Interview with Deborah Torres

Inspired by a family health crisis, Deborah Torres founded her own food company, Atlas Monroe, which creates amazing vegan versions of foods like ribs and chicken. She discusses her mission to both provide healthy food and be a role model for people of color.

Tell us about your background. What was your upbringing like? Who inspired you?

When I think about how I grew up, the first thing that comes to mind is that I was Black in a predominately Caucasian suburb, where I was consistently reminded that I was different from my peers. I was very ambitious and extremely hardworking because being successful was the only way that I could overcome my situation.

I skipped first grade, was a student in GATE (Gifted and Talented Education), graduated high school at fifteen, and got my first college degree at seventeen. Both my parents had full-time careers that consumed a large chunk of their time, so my siblings and I grew up to be very independent and confident, knowing our parents weren’t always going to be there emotionally to save the day. Seeing my parents work so hard to provide the best life and future possible for us will always be my biggest inspiration.

What led you down this path?

After my father was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, my entire family went on a raw vegan diet for ninety days to help him get healthier and induce a lifestyle change. Although fresh produce in various forms sounds can be refreshing, we experienced hunger pains, cravings, and grumpiness by the end of the first week.

So I started researching plant food textures and flavors, developing recipes, and making flavorful meals like raw vegan tacos, lasagna, nachos, pizza, burgers, and “chicken” nuggets. At the end of the ninety days, he was healthier! This inspired me to create a company founded on providing delicious, better alternatives to traditional meat products.

How did Atlas Monroe take off?

I decided I wanted to do some local catering in addition to my full-time job, so I created a website. Someone emailed us about doing a major vegan festival in Chicago after seeing our website.

I convinced my family to drive our truck and trailer from California to Chicago; we ended up getting there just after midnight on the day of the event. It took us all night to set up, and we still weren’t ready because we make our food entirely from scratch. My dad, who had grilled ribs at the Gilroy Garlic Festival for years, was set to grill our Applewood-Fired Ribs, which we were debuting. About fifteen minutes into the event, he said, “Look, Deborah!” I went to our booth window and saw that the line was as long as a football field. I couldn’t believe it. The event organizers told us later that our fried chicken was the best they’d ever had, vegan or not.

You turned down a $1 million offer on Shark Tank. What led to that decision?

My Shark Tank experience rocked me to the core. Given everything I had stated in my presentation—including unsolicited celebrities and influencers raving about our products, catching the attention of a huge national chain, having zero debt, and making $250,000 in sales in our first year and a half in business—I was surprised and disappointed that they withdrew their initial offer. If I had accepted the replacement offer of $1 million for the entire company, I would have lost everything I’d worked so hard for. All in all, the experience made me even hungrier and more determined.

What are your most popular foods? Which are your personal favorites? Are new foods waiting in the wings?

We offer over ten different products, including Extra Crispy Chick’n, Applewood-Fired Ribs, Deep Fried n’ Stuffed Turkey, decadent cakes, and lots of signature sauces to pair with our offerings. We have many more delicious creations up our sleeves.

Personally, I love our bacon, Popcorn Chick’n, and Bomb Honee Mustard dipping sauce. A wrap made with those three foods, plus some lettuce and tomato, is one is the best things I’ve ever eaten.

Your company has made some significant progress in recent years, such as purchasing a warehouse in San Diego. Would you talk about that?

Atlas Monroe was the first and only vegan company to be invited to the National Fried Chicken Festival and was named Best Fried Chicken Dish (even over real chicken) by Time’s Extra Crispy. The Shark Tank episode went viral, and we’ve been featured on many news sites and in many publications. We’ve recently acquired a multimillion-dollar manufacturing facility, and our products are sold and shipped nationwide and are available in some restaurants. Our manufacturing plant has greatly helped us fulfill this demand, and it will continue to aid us as we expand into grocery stores and nationwide food service.

To date, there is no vegan chicken product that matches ours, and we are here to fill the space in disadvantaged communities by being available in all areas—not only in Beverly Hills but also in Watts. Healthier meat alternative products should be available to all.

What are your goals for the company?

My short-term goal is growth. My ultimate goal is to take Atlas Monroe public with an IPO so my people reap the benefits of it. There’s also a huge gap in the availability of vegan brands in Black and Brown communities, and Black and Brown brands have few opportunities in the national vegan grocery space. Women founders also receive far less of the venture-capital funding than men do.

So I want to be the change I want to see in the world. It is time for us to thrive and receive equal opportunities and equity to prosper both in the vegan community and in communities of color across the spectrum.

You have accomplished so much on your journey so far. What does Atlas Monroe mean to you and to other potential entrepreneurs?

Atlas Monroe is so much bigger than me. As a Black woman repeatedly being told no and that I’m not good enough, I got to the point where I started doing what Simone Biles and so many other legendary women of color who’ve achieved the impossible do: readjust the crown they’ve tried to knock off me and build my own table to rightfully sit at the head of.

You do this by continuing to envision where you want to be and knowing in your heart that, with patience and endurance, you will get there. I personally plan to create a platform where women of color who have excellent ideas and exceed execution can flourish, grow, and shine as they deserve to. I want our collective future to have a different story—one of equity, representation, and generational wealth.

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