Lubetkin - who took the helm of the Massachusetts-based business in September 2013 after ConAgra Foods sold it to private equity firm Brynwood Partners – told FoodNavigator-USA:
“We obviously thought this brand had big potential or we wouldn’t have acquired it, but at the time of the deal things had stagnated a bit because it hadn’t had the focus and attention it needed. It still had a leading share of the [refrigerated meat alternatives] category, but it didn’t have the level of new product activity and it had lost some connection with retail customers and the consumer.
“But all of the fundamentals were there for the brand [which was founded by Chia Collins and Michael Cohen in 1979] and we were really excited by the opportunity. We’ve developed new products and changed the packaging, and we’re really focused on engaging with consumers to raise awareness of what’s out there as an alternative if you are cutting down on meat.
“The biggest barriers to growth [in the meat-free category] are taste and lack of awareness, so we are all about making it healthy, making it tasty and making it easy. Not all meat alternatives are the same, and we’ve done a lot of work on demo-ing and sampling in stores and getting people to actually try the products, and that’s when we get the a-ha moment, whether it’s from a retail buyer or a consumer.”
Tempeh is growing in the double digits
While burgers still have the biggest share of the category, Mintel noted in a 2013 report that the fastest growing areas are veggie hot dogs and the ‘other’ category, which includes things like tempeh (from cooked and slightly fermented soybeans) and seitan (wheat gluten). And this opens up new opportunities, said Lubetkin.
“Tempeh is actually growing in the double digits, moving from natural to conventional grocery at incredible speed, and we’re one of the big time leaders in the category. But in general, I think all of the ingredients are there for significant growth in the [meat-alternatives] category this year. We just have to make it simple and easy for people to find and use our products.”
For a start, the phrase “plant-based diet” is increasingly being bandied around in the mainstream media, hitting headlines in a big way this week as the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee said cutting down on meat is better for your health and the planet.
Meanwhile, high-profile new brands such as Beyond Meat and Hampton Creek Foods (Just Mayo) continue to generate a lot of positive PR; and leading CPG players such as WhiteWave Foods and Pinnacle Foods have signaled their faith in the category with the acquisitions of SO Delicious and Gardein respectively, he said.
While just 7% of Americans identify themselves as vegetarian, more than a third of shoppers (36%) buy meat alternatives according to Mintel, suggesting the category is appealing to a far broader demographic, said Lubetkin, who was previously CEO of Sun Country Foods, a Brynwood company that was divested in 2012.
“I think new users are looking at the health benefits [less saturated fat, lower calories], but also at the environmental aspects, especially the younger demographic.”
So what is Brynwood’s plan for Lightlife?
Clearly at some point, the private equity firm will want to realize its investment, he said, but there is no set time frame: "We are focused on growing the business and adding value for our consumers and trade partners.”