The Veggie Dog King Is Taking on the Seafood Industry, One Frozen ‘Tuna’ Roll at a Time

The founder of Yves Veggie Cuisine and Gardein is back with a new mission: creating faux seafood even a carnivore will love.

They’re not still making Canadian Heritage Minutes, but perhaps they should—because everyone in this country should know that we are the homeland of the veggie dog.

In 1983, an ambitious Yves Potvin left by bike from Montreal and arrived in Vancouver about 5,000 kilometres later with an idea for a meat-free hot dog. “It was the ’80s, this time of both Jane Fonda and Hungry Man dinners,” he says. “I was athletic, a chef, persistent, I wanted to get into food manufacturing. I thought, ‘What do I have to offer? What does the world need now?’” His pedal-powered musings led to the creation of Yves Veggie Cuisine, a company that introduced the world to the fresh veggie dog and changed the game for meat alternatives… and eventually sold for a reported $54.1 million.

Next, the entrepreneur came for Big Nugget with a new company called Gardein, specializing in faux chicken products made with a new extrusion technology. That sold for big bucks, too—a cool $175 million. You can’t deny it: the man knows how to fake it (meat-wise, that is) till he makes it.

Founders Yves and Sylvia Potvin
Founders Yves and Sylvia Potvin

“If you’re not the first, you have to be the best, or you have to be different,” he says of his successes. His hot dogs were the first and, by default, the best. Gardein’s nuggets weren’t a new idea, but they were done differently, and done better. Now, with Konscious Foods—his latest venture into the world of plant-based prepared food—he’s trying to hit all three of those metrics.

There are other plant-based seafood companies out there (Victoria’s Save Da Sea focuses on smoked “salmon” and “tuna” salad mixes) but Konscious has the first frozen sushi, onigiri  and poke products on the market. And it’s an indisputably different way to serve poke or sushi in general. (“Thaw, plate and enjoy!” says the website.) But they’re also really, convincingly tasty and textured; when competitors eventually enter the arena, it’s hard to see how Konscious’s plant-based rainbow rolls won’t prove themselves to be the best, too. 

Konscious Foods’ frozen sushi rolls
The faux fish in Konscious Foods’ frozen sushi rolls are a surprisingly good sub for the real thing, made with plant-based ingredients including a root vegetable called konjac.

When he first started his vegetarian empire, the audience was a small one. In the ’90s, only one percent of North American adults identified as vegetarian. Today, it’s five percent (another four percent label themselves as vegan). Between 2015 and 2022 alone, sales of meat alternatives doubled to reach $226 million, and plant-based products are set to become a $25-billion industry in Canada over the next decade. Was Yves Potvin on the cutting edge? Or did he create the paradigm shift by making plant-based protein accessible in a way it never had been before? “You’re the OG plant-based guy,” laughs Sylvia Potvin, Yves’s wife and business partner in Konscious. (The two own Vancouver’s Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts, too; Sylvia is also a judge of this magazine’s Restaurant Awards.)

Surprisingly, Yves isn’t strictly vegan or vegetarian himself. And nowhere on the packaging of any of his brands—past or present—are the products labelled as being for vegetarians only. “Diet for me is all about balance. Who says you have to be all or nothing?” he says. “If you like bacon, just be a vegetarian and eat bacon sometimes.”

Konscious is the Potvins’ attempt to take a bite out of the seafood industry, for reasons both opportunistic (salmon alone is a US$15.6-billion global business) and eco-minded. “‘Conscious’ is a word I use a lot. Conscious is being aware. You don’t just wake up one morning and think, ‘Today I’m going to buy an electric car,’” says Yves. “We make a conscious decision that it’s better for the environment; we think, ‘I want to improve.’ Humans are the only animal who make a conscious decision to change our life for the better.” In the last 50 years, the number of overfished stocks has tripled, according to the World Wildlife Fund. If we all made that concious choice to swap our salmon poke bowl for a plant-based alternative a few times a week, maybe we could help lessen that load.

The offerings from Konscious will, the Potvins hope, make it an easy option to choose. While the company’s product line features vegetable-centric  items—like the Korean barbeque shiitake onigiri—it’s the imitation seafood that is the real game-changer here. The “snow crab” in the California roll is made from a root vegetable called konjac, and is a shockingly realistic substitute. The “tuna” in the tuna mango roll, meanwhile, is crafted from konjac, organic tomato and olive oil; the “salmon” in the poke bowl is actually konjac and carrot. (If the “kon” in “Konscious” doesn’t stand for konjac, maybe it should.)

The company raised $26 million in venture capital funding last year and its products are already in 4,500 supermarkets and counting. But Konscious has a hurdle to overcome. “No one buys frozen sushi,” admits Yves. “We’re creating a whole new market.”

Slowly but surely, that market is developing. Konscious won a coveted “Best New Frozen Product” award at the global lifestyle food trade show Expo West in 2023, and the Potvins are quick to point out that the category does not just include vegetarian food. “That’s beating out ice cream! And chicken fingers, and frozen pizza. That gives us a lot of credibility,” Sylvia says.

They’re taking that cred to South by Southwest this year, an event typically occupied by tech startups and impossibly cool bands. “It’s the place where culture happens, and an exciting place to be,” says Yves. It’s also an opportunity to get their product in the hands of some tastemakers, and show them what’s possible—nothing fishy about that.