’Shroom Chef

Michael Pan perfects plant-based jerky

Michael Pan “You don’t need to buy meat to get that jerky-like texture anymore,” says Michael Pan, founder of Panco Foods, which manufactures plant-based jerky in three flavors: zesty Thai, Applewood BBQ, and sea salt and pepper. (Image courtesy Michael Pan)
Michael Pan perfects plant-based jerky

In 2008, Michael Pan, ’01 ENG, traveled from his home in Chicago to visit his vegetarian Buddhist family in Malaysia. His cousin put a bowl of food on the table. Pan tried a bite of what looked like jerky. It was chewy and loaded with flavor. “Pork?” he asked, incredulously. “No, mushrooms,” his cousin said. “I was blown away by the texture,” Pan says. 

Pan saw opportunity in that savory, vegetarian snack that his family had been making since the 1980s. Back in the U.S., jerky and natural foods were growing more popular while Pan—who was working as an electrical engineer at Motorola—was feeling less than fulfilled. He was experiencing what he calls “the entrepreneurial itch,” and he’d stumbled upon a way to scratch it: Pan’s Mushroom Jerky. He launched Panco Foods as a side gig, importing the jerky from Malaysia, and getting it initially on shelves in 20 or 30 stores.

Pan left Motorola in 2006 to co-found Fancred, a Boston-based sports startup where he led product development. When the company was sold in 2016, he decided to focus fully on Panco Foods. By then, plant-based foods had become more popular, and he’d learned a lot about being an entrepreneur. 

Pan opened a manufacturing facility in Portland, Ore., which eliminated the need to import the jerky. Next, he updated the family recipe to be vegan (the original version had eggs in it) and organic, and added new flavors—zesty Thai, applewood BBQ, and sea salt and pepper. “I spent about two years refining and iterating the product—testing it, updating ingredients—finally launching it in 2018,” Pan says. Today, the jerky is available in more than 600 stores, including Whole Foods in Southern California and the Pacific Northwest, and it’s been featured on the Today Show and in The Wall Street Journal. 

And as Pan’s professional life has changed, so has his personal life. Since tasting his cousin’s sample, he’s become a vegan. A carnivore when he first tasted that sample, he became excited that he could offer people a tasty plant-based food. “You don’t need to buy meat to get that ‘jerky-like’ texture anymore,” Pan says. “Today, there are a lot of delicious and satisfying plant-based options.”