Even in his daily life, this person wears clothed in the corporate green colors. It’s hard to catch him for an interview; his schedule is incredibly tight. Thanks to the lockdown and a new reality with a social distance, we talk to Oleksii Kovalenko, founder of the ‘Epicur’ brand, online, right after he meets with the team.
The webcam shows a dashboard with almost a hundred colored post-its with tasks behind him. Our conversation gets interrupted by calls almost every five minutes. ‘Epicur’ is not merely about organic chicken, which appeared in supermarkets in 2018: it is about a new type of IT business, where production and new technologies come together.
How did you come up with the idea of ‘Epicur’? Because it feels like antibiotics and growth hormones are an integral part of the poultry or meat industry?
In fact, everything turned out quite interesting. It feels like I didn’t invent ‘Epicur,’ but ‘Epicur’ itself found me many years ago, before its actual appearance.
In the fourth university year, I was writing a term paper on philosophy about Epicureanism, the main idea of which is happiness and satisfaction with life
In the fourth university year, I was writing a term paper on philosophy about Epicureanism, the main idea of which is happiness and satisfaction with life. Then I chose this topic simply because the volume of such work was just enough for the credit. But the very topic of happiness, pleasure from life touched me deeply. When I had children, I started thinking about what food to give them to be right and wholesome. So, the idea of food without anything “bad” was born in 2016.
As an entrepreneur, I’ve achieved a lot. For me, it was no longer interesting to make money without meaning. I needed to do something socially useful. At that time, I had a share of the business in the chicken production, so in 2018 the first products under the ‘Epicur’ brand appeared on the supermarket shelves – it was exactly pure chicken. Without antibiotics, growth hormones, and other disgusting stuff.
So, it all started with an idea?
Exactly. Everything started with the idea that we lacked ‘healthy lifestyle’ products. We lacked something that would make people happier and healthier. Do you know that Ukrainians do not live to be 75? Do you know that we have the most common cause of death is cardiovascular diseases? And the worst thing is that the age of people with health issues is decreasing. That is, young people become less healthy because they eat poorly. I wanted to become someone who produces quality and healthy food. We started with what was at hand — chicken. But we have already expanded the list of our products significantly.
How is it at all possible to grow a chicken without antibiotics and growth hormones? Aren’t they a guarantee that a bird will not get sick and will grow quickly? Without it, I think it’s hard to compete with someone…
You see, antibiotics are used as preservatives in the meat industry. They are everywhere — chicken, veal, even fish or shrimp if grown in factories. But there is a big problem, that is, antibiotic resistance. Strains of pathogens emerge that are no longer affected by antibiotics. And we are rushing at a crazy pace to the times when people could die again from the slightest scratch. Therefore, the idea of converting your company to the one not using it all is very ambitious and noble. Moreover, the UN has included the rejection of the unwarranted use of antibiotics, including in the production of any meat, in its global list of tasks.
Could you tell us more about technical details? How does it look like?
The main and most important thing is hygiene and sanitation: to prevent bacteria from entering the production. This is the treatment of poultry before chickens appear. These are hygienic conditions for workers who come to work. This is a natural food made from grain ingredients with natural additives, which can enhance immunity. This is a huge set of algorithms that, when successfully combined, allow us to produce a clean and useful product for consumers.
For example, there are very interesting points that do not require investment but effort. Our workers cannot keep poultry at home not to bring any disease to the production. And this is an especially complex task, an extremely important one because the production is located in rural areas. We need to find motivation for employees to comply voluntarily.
Our workers cannot keep poultry at home not to bring any disease to the production. And this is an especially complex task, an extremely important one because the production is located in rural areas.
All these technological details sound expensive. That is, it is difficult to call it a mass market. And who buys your product?
Indeed, our products are not about the mass market. First, to produce everything, you need more energy, money, time, aspiration, and entrepreneurial will. From the beginning, we understood that we were not doing it for the whole market, but for people willing to pay a bit more for what can be trusted and has advantages as a safer product. We did some research and found out that people are willing to pay 20-25% more for the food they trust. We started from this point when calculating the cost. Now, people really care about what they eat and choose products of better quality.
We have demonstrated by our example that it is not only possible but also necessary to produce something wholesome — because it is in great demand.
Is there a trend now that people don’t want to buy cheaper, they want something of better quality?
People are indeed willing to pay more and choose cleaner products without antibiotics and other “chemicals.” And just 2 years after the appearance of ‘Epicur’ on shelves, market leaders, facing the pressure of consumer choices, are forced to also produce cleaner products. Because their sales are falling sharply. They are forced to reduce antibiotics and growth hormones because a healthy diet is now in great demand. And it is not caused by law or other regulations. That’s how the laws of economics work. We just made them do it.
My team and I are happy. We are jubilant that this happened, and it is a win. We have demonstrated by our example that it is not only possible but also necessary to produce something wholesome — because it is in great demand. Although this merit is not mine or my team’s. The credit goes to people who voted with their choice, their money for ‘Epicur.’
I want to create a real ecosystem or an ‘Epi-system’ of quality products without any “disgusting stuff.” These pandemic years have shown that people have a huge demand for things that help the body and the immune system work better and stay healthy.
I want to create a real ecosystem or an ‘Epi-system’ of quality products without any “disgusting stuff.”
You’ve got an impact on competitors, so what are the future plans? Because at the beginning of the interview, you talked about a very ambitious goal: making Ukrainians happier and healthier by providing them with quality food.
Yes, we are aiming at this. I want to create a real ecosystem or an ‘Epi-system,’ as we call it, of quality products without any “disgusting stuff” in it. In these times, people have a great demand for things helping to stay healthy. We are what we eat. Therefore, this year we managed to release several more products under the ‘Epi Happy’ brand. We left ‘Epicur’ only for chicken, and everything else will be ‘Epi Happy’ – environmentally friendly and wholesome.
Pandemic years have shown that people have a huge demand for things that help the body and the immune system work better and stay healthy
And how does it work? How does an ‘Epi-system’ emerge? Do you want to start producing something and look for someone to collaborate with or something else?
No. At first, cool entrepreneurs come into my life. They have a philosophy similar to mine. Then, the desire to do something together is born. For example, Andrii Zinchuk, owner of the ‘Prypravka’ (Seasoning) company. He and his team are keen on product quality. Andrii travels the world and collects authentic recipes for spices. We met at the Chicago Marathon — we both love running — and agreed to collaborate. So, based on their natural liquid spices, we have created marinated chicken and turkey meat, which can be cooked at home and satisfy the whole family in 15 minutes — everyone, from children and parents to grandparents.
Another member of our ‘Epi-system’ is Rostislav Vovk, co-owner of the ‘Club 4 Lapy’ (Four Paws Club) and OptiMeel brands and chairman of the ‘Kormotech’ supervisory board. We have known each other for several years. His company produces quality animal feed and sells them not only in our country but also in 50 countries under different brands. We met by chance at Boryspil airport, and we came up with the idea to create food for animals from meat without antibiotics so that pets eat not only tasty but also wholesome. It took us a year because it is a painstaking process. Now, you can find ‘Four paws made from chicken without antibiotics” animal feed on the shelves.
And our most recent collaboration is with Dmytro Sydorenko, an entrepreneur from Sumy who produces turkey meat, and Olena Vovk (by the way, this is Rostyslav Vovk’s sister) from the biotechnology company ‘Enzym.’ It is the use of enzymes (special biologically active substances — Ed.) that allows us to abandon antibiotics. Now these products — environmentally friendly turkey meat without antibiotics — are a part of our “Epi Happy” system.
That is, together with you, any entrepreneur, if you share the same values, can create an ecological product based on their production? Can you help with that?
This is our ideal ‘Epi-system,’ in which various enterprises unite around us and produce eco-friendly products. Look at how it works. First, I get to know the production, study people very carefully, learn about their reputation and gather other information. Everything is important so that there is not even a hint of deception and dishonesty. Our values must match. This is crucial. A business owner must invest his or her will and energy in the project and the team.
Because we have a philosophy, technology, and people who trust us and are ready to buy quality products
We are not producers, but we can allow productions to load their idle capacities in collaboration with us. And do it without investments. Alternatively, you can increase your production capacities with minimal investment. We will help with product development, technology, packaging, distribution… Because we have a philosophy, technology, and people who trust us and are ready to buy quality products. We do not want to let these people down, and we want to give them more options. And, most importantly, the number of conscientious people is growing.