A plant-based patty that might convincingly pass as meat? As recently as a year ago, when most of us still thought of “veggie burgers” as flat discs made from mushrooms or black beans, such a creation still felt like near-future science fiction.
But this has been a sizzling summer in the plant-based protein world, with leading faux-meat brands securing big deals almost weekly, sparking media coverage and international discussion of the trend along the way.
In short, meatless is having a moment. And the stakes are beefy: Billions of dollars of brand value are being built behind the scenes by the key architects of this movement, fueled by product innovation, strategic brand partnerships and growing consumer demand.
Most recently, Impossible Foods and Burger King announced the national rollout of the Impossible Whopper, adding 7,000-plus outlets to the roughly 10,000 restaurants already serving the brand’s meat substitute (White Castle, Red Robin and Cheesecake Factory among them). The nationwide expansion, following a successful test and a manufacturing deal to reverse shortages and scale production, gives Impossible some valuable, high-profile exposure as it readies its first foray into supermarkets this fall.
Top rival Beyond Meat just added Dunkin’ and Subway to its roster, expanding into breakfast and nonburger sandwiches. The Los Angeles-based company, now with a post-IPO valuation of $12 billion, more than tripled its sales in the fiscal second quarter (and its revenue outlook bumped up by $30 million as a result), according to its earnings report. Fanning out from beef substitutes, the brand is tackling more items, such as fake bacon as a potential next offering.
These competitors are touting their meat-like qualities and attracting the interest of investors like Bill Gates, Jay-Z and Serena Williams, not to mention inking deals at a furious pace with grocery stores, meal kit services, theme parks, stadiums, and casual-dining and fast-food chains.
‘The Tesla model’
Veggie burgers, whether made with mushrooms, kale, black beans or tempeh, have been around for decades in the freezer section at supermarkets, at specialty stores and on restaurant menus. Even fast-food joints have offered nonmeat patties from the likes of Dr. Praeger’s, MorningStar Farms and other brands, though primarily as a nod to having a vegetarian option.
“Often it was there to check a box,” said Zak Weston, food-service expert at the nonprofit Good Food Institute. “It looked like an afterthought, and consumers assumed it tasted like one.”
A real turning point came when chef-driven restaurants like Momofuku in New York and Jardinière in San Francisco added Impossible burgers in 2016, which Weston refers to as “the Tesla model” of starting at the high end of the market with influencers and early adopters.
It didn’t take long for the trend to trickle down to other restaurant tiers, as product quality improved and consumer demand surged.
“On the supply side, the plant-based alternatives started replicating the whole sensory experience of meat,” Weston said. “So there’s a new kind of product on one hand, and consumers reducing the red meat and animal protein in their diets on the other. It’s two megatrends intersecting.”
Faux burger brands, he said, have followed a similar path as dairy alternatives, such as soy- and nut-based milks. Once niche products aimed almost medicinally at the lactose intolerant, dairy substitutes gradually became more mainstream in their flavor, positioning, packaging and marketing.
“It’s a similar playbook,” Weston said, noting that plant-based burgers now have a 3.5% market share across all fast-food burgers. “That’s significant and growing.”
All about access
Burger King execs might make the Impossible Whopper a permanent menu fixture (it’s a limited item now) and say they are considering other Impossible products. Though there are still going to be some kinks to work out before that happens, such as claims that the Impossible Whopper isn’t 100% vegetarian since it’s cooked on the same broilers as the meat patties and chicken products.
“We believe in the long-term viability of the category,” said Chris Finazzo, BK’s president for North America.
Carl’s Jr. reports a “huge” consumer response for its Beyond Famous Star Burger (featuring, as you might guess from the name, a Beyond Burger patty), with 4 million sold since its January intro.
“In addition to seeing great momentum in core markets like California,” said Patty Trevino, svp of marketing for Carl’s Jr., “it is also bringing in new consumers everywhere—even in places like Oklahoma, where livestock is big business.”
Beyond and Impossible, locked in a Coke versus Pepsi-style land grab, have nailed down agreements with everyone from Blue Apron and Whole Foods to Del Taco and Little Caesars, proving that it’s not a foodie fringe or urban-only phenomenon. The one notable holdout so far has been McDonald’s.