When I think of chicken nuggets, I think of my young son. More specifically, I remember how at one point I surreptitiously replaced his animal-based chicken nuggets and tenders with plant-based ones… and he didn’t notice (or didn’t care). That small bit of deception is why I think the plant-based chicken nugget market could be a very big deal.
Plant-based chicken nuggets are nothing new. Companies like Quorn, Morningstar and Gardein have been selling them in the frozen aisles of grocery stores for years now. But things really heated up this month when both Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods jumped into the faux poultry ring. Beyond, which had previously piloted plant-based chicken with KFC, announced a couple weeks back that its new tenders are available at 400 restaurants across the country. That announcement was quickly followed by the news that Impossible was unveiling its nuggets to potential restaurant customers this week for a fall rollout.
While both of their plant-based chicken products will debut at restaurants, it’s a no-brainer that their nuggets will eventually make it to store shelves. Both Beyond and Impossible spent a great deal of time last year vastly expanding their national retail sales footprint, all the heavy lifting of getting into stores in done, they now just need to roll out their nuggets.
And it’s on the store shelves where things get interesting, as there will be ton of competition. Not only are the stalwarts like Quorn, Morningstar and Gardein already there, but giants like Tyson has its Raised & Rooted plant-based nuggets, and Target has its own Good & Gather brand. Not to mention there is also a new crop of plant-based nugget startups like Rebellyous, SIMULATE, Nowadays, and Daring Foods competing for your dollar.
Competing for your top dollar, that is. Right now, you have to pay extra for plant-based chicken. A quick look at Safeway shows that an 8-ounce package of Raised and Rooted nuggets is $4.99, compared with a 32-ounce package of traditional animal based nuggets for $7.79. That’s almost four times as much food for a few dollars more.
But this is where Beyond and Impossible can help. While both of their burger products are still more expensive than traditional meat, consumer prices for Beyond and Impossible have steadily come down over the past couple of years. It’s a safe bet that the same will happen for their chicken products. With the brand recognition both Beyond and Impossible have, they should be able to quickly gain market share at retail and exert price pressure on other players in the space.
Another big opportunity for plant-based chicken nuggets and tenders is in schools cafeterias, where nuggets are menu staple. The USDA reports that schools served 5 billion lunches in fiscal year 2019, so it’s no surprise that schools were actually one of Rebellyous’ primary markets before the pandemic shut everything down last year. Also consider that this past May, Impossible received the Child Nutrition (CN) Label authorized by the USDA, which will make it easier for schools to purchase the Impossible Burger. With Impossible running pilots programs with a number of school districts across the U.S., it’s a safe bet the company will get the same regulatory approval for its nuggets.
But the big reason plant-based chicken nuggets and tenders will be huge goes back to my son. Nuggets and tenders are really more of a kids’ food (though, who doesn’t love a good nugget?), and if you can create a reasonable facsimile, they aren’t going to care. It’s not like trying to replicate a filet mignon at a fine dining establishment. Creating a plant-based filet requires “muscle” and fat structures. Plus, consumers have a heightened expectation around what a filet is and should be, so the uncanny valley is much greater. Nuggets, on the other hand, are junk food. (I say that with love) There doesn’t need to be a ton of complexity to make a good nugget. Bread it, flavor it, make sure it looks enough like meat on the inside and there you go. Kids will knock ’em back no fuss no muss.
Until now, burgers have been the star of the plant-based meat world, but don’t be surprised if next year plant-based chicken nuggets take center stage.
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