Deborah Torres is part of the rising ranks of women of color leading the vegan revolution. Her award-winning company, Atlas Monroe, gained national fame after impressing the judges on the reality investing series, Shark Tank, in 2019. Her company’s “dark meat” fried chicken has won awards at national competitions (beating out traditional chicken) and amassed a cult following. It’s now on the menu of more than 50 restaurants across the country, as well as internationally, and is set to hit the shelves at two major grocery chains. Torres even kicked off 2022 with a brand new product launch: “white meat” extra crispy fried chicken.
Reflecting on her success often reminds Torres of the struggles she faced to get here. The daughter of immigrant parents—her mother hails from England; her father is from Guyana—she grew up in the predominantly white neighborhood of San Jose, California.
“When I think about how I grew up, the first thing that comes to mind is that I grew up Black,” says Torres. “I was […] consistently reminded that I was different from my peers whether through looks, treatment from teachers, or my peers. I [felt like I] had to work three times harder than they did to receive the same recognition.”
Her parents’ own struggles growing up—they both went to work at 4 a.m. each day—fueled her own desires to succeed. “My mom taught me that you win by getting the best grades. You win by being successful. And it’s just something that stuck with me throughout my life,” she says. Torres focused on academics and graduated from high school at the age of 15. She went on to earn an associate’s degree in liberal arts in 2007. She earned her second degree, a BA in theatre arts, just two years later.
The making of Atlas Monroe
Torres was raised on the diverse flavors of her multicultural household. But her love for food—and cooking it—may just run in her blood. Both of her grandmothers owned restaurants and her parents loved to cook, too. But there was one food they enjoyed most: fried chicken.
In July of 2015, her father was diagnosed with type-2 diabetes. After learning about the health benefits of eating raw vegan foods, the entire family decided to try the diet out for 90 days. Torres set about trying to recreate a plant-based version of her family’s favorite dish.
In lieu of soy, an ingredient used in many vegan meat products, Torres opted for wheat protein. “I wanted to stay away from [soy] because soy protein isolate, a lot of the time, is genetically modified. After the raw diet, we didn’t want to go back to eating genetically modified foods,” she explains. “So, I was thinking, ‘How can I make something that’s all natural, plant-based, made with as many organic ingredients as possible and that my family is going to love?’ That was my challenge initially.”
Torres says that the earlier versions of her company’s plant-based fried chicken resembled nuggets. After two years of trials, she finally developed a recipe that her family enjoyed. “I never felt like giving up. My parents are big foodies and both of their mothers had successful restaurants, so making a replacement they would actually like and approve of were major goals,” she explains.
Torres soon took her vegan food to the masses. She saved up money for a year, and then started a catering company—Atlas Monroe—in 2017. But, business took off before she could begin catering.
Organizers for the Vegandale Chicago 2017 food festival came across the Atlas Monroe website and offered Torres a booth at the festival. It felt like the big break she was waiting for. So, she convinced her family to drive from northern California to the Windy City with her for the event.
“The day of the festival, our line was longer than a football field,” she recalls. “The owners had posted a photo from our website and by the end of the day, the whole festival—the DJs, the artists—were coming to our booth saying, ‘Everybody’s talking about this chick’n, we gotta try it!’”
Deborah Torres: making it on her own
After attending other festivals and events and gaining traction on social media, Torres appeared on an episode of ABC’s Shark Tank in 2019.
Impressed by her product, the sharks offered Torres $1 million for her company. She turned it down. While some may have jumped at the opportunity that has made household names out of brands like Bombas and Cinnaholic, Torres declined it. The seemingly lucrative deal came with a 100 percent stake in Atlas Monroe, something that she was not willing to do. She feared that losing control meant losing her brand.
“I’ve seen other vegan, women-owned companies kind of get taken over by sharks so to speak,” she explains, citing chef Chloe Coscarelli, whose business partner pushed her out of their fast-casual restaurant chain, By Chloe. The chain hit hard times during the pandemic, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2020, then rebranded as “Beatnic” in 2021 following a years-long legal battle over using Coscarelli’s name to sell food that she no longer had any involvement with.
“I just felt like it would be devastating to see my company just taking off and multiplying and flourishing and I’m not a part of it,” Torres continues. “So, I went into it with the attitude of like, there’s no way that I’m going to get got on this show.”
By taking a risk, Torres joined the ranks of successful female founders—such as Melissa Butler of The Lip Bar and Aisha “Pinky” Cole of Slutty Vegan—who bet everything on themselves even though the odds were stacked against them. Women founders face a multitude of imbalances but the most critical one is funding. In 2019, only 2.8 percent of venture capital funding went to women-led startups. This figure fell to 2.3 percent in 2020, according to Crunchbase. Women of color made even less. In 2018, only 34 Black women founders raised $1 million in venture capital funding for their business, Fortune reports.
Beating the odds
After appearing on Shark Tank, Atlas Monroe made $350,000 in sales, selling out its inventory within two hours. And in 2020, the company made more than $1 million. “We worked extremely hard and continue to work extremely hard. We were doing festival events and a lot of our followers have been supporting us from day one,” says Torres.
Torres credits her success to the diversity of her clientele. Her vegan fried chicken doesn’t just attract vegans. Non-vegans like it, too. According to a 2020 report by consumer goods market research firm Packaged Facts, flexitarianism—a predominantly plant-based diet—is growing in popularity. Approximately 36 percent of consumers identify as flexitarian, and it’s a niche that Atlas Monroe is certainly catering to.
“More and more, I feel like non-vegans are ordering from us,” says Torres. “I think a big thing in America right now is that there’s a lot of dietarily blended families. So they’re looking for alternatives that both parties will like and enjoy. And I think that we’re that medium.”
Deborah Torres: building an empire
What does the future hold for Torres and Atlas Monroe? For starters, she wants to take her company public. And thanks to a recent partnership with Canada’s Copper Branch, her vegan fried chicken is now available internationally. Her latest product, Atlas Monroe 2.0—a “white meat” fried chicken—is available in breast, strip, and grilled form. “This new chick’n has a firm breast-like texture and is moist and bursting with flavor while still winning on providing an unparalleled extra crispy coating that we are renowned for,” she explains.
But crispy fried vegan chicken isn’t all Torres makes. Atlas Monroe also carries the likes of plant-based lasagna, cured bacon, apple wood-fired ribs, and more—which are available to order online. Torres’s vegan meats are also available in restaurants in California, Texas, Florida, Ohio, South Carolina, and Virginia.
Business is certainly booming for Atlas Monroe. In 2021 the company made $2 million in sales. She also opened a multi-million dollar manufacturing facility in San Diego, which has allowed the company to scale production from making 1,000 pieces of vegan fried chicken per week to more than 20,000. After being consistently sold out throughout the majority of 2020 and 2021, Torres says the plants allow her to meet the high demand for her products.
She also wants to ensure that plant-based foods are readily available in all communities, especially those of color. “I think that the biggest disparity is that vegan products are not available in certain spaces,” she explains. “And it’s really weird considering that communities of color are the largest growing vegan group.”
She also wants to continue being a beacon of inspiration for other women and women of color. “I want to see people who look like me win. I want to see women and children across the spectrum win. And if they need help with that, I want to be that person to help them.”