“There was a tremendous lack of innovation”, says Garden Protein (Gardein) founder and CEO Yves Potvin, who caught up with FoodNavigator-USA after Mintel published a report revealing that 36% of Americans now shop the meat-free category.
“Growth had stagnated, it was stuck between a bun, and we’d all had our fair share of [veggie] burgers.”
Gardein has some great meat-free burgers too, he says, but it’s also got a whole range of other options for breakfast, lunch, snacks and dinner, from wings, tenders, crispy fingers, cutlets, riblets, meatballs and tenders to sliders, breakfast sandwiches and scallopini.
“We’re bringing new energy to the category.”
‘Growth had stagnated, it was stuck between a bun’
The Gardein brand, meanwhile, is designed to appeal to everyone from die-hard vegans to meat-lovers that want to replace beef in a stir fry or breakfast sandwich once or twice a week with something a little healthier, he says (the strapline is ‘for meat and veggie lovers alike’).
Another appealing thing about meat alternatives is that they don’t take long to cook, he points out, and recent launches such as chick’n sliders, breakfast sandwiches and Gardein Mandarin Orange Crispy Chick'n (the sauce comes with the pack) meet a growing demand for convenience.
“We’re looking at pockets and handheld items right now.”
Gardein brand is worth $90-$100m at retail
And all this has given the category a massive kick up the proverbial backside, he claims:”75% of the growth in the category last year came from us.”
However, it took a while to convince some buyers to wake up and smell the coffee, says Potvin, who only launched Gardein as a retail brand in the US in 2008/9 - and is now in 18,000 stores - with sales “almost doubling” every two years and the brand approaching $100m at retail.
“I remember talking to a buyer at one of the leading retailers about listing Gardein and he said ‘you guys are all selling the same thing, I’m not interested’.
“We said to him your competitors are stocking Gardein and they are seeing double digit category growth. You’re not stocking Gardein and you’re seeing your category decline.”(Needless to say, he got the business.)
From Whole Foods to Walmart: ‘The brand is going much more mainstream now’
As this week’s Mintel report highlighted, the consumer base for Gardein et al is also growing rapidly as firms seek to broaden their appeal from vegans and vegetarians to everyone wondering what to have for dinner tonight, he says.
“We’ve just had a very successful launch in Walmart and we’re also doing really well in Target, which shows that the brand is going much more mainstream now.
“We also see that we do better when we are merchandized in the conventional [main frozen] aisle than in natural sections, as some people that would buy our brand walk straight past the natural section.”
The toolkit they have to play with now is also far broader than ever before, says Potvin, who is experimenting with everything from category stalwart soy (he only buys the non-GMO variety) to wheat, rice, pea and canola protein, coupled with ancient grains including quinoa, amaranth, millet, and kamut.
25% of students say they want veggie options
But what about those consumers who told Mintel that they don’t buy into the category because the taste and texture just isn’t up to the mark?
They probably haven’t tried Gardein, suggests Potvin, who says a whopping 45% of people that try Gardein in sampling programs in stores buy the product.
So what’s on the to-do list in the next couple of years?
Driving international sales and exploring new channels at home, particularly club stores and foodservice, he says.
“Universities are really embracing Gardein. It’s really easy to incorporate into stir fries and so on, and 25% of students say they want veggie options.”
We’re at a crossroads right now
Long-term, the future for meat-free is very bright, argues Potvin, who says the recent media frenzy around ‘lab-grown meat’ ironically gave the whole plant-based protein category a PR boost, as exciting though growing meat in a petri dish might be, it’s a long way from commercialization.
And in the meantime, the only options for people looking for an affordable meat alternative right now are products such as Gardein.
“I think we’re at a crossroads right now. We won’t be able to feed everyone if we keep eating the [meat-based] diet we eat now; we have to look at alternative sources of protein.”