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Restaurants vs. retail: Breaking down consumers’ plant-based appetites

Plant-based products are continuing to grow in popularity, both at restaurants and food retail, and certain product categories have emerged as consumer favorites in each channel. 

Understanding what drives these preferences can help food retailers and foodservice operators meet consumers’ needs and prepare for what’s next as the plant-based movement evolves.

More than 80% of consumers are aware of plant-based products, and 70% have already tried meat and milk substitutes, research from innovation insight agency Buzzback shows. While both meat analogues and dairy alternatives are growing in popularity, the former have found a stronger foothold in foodservice while the latter are mainly consumed at home, according to research from the NPD Group.

Plant-based burgers on a roll in foodservice

When it comes to plant-based meat alternatives, restaurants and other foodservice outlets supply these products to consumers 78% of the time, compared with just 22% of occasions when consumers eat meat alternatives prepared at home, NPD found.

About one-third of consumers said their consumption of various meat alternatives has increased over the past year, according to a Datassential survey conducted in January. The figures are about the same for the number of consumers who say they plan to increase their consumption of plant-based meat alternatives in the coming year. Plant-based burgers ranked especially high in terms of consumers’ intentions to seek them out more in 2021, with 39% of respondents saying they expect to eat more meatless burger options, such as the Impossible burger, this year.

Plant-based burgers have proliferated at restaurants, with a slew of major chains adding them to the menu over the past few years. White Castle was the first quickserve hamburger chain to partner with Impossible Foods, and it rolled out the Impossible Slider nationwide in 2018. Burger King followed suit with the Impossible Whopper in 2019, and McDonald’s has recently begun testing the McPlant burger it developed with Beyond Meat in Denmark and Sweden, Bloomberg reported.

Meatless burgers likely see a bigger buy-in from restaurant customers because “they’re really not asking consumers to change their existing behaviors,” said Darren Seifer, NPD food and beverage industry analyst. “The form that it’s being delivered in -- the patty -- is familiar to consumers, and now the taste is familiar to consumers because it's close to beef,” he said.

Even though foodservice accounts for the majority of meat analogue eating occasions, it's likely that the popularity of these items at restaurants will translate to success in the supermarket.

“Restaurants help introduce concepts to consumers and then they’ll spill over to retail,” Seifer explained.

Consumers turn to dairy alternatives at home

Plant-based foods already have a growing presence in grocery, including brands like Impossible that consumers may recognize from restaurants, as well as retailers’ own private label brands. Kroger launched its Simple Truth plant-based brand in 2019, and it has grown to include more than 75 products, from burger patties and sausages to various dairy alternatives. 

Adoption of dairy substitutes -- particularly alternatives to milk -- has skyrocketed in recent years, driven largely by at-home consumption. The vast majority (93%) of meals or snacks that contain milk alternatives are consumed at home, rather than being purchased at a restaurant, NPD found.

Soy milk, which was the first mainstream alt-milk, has been surpassed by almond and other nut milks, said Seifer, who also pointed to the surging popularity of oat milk. The global market for oat milk is expected to surpass $2 billion by 2026, according to market research firm Research and Markets. In addition to oat milk, Kroger’s Simple Truth line also includes a range of oat milk ice cream flavors.

“Substitution without sacrifice” is key to further growth

The popularity of indulgent products such as oat milk ice cream and plant-based quickserve burgers points to a key factor in the future success of plant-based foods and beverages. Even if consumers are choosing plant-based options with health in mind, taste is still paramount. Seifer sums this up as “substitution without sacrifice.”

Datassential’s findings support this, with 52% of consumers surveyed saying they would be motivated to eat meat alternatives if they were healthier than meat, and 55% saying the same about meatless products that tasted better than meat.

To maximize the appeal of plant-based foods and beverages, both retailers and restaurants should “use language that is suggestive of great taste,” said Marie Molde, an account manager at Datassential. 

“Restaurants are already often expert at this, and need to give as much consideration to their plant-based/plant-forward options as the rest of their menus,” she said, adding that product descriptions should “highlight what’s there, instead of what’s not,” since terms like vegan or vegetarian can suggest something has been taken away.

Seifer echoed this sentiment, explaining that because non-vegetarians are the ones driving the majority of the growth of plant-based foods and beverages, “you don’t want to use words that would alienate people and make it feel like it’s not for them.”

Datassential’s survey found that 39% of respondents said plant-based alternatives should be more available everywhere, so it seems that many consumers have decided that plant-based options are for them, and they’re hungry for more.

For more insights into the plant-based boom, register for the Feb. 24 SmartSummit -- Digging into the plant-based movement: How it started and where it’s going. Datassential’s Marie Molde will join panelists from White Castle and The Kroger Co. in a discussion moderated by SmartBrief to explore the state of the plant-based food movement and what lies ahead. Register now.

 

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