him was he was thinking: ‘Guys’ – guys being the US population – ‘This tastes awesome, as good if not better than the [expletive] you’re putting down your throats,’ ” says Melonas’s brother, Luke. “ ‘You’ve been eating weird corn syrup as caramel — here, I brought real caramel back for you — you’re welcome.’ But nobody was buying it.”
The company shut down operations in 2013 to reformulate its recipes, and is now in just over 5,000 stores nationwide, including Market Basket and Whole Foods.
“It rolled out very aggressively and they didn’t do enough to support the brand and build consumer awareness and they ended up losing some of that distribution,” says John Replogle, who worked with Unreal through his mission-driven consumer goods consultancy, One Better Ventures. “There is the celebrity way and then there’s the more tried and true, classical way.”
The celebrity route certainly had its benefits, though. While he was still living in Madrid, Melonas once rerouted his flight home through Miami from Los Angeles, where he’d been meeting with his agent, after Tom Brady’s family invited him to a Patriots game. It was there that he met his wife at a poolside party. She was an Australian labor and delivery nurse living in Boston, and “a little piece of home,” he says. “Plus, I didn’t have to explain my jokes.” The couple now lives in Newton with their two young boys. Melonas says if his sons misbehave, he threatens to take them to McDonald’s.
The high-profile Unreal gig had other perks as well: It helped establish Melonas’s network within the deep-pocketed American food industry. And it perfectly positioned him to launch Chew and all that would come next.
IT’S A TUESDAY AFTERNOON, and Melonas is in Chew’s conference room overlooking the massive kitchen, administering a storytelling session to a batch of new hires. The silhouettes of chefs and scientists flicker through translucent window shades. Inside, they are throwing chocolate bars into huge vats, devising recipes for pea chips and plant-based yogurts, and tinkering with ingredients like broccoli beads and carrot chips.
At this moment, Melonas is assembling a team of 28 “rock-star” scientists and chefs for a project he’s calling the Nursery that will launch out of a lab on Western Avenue in Cambridge this summer. The plan is to identify holes in the industry and develop game-changing foods and beverages into fully-formed blockbuster brands. Instead of just cooking up concepts for big brands and consulting with food startups as they grow, he’s going to build new businesses from scratch.
He knows these corporate giants have both the cash and the distribution networks to get his healthier foods into the hands of the masses — if they're willing to put their money where their mouths are.
“I always say there’s no cause less noble than making expensive food for rich people. I spent my entire life doing that,” he says. “Now it’s about the democratization of good food and beverages.”
True to form, his vision is nothing if not flashy.
“My dream is that we’re going to turn scientists and chefs into millionaires,” he says. “I’m dreaming that over in Cambridge, Western Ave. is jammed up with Ferraris and Porsches.”
Sam Kass, a Chew adviser who served as a White House chef and nutrition policy adviser to President Barack Obama, says that while Melonas’s vision might sound hyperbolic, it rings true. “He’s doing great work and taking a very hard-core scientific approach to figuring out new solutions to problems that have been plaguing us for a long time, but with a pragmatism that can lead his innovation work to real success,” Kass said.
Of course, much of that hinges on a single defining factor: Sure, you can make a new jerky, or yogurt, or snack chips, but is that enough to tip the actual scales and change the eating habits of a global population?
“The foods sales world is littered through history with failed attempts to do this type of thing,” says Don Katz, a behavioral neuroscientist at Brandeis University who studies the sense of taste. Katz says that telling people a product “is like this other thing you like, except healthier,” has traditionally been the kiss of death, sales-wise. But taking a smaller-scale approach could appeal to audiences predisposed for more healthful products, he says. Humans are wired to look to their peers for cues on what’s acceptable to eat, and in some social circles “it’s considered really sexy to be the person who makes the biggest salad,” he explains. In theory, then, people might be drawn to the cool new food lab that introduces them to the newest high-protein chewable banana snack.
Melonas, who has self-funded Chew so far, says his new brands could be backed by venture capital, or may be acquisition targets for the very brands he’s working with at Chew, which means that even if we consumers don’t lap up every beverage the Nursery bottles, it may not matter.
“The ultimate buyer is not hundreds of thousands of supermarket shoppers, you’re ultimately selling to 20 or 100 potential investors,” says William Masters, an economist at Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts. Even then, it’s no sure thing that the foods will make it to shelves, as some incumbents buy out their challengers and bury them, he says.
“It is entirely possible that he is Willy Wonka and does have some magic in the kitchen,” Masters says. “The difference between a billion-dollar product and an also-ran is not necessarily a physical thing about it so much as it is a combination of brand identity and marketing execution.”
As Melonas spoon-fed his vision to new hires, he explained how he once used an over-the-top approach to food with verbose menus to convince everyone he was brilliant in the kitchen. Now he does the opposite, using a Hansel and Gretel bread crumb approach to get his clients to realize they want healthier foods on their own terms.
“Everything in life is a story, and people subscribe to what we do because they believe in the story,” he says. “They’re buying into our world.”