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THE BROAD VIEW

Soylent's new product is food, and it's square

The contrarian food replacement company has unleashed the Soylent Squared, a 100-calorie, very much chewable "mini-meal"

"WHEN we first started coming up with this idea of portioned, chewable nutrition, we were like, 'Oh it should be a cube'," said Bryan Crowley, chief executive of Soylent. They tried it. Turns out, he said, "Cubes are really difficult to do."

So Soylent - the contrarian food replacement company that made its name hawking beige, drinkable meals to time-crunched Silicon Valley workers - on Thursday unleashed the next-best-thing: Soylent Squared, a 100-calorie, very much chewable "mini-meal," which is not a cube, but instead a perfect (perfect!) square.

"We basically start as a meal replacement drink mostly consumed in the morning and powder in a ready to drink format," Crowley said. "Now we're a complete nutrition platform that you can enjoy any time of the day in multiple formats."

For fans, Squared represents an obvious, if modest, next step, from liquid to solid. To the rest of the world, Soylent Squared is a snack-size protein bar.

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This compromise echoes Soylent's trajectory more generally. When it first emerged from Silicon Valley in 2014, Soylent was billed as a step beyond food - that time-consuming, tooth-exhausting replenishment favoured by everyday humans. It was superfood for the teched-out superperson, an extreme lifestyle choice adapted by people who felt comfortable with extremity.

The product's inventor, Rob Rhinehart, an electrical engineer by training, claimed in a blog post introducing the product that upon drinking it, he felt like "the six million dollar man". Soylent was embraced by people who resembled Mr Reinhart - young affluent technology workers who saw it as a new tool to maximise their efficiency, something that could enhance performance by requiring them to waste less time eating. They were a small, but loyal group. For one marker, the Soylent Reddit community today is nearly 34,000 strong.

Soylent says it pays close attention to superusers like this. "We're on there every day," Mr Crowley said.

But that Reddit community's interest has broadened to include the countless Soylent alternatives and other "nutritionally complete foods" on the market - most recently, a fortified, microwaveable product called Vite Ramen, which was born on Kickstarter last year. (Some members are also sceptical of the Soylent's plans. In discussing leaked information about Soylent Squared, one user wrote: "Oh God ... they are just making bars there?"

Another added: "Really wish they'd do more powder flavours.") Mr Rhinehart first pitched Soylent to the world with a post titled "How I Stopped Eating Food." Now his successor, Mr Crowley, says that Soylent's customers - and everyone else - should definitely keep eating food.

Asked if new customers should consider living solely off Soylent, Mr Crowley said: "We don't recommend it, no. Absolutely. 100 per cent. We don't recommend, not because we don't think it's healthy or we don't think it's there. It's a very difficult thing to do and our research tells us that it happens for a very limited amount of time." (Mr Rhinehart himself moved the company toward gentler "meal replacement" messaging before stepping down in December 2017, when he announced Mr Crowley as his replacement.) Now Soylent has edged closer to something its customers might recognise as food.

There are other reasons to tell a less provocative story. In 2017, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency informed Soylent that its product didn't meet agency requirements for "meal replacement," which halted the company's expansion in that country. In 2016, the first attempt at solid Soylent - the Food Bar - was quickly pulled from circulation after customers reported vomiting and diaorrhea.

The company is working hard to ensure its products are not merely safe to eat, but also tasty and enjoyable. "That's the big word that we talked a lot about," Mr Crowley said. "Before it was all about function. Original Soylent was function, function, function. Now you hear words like enjoyment in our mission."

Prioritising innovation

Mr Crowley has made innovation a top priority, and this year Soylent will introduce several new products. Squared comes second - after Bridge, a carton of low-calorie, protein-rich Soylent, also in beverage form that the chief executive said is "helping us bring more females into the fold and still all plant-based, all based on the same platform, 36 essential nutrients."

(Soylent customers are 65 per cent men and 35 per cent women, though Mr Crowley said he did not know whether that split represented those consuming the product. He explained: "You could have a female purchaser that's purchasing it for a male.")

Soylent's American expansion has, for the most part, been surprisingly conventional. Once a niche product available only on the Web, it now sells at 4,400 Walmarts around the country, where it sits near familiar cold drinks, like milk. (Soylent sells unusually well in Grand Forks, North Dakota, the company said, offering no theory as to why that might be.)

Soylent is now available in ready-to-drink (RTD) form on Amazon, in airports and carwash waiting rooms, and in thousands of other retail locations, supplied by major beverage distributors.

In 2019, Mr Crowley said, Soylent is about filling in gaps: in a customer's day; in its product line; in the global food supply.

Andrew Thomas, Soylent's vice-president of brand marketing, found an interesting gap in the tech industry - not, this time, at corporate offices, but in the gig economies their industry designed and oversees, where maximising efficiency is more of an algorithmic mandate than it is a way to signal your sophistication.

"We are actually stocking fridges in the driver hubs for Lyft," Mr Thomas said. "So when the drivers come in either to sign paperwork or to find out what's going on, for the next 3-6 months, there'll be bottles of Soylent RTD available for them to pick up."

The first sip is free. Soon, they'll have a discount code for drivers. (Lyft and Rosa Foods, Soylent's parent company, both have Andreessen Horowitz as a major investor.) Mr Thomas has also created a partnership with the company Cargo, which works with Uber and other companies to supply drivers and passengers with food, and Mr Crowley said he has "connected" with the chief executive of Postmates, a delivery service.

Through these partnerships, potential and established, Soylent will complete a sort of circuit, taking its product, once a lifestyle choice for a small group of technology overlords, and pushing it as a lifestyle necessity to the tech underclass for whom every moment spent on things like eating instead of working means less money. Asked if he felt he was enabling an economy that was harmful to those who worked in it, MrCrowley demurred. "We play such a small role in there," he said. "We don't even answer to those types of things."

Incorporating foodlike qualities

As the company has broadened its messaging, it has also incorporated more foodlike qualities into its anti-food. Soylent is now available in seven flavours, some caffeinated, including "Cacao" and "Cafe Chai," invoking other drink-adjacent tastes. Soylent's first flavour is listed simply as "Original."

(Mr Crowley said it has been hard to shake perceptions of what the original product tasted like. He jokingly anticipated a headline about Squared: "Chalky, No-Taste Soylent Launches Tasteful Bars.")

Soylent Squared, which will be solely available online upon its debut and cost US$30 for 30 bars, comes in three cozy flavours: Chocolate Brownie, Citrus Berry and Salted Caramel.

"People want to consume what they know," Mr Crowley said. "If you want to scale it, you need to tap into something they know." What customers know best, it turns out, is food.

Next up? "We're working on savoury," Mr Crowley said. NYTIMES