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How plant-based meat makers put down roots for their brands

When plant-based burger maker Impossible Foods debuted its products, they rolled out first on restaurant menus. The brand focused on expanding in foodservice channels, building buzz in deals with White Castle and Burger King before launching retail products last fall. And, even as Impossible has grown its retail presence since then, the focus on foodservice hasn't wavered. Most recently, the Impossible Burger was named the preferred plant-based burger at Disney’s theme parks, resorts and cruise ships.

In contrast, rival Beyond Meat’s burgers, sausages and other plant-based meat replacements became a growing presence in grocery cases, raising the brand's profile in supermarkets in advance of the company’s buzz-building IPO in May of last year. Beyond’s plant-based meat has also grown its presence in foodservice channels in high-profile deals with chains including Carl’s Jr. and Dunkin’, but many consumers got their first exposure to the product at the grocery store.

Sales of plant-based meat alternatives have been growing in both channels in recent years. Shipments of plant-based meats to restaurants and other foodservice channels grew 37% last year, according to NPD Group data compiled for the Good Food Institute, and 58 of the country’s 100 biggest restaurant chains now offer at least one plant-based menu item. Retail sales of plant-based meats have risen consistently in recent years, according to SPINS data compiled for the Plant Based Foods Association and The Good Food Institute.

How plant-based players choose a channel

Whether to focus on foodservice or retail channels first is a key question for food startups in general, and it can be even more complicated for plant-based companies.

Plant-based meat replacements are still pretty new to the scene and companies are often still experimenting with plant-based protein sources and tweaking their recipes to get them just right. Rolling out in foodservice often lets brands do that in a low-profile way before creating distinctive branding and packaging and promoting their names to consumers.

When plant-based chicken maker Improved Nature launched its first retail products at ShopRite stores in the Northeast last October, the company already had a two-year head start in foodservice in the US and Europe, founder Richard “Rody” Hawkins said in an interview late last year.

The former Conagra food scientist whose teams created Lunchables and Slim Jims, two of the grocery world’s most familiar consumer packaged foods, set out to create a meat replacement that would absorb the flavors of whatever it was cooked in. The resulting product has been turned into chicken nuggets and tenders for retail customers, but it can also be a plant-based substitute for beef or pork, depending on how it’s prepared, Hawkins said.

Initially, the company’s focus was on getting the technology right, he said, which meant centering operations on the engineering and science, and the marketing would come later.

Plant-based chicken nugget maker Rebellyous Foods, formerly Seattle Food Tech, started with a similar focus on the technology, which the goal of not only replicating the familiar chicken nugget with plant foods but also do it a price that was the same or lower than the cost of the animal-based original.

It’s not just startups that have focused on foodservice. Nestle acquired plant-based meat alternative and prepared meal brand Sweet Earth in 2017 and the brand has since expanded its retail product lineup, but some of the newest products are being created specifically for foodservice.

Last year, Sweet Earth created the plant-based Awesome Burger, the brand’s entry into the increasingly competitive beef-like vegan burger category. That product launched in retail channels, but to set it apart Nestle took it further.

In-house chefs and scientists developed a plant-based cheddar alternative and vegan bacon, and in October the company announced plans for the PB Triple Play, a plant-based bacon cheeseburger options whose components would be made available to restaurants and other foodservice channels, with no firm plans yet for a retail release.

Why some brands choose two lanes at once

Other brands are also growing in both retail and foodservice channels at the same time. Eat JUST’s plant-based egg replacer, JUST Egg, built buzz on restaurant menus early on, while also securing spots in both the plant-based cooler case and the egg departments at grocery stores.

Unlike some other plant-based startups, JUST had already been making a name for itself in the grocery aisles. It’s plant-based JUST Mayo, cookies and cookie dough had secured shelf space early on while the company continued to work on creating a workable plant-based egg.

Developing a realistic plant-based egg had been JUST’s goal from the start, co-founder and CEO Josh Tetrick has said in past interviews and it’s continuing to make improvements to the mung bean protein-based product, the newest version of which is due out in May.

Meanwhile, it continues to focus on growing the brand in both retail and foodservice. Recently, JUST lowered the suggested price of the retail product, and last month the company announced a partnership with foodservice provider Sodexo that has the potential to put JUST Egg onto menus in campus dining halls and corporate cafeterias across the country.

For long-standing brands that have been pioneers in the plant-based meat segment, launching new things in retail first can make sense.

Tofurky’s new line of Moocho cheeses is set to roll out this week at Natural Foods Expo West before shipping to supermarkets this summer. Unlike some of the startups that have hit the plant-based food world in recent years, Tofurky’s brand and familiar quirky packaging has long been a staple in supermarkets’ produce departments and refrigerated plant-based sections.

“We will have a format available for foodservice operators as well,” Tofurky CEO Jaime Athos said. “We think retail will get traction out of the gate, but all it would take is interest from one big QSR chain and the direction could change.”

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