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SmartSummit: The plant-based movement is here to stay

Industry experts from White Castle, The Kroger Co. and Datassental discuss the plant-based trend and whether it’s here to stay.

6 min read


SmartSummit: The plant-based movement is here to stay

Last week, experts gathered at SmartBrief’s Food & Beverage SmartSummit, “Digging into the plant-based movement: Where it started and how it’s going,” to discuss the trend and whether it’s here to stay. 

Demand for alternatives to traditional meat and dairy products, as well as plant-forward creations, are being driven primarily by flexitarians and reducitarians — consumers who eat meat but are looking to reduce their animal product consumption for health or environmental reasons, White Castle’s Chief Marketing Officer Lynn Blashford, Senior Director of Our Brands at The Kroger Co. Brad Studer, and Marie Molde, registered dietitian and account manager at Datassential, all agreed.

“If we think about where this started, it wasn’t any one single event, but more a convergence of a few different trends that brought us to where we are today. One of them was, if we think back to a few years ago when we saw the rise in communal dining, and people were sharing meals and sharing dishes, and a big part of that was side dishes, which tend to be inherently meatless dishes,” Molde said.

Next came the plant-based alternatives, such as dairy-free milks, in response to allergies, and then it was in 2018 that meatless plant-based alternatives began to show up, and “when plant-based as a term really started to trend and it really continues to grow,” she added.

For White Castle, the movement began a few years earlier, according to Blashford, when it began offering Dr. Praeger’s veggie patties in 2015.

“When you look at the QSR landscape then, in 2015, if you were a vegetarian and looking for something to eat in fast food, you’re pretty much relegated to french fries and side salads, and so that was an experience that could be pretty boring for the category in our industry,” Blashford said during the event. “So launching the veggie slider and seeing that there was such a passionate customer base that really was appreciative to find some plant-based alternatives on the menu really opened the door for further innovation for us.”

To meet the growing shift towards the flexitarian eating lifestyle, White Castle began offering the Impossible Slider in 2018, making it the first hamburger QSR chain to roll it out system-wide.

“We knew that these were customers who actually craved the taste of beef and they didn’t want to forgo that taste, so the Impossible Slider gave us something that actually our customers were very excited about because it kind of gave them a reason to keep coming back again,” she said.

From the retail side of the business, plant-based is on a journey from fringe to mainstream, according to Studer of The Kroger Co., which launched 21 new products in its Simple Truth Plant Based collection in 2019, then another 51 new items last year.

“Similar to 10 years ago with organic, and even five years ago with non-dairy alternatives, it’s becoming a lifestyle versus a trend,” he said. “What we were seeing in 2020 was rapid improvement in terms of product formulation that closed a gap in taste, texture, affordability compared to its conventional counterparts and closing that gap really helped with the consumer demand with repeat purchases, but taste continues to be the top attribute in all the products that we design because growth is really being driven by flexitarians and reducitarians.” 

Looking ahead to 2021, Studer said his team is focused on fresh innovation, continuing down the dairy alternative path and pantry staples. 

“Those are really the areas where we’re seeing new technology, innovation and meeting the customer where they’re at on their journey in this new eating lifestyle that’s emerging,” he explained.

As plant-based products increasingly proliferate the industry, a question that comes up is whether this growth in demand will create new sustainability issues, despite the fact that one of the major draws of this category is to address current sustainability and environmental issues.

“Anytime we swing a pendulum in one direction, kind of to an extreme, we are going to have some unintended consequences that we should be thinking about,” Molde said in response, citing examples such as the push to eat more seafood in years past, and the issues in overfishing that were created as a result. More recently, Molde said she has heard about large CPG companies looking to get into the plant-based space using pea protein, but they can’t find enough of it.

“For [Datassential], we think of plant-based as being in adoption right now, so not quite in proliferation, meaning that it’s really found in a lot of different places in the industry,” she added. “Certainly, it’s growing and we think it’s going to get there, but right now, it’s in that adoption stage and I think that means that right now is the right time to be thinking about these sustainability issues that we might face in the coming years.”

All three panelists said without a doubt that they believe the trend is a lasting one, and that taste, along with sustainability, will remain key for new products to be successful.

“I think the environmental aspect is a huge part of it, both for the consumers who are looking for these solutions and for the companies who are developing them — you can go on any website of any company in this space and they can be very clear about if they are working towards saving the planet,” Molde said.

When it comes to taste, “when we ask consumers what their concerns are about moving to plant-based and plant forward, the number one concern is that it’s not going to satisfy them or taste good, so we have a hurdle to clear,” Molde added.

Now people know what plant-based products are and it’s about exploring the category, Blashford said. 

“The innovation and alternatives we can put on the menu — whether it’s ‘this tastes like chicken,’ or ‘tastes like egg’ —  there’s so much more to come and it’s coming so fast,” Blashford said. “All the manufacturers are going to be providing options whether it be brands, store brands, on menus, chef created or inspired — there’s just so much more to be coming down the pipeline, which is kind of exciting.”

To watch the event in its entirety and hear more insights from these experts on the plant-based movement, access the SmartSummit on demand.

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