Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods forever changed the plant-based meat industry when they rolled onto the scene with vegan burgers that looked, cooked, and tasted like the real thing. A veggie burger used to mean a patty made of black beans, quinoa, and a few vegetables. It was usually reserved for vegetarians and vegans, and many carnivores didn’t see a reason to go near it.
But now there’s a new consumer group in town: the flexitarian. Flexitarians are working to cut down on their meat consumption, and, for a growing number, that means turning to plant-based meats to replace the real thing. That’s exactly who Beyond and Impossible are targeting. Their meat-like burgers (and, in Beyond’s case, chicken strips and sausage) are specifically meant to appeal to consumers who don’t want a black bean burger but something as close to a beef burger as you can get without the cow.
Recently I got curious: If meat-like meat alternatives are all the rage and catalyzing huge growth in the plant-based meat category, how are the OG, less “sexy” veggie burgers and soy-sausages faring? The Boca burgers? The Tofurkys? The Field Roast sausages?
According to Erin Ransom, Director of Marketing for Tofurky, these early vegan food companies are doing quite well for themselves right now. She explained that the growing popularity of plant-based foods, spurred by media darlings like Beyond and Impossible, has translated to increased demand for the veteran vegan meat companies, too.
Dan Curtin, President of Greenleaf Foods, which includes vegan meat companies Lightlife and Field Roast, also acknowledges the impact that Beyond and Impossible have had on the plant-based meat category. “What [they’ve] done is bring attention to this category and help support it,” he told me over the phone.
On one hand, that growth is great for the plant-based meat industry. It means that vegan proteins are more widely accessible (and appealing) to people across the country, not just in urban areas. On the other, that uptick in demand translates to pressure on the manufacturers to increase production. Tofurky, for example, is having difficulty filling their orders. They’re not alone: companies like Beyond Meat have also been experiencing difficulty keeping their products on shelves. “It’s a unique conundrum,” said Ransom.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t ways for plant-based meat companies to fulfill demand. But, as Ransom told me, it probably won’t be a single solution. Existing players will build more production facilities. Supply chains will become more sophisticated, and technology more efficient. Investment will (continue to) pour into the space. More small startups will enter the market. So will Big Food, including industrial meat companies, who can help amp up production capacity for plant-based meats and also ensure good product placement on retail shelves.
Though they may be grateful for the influence of Beyond/Impossible, that doesn’t mean veteran vegan meat companies will try to copy their meat-like products exactly. “We’re not chasing the ‘bleeding anomaly’ [of the Impossible burger],” Ransom told me.
But the effects are clear. Tofurky is working to ensure their newer products, from shredded “chicken” to vegan ham, have the same taste, texture, and mouthfeel as animal protein. Earlier this year Boca Burgers reformulated and rebranded their classic veggie patty, making their burgers bigger and “meatier” to appeal to flexitarians. Lightlife’s website claims its products are “meat without the Middleman.” They may not be trying to make a bleeding burger, but they are definitely trying to make a meat-like burger.
One thing I wonder is how vegetarians and vegans feel about all this. If they don’t want to eat meat in the first place, will they want to eat plant-based meat that is trying to act like meat? Or are companies like Field Roast and Boca alienating their original consumers as they reformulate to appeal more to flexitarians?
As of now, most of these vegan meat veterans still offer classic products like black bean and quinoa burgers. But if flexitarianism continues to grow (and I don’t see why it wouldn’t) vegan meat companies will likely continue to shift their image to become meat companies. The meat just happens to be made out of plants.