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Greetings all! Here in Seattle we’re hard at work putting the final touches on next week’s Smart Kitchen Summit (SKS). This year we’re devoting a significant chunk of programming to alternative protein. We have speakers from Memphis Meats, Tofurky, Perfect Day, JUST, BlueNalu, Motif FoodWorks and more talking about everything from making protein out of thin air to the legal issues around alt-meat labeling.
Food with integrity — but without plant-based meat
But not everyone is as jazzed about new alternative protein offerings as our SKS speakers. In a recent interview with Barron’s, Brian Niccol, the CEO of Chipotle, said he sees the plant-based foods movement as a “real trend” but isn’t sure if it will last long-term. He also reiterated Chipotle’s stance that the current trendy meat alternatives, such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, are “too processed” for the fast-casual chain to use.
Our team had some strong reactions to this article. We were skeptical about Niccol’s claims that the plant-based movement lacked staying power. Data points to growing demand for faux meat. According to the Good Food Institute, sales of plant-based meat grew 23 percent from 2017 to 2018. As alterna-meat options get better and better tasting and grow their reach into more retail outlets and fast-food menus, I’m guessing their popularity will only increase.
Chipotle’s main beef with plant-based meat is how processed it is. But when it comes down to it, I’m not sure how much a Chipotle diner actually cares.
True, a Chipotle consumer may not necessarily be the same as a McDonald’s or Taco Bell consumer. They likely do care more about where their food comes from, how it was made, and how sustainable it is. But the thing consumers care most about is taste. As Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and the like continue to iterate to make their products taste more and more like meat, it’s unlikely that many Chipotle consumers would actually turn their noses up at it. Especially since it has a smaller environmental footprint than beef.
Chipotle competitors, however, have no problem hitching their wagon to the plant-based meat trend. Qdoba has Impossible ground “beef” on their menu while Del Taco has embraced Beyond Meat, and both have seen a corresponding uptick in sales and ticket amount. Maybe Chipotle is taking a page from Arby’s book and hoping that by snubbing plant-based meat, it can stand out from the crowd?
A bold strategy.
Chipotle and McDonald’s may not share the same consumer pool, but both chains have one thing in common: a well-documented skepticism towards plant-based meat (at least in North America). However, all that changed last week when McDonald’s announced that 28 locations in Ontario, Canada would be testing out a plant-based burger made with a Beyond Meat patty called the P.L.T. (Plant, Lettuce, Tomato).
We’d been eagerly waiting to see when Mickey D’s would follow suit with its fast-food brethren and embrace the plant-based meat trend. But the longer I thought about the name of the burger itself, the P.L.T., the less sure I was that this venture would be as viral a success as, say, the Impossible Whopper.
Why wasn’t McDonald’s leveraging the brand recognition of Beyond Meat by including it in the sandwich name? Why evoke bacon (B.L.T.) without actually including any bacon, plant-based or otherwise? Why make the very first word in the product name “Plants” if you’re trying to appeal to flexitarians who want to cut down on their meat consumption without going full-on veg?
Then again, there could be a much simpler strategic reason that McDonald’s chose to keep the word “Beyond” out of the name of its P.L.T. burger. As I mentioned above, this trial is a way for Mickey D’s to dip its toe into the plant-based meat waters and see if it’s worth a deeper investment. If they decide to move forward on a larger scale, they might well move away from Beyond Meat and go with another faux burger brand — maybe Nestlé’s Awesome burger? — or even develop their own patty internally.
For all its recent embracing of technology and data, Mickey D’s is certainly dragging its feet when it comes to plant-based meat. But they’re not stupid. If the PLT is as big a success as other fast-food faux burgers have been, it’s only a (short) matter of time before we see a new plant-based meat offering on McDonald’s menus south of the Canadian border.
Hopefully they come up with a better name for it.
Protein ’round the web
- Misfit Foods, a company which originally turned ugly produce into juices, has pivoted to make blended sausages with a mixture of meat and imperfect vegetables.
- Impossible Foods’ plant-based ground “meat” product is now available in select Fairway supermarkets in New York City.
- In the last month alone, six new plant-based burgers have hit the market. Six! Have you heard of them all?
That’s it from me. Look out next week for coverage of the alternative protein content from SKS 2019!