The ready-to-cook pea-protein-based patty, which is shipped frozen but merchandised in stores’ refrigerators alongside meat (it "cooks, and tastes like a fresh beef burger" and has a 10 day refrigerated shelf-life) has been hugely successful in trials in Whole Foods stores in Pearl Street in Boulder Colorado and Pentagon City in Virginia, CEO Ethan Brown told FoodNavigator-USA.
“Our frozen Beast Burgers have been doing very well, but our goal has always been to get in the meat case, where you have a market that is orders of magnitude higher in terms of purchase frequency and volume [compared to the frozen vegetarian/meat alternatives section of the grocery store].”
In other words, he said, why just settle for a slice of the multi-million dollar meat-alternatives market when you can go after a chunk of the multi-billion dollar meat market?
I’m not telling people not to eat meat
But it’s not about lecturing people about saving the planet or even improving their health, although these things are clearly factoring more and more into purchasing decisions, he said.
“I’m not telling people not to eat meat. Telling consumers not to eat things they love, that’s a lousy way to run a business. I’m allowing them to continue eating what they love, which is meat, but have it to be meat from plants.”
While Beyond Burgers - which are soy- and gluten-free - have only been tested in two stores, the response has been so overwhelming that the product will roll out across Whole Foods in the early fall and should be nationwide by the end of the year, he said.
“We are already performing well in Whole Foods [in the frozen aisle] so there was a certain comfort level with the brand, but the reception has just been remarkable.”
Honest Tea founder Goldman, who has been on the board of Beyond Meat since 2013 and became executive chairman in November 2015, added: “The results have been phenomenal. We under-forecast volumes by a factor of 20. We wondered if this was just a Boulder phenomenon, but if the results in Pentagon City are any indication, then this suggests we need to significantly scale production and expand the roll out.”
In 2013 we were in a few hundred stores, and today we’re in 11,000
Co-founded by Ethan Brown and Brent Taylor in 2009, Beyond Meat launched its first products on the national stage in 2013, and is now in 11,000+ stores including Publix, HEB, Target, and Whole Foods, with products including single-serve meals, Beast burgers and sliders (made from non-GMO pea protein); Beyond Chicken strips, tenders and poppers (made from non-GMO soy and pea protein); and Beyond Beef crumbles and meatballs (made with non-GMO pea protein).
It has also teamed up with meal delivery firm Chef'd to launch new meal kits containing its plant-based 'meat' and is in talks with a leading fast food chain interested in featuring its burgers, said Brown. "I spent a lot of years pushing [to get the attention of foodservice companies], and now we're feeling pull, which is really nice."
“In 2013 we were in a few hundred stores, and today we’re in 11,000 and we’re turning away business because we don’t have the capacity to meet demand, so we’re putting in a lot of new capacity that should be able to support our growth for the next two years.
“In the first quarter of this year, our net revenues were up 146% vs the first quarter of last year, and that’s coming from additional distribution but also great velocity, great repeat sales. We account for a fairly small percentage of the [plant-based protein/meat alternatives] category, but we are driving almost 50% of the growth.”
The biggest impact you can have is changing the protein in the center of your plate
Based in El Segundo, California, with a manufacturing facility in Columbia, Missouri, Beyond Meat has the license to use a patented process to make meat-replicas developed by Fu-Hung Hsieh and Harold Huff at the University of Missouri, and is on a mission “to create mass-market solutions that perfectly replace animal protein with plant protein.”
The focus now is expanding capacity to meet surging demand, said Brown, who says he didn't go into business to set up a niche vegan foods business, and that plant-based products that seek to make inroads into dairy and meat categories are not a fad or a trend, but evidence of a permanent shift in buying behavior.
"More and more research from the medical and the environmental community is raising questions about meat consumption. People are beginning to realise that the biggest impact they can have is changing the proteins in the center of their plate. You can eat our products every night of the week."
Is all 'fake' meat viewed equally by consumers?
But is there a disconnect between the health and sustainability goals of some of the new players in the meat/dairy/egg analog space, and the methods that they employ, which can include cutting edge techniques that don't play so well with a generation of consumers suspicious of food 'made in a lab' and seeking out products that are ‘natural’ and 'minimally processed?
Possibly, says Brown, although he argues that Beyond Meat - which relies on mechanical tools ("heating, cooling and pressure") to work its magic on plant proteins and doesn't use tools such as synthetic biology, cultured meat or genetically engineered micro-organisms - has found the right balance between these conflicting goals.
"We are very transparent about how we make our products and you can come into the plant and watch how it's done. But I would also say that this is not about processed or not processed. It's a tale of two processes. One is industrialized meat production, the other is plant-based meat production. Which one do you prefer?"
To date, Beyond Meat has secured financial backing from high-profile investors including General Mills’ 301 Inc venture arm, Seth Goldman, Bill Gates, VC legend Kleiner-Perkins Caulfield & Byers (which backed Amazon and Google - before everyone else did), The Obvious Corporation (an investment vehicle created by the founders of Twitter), and the Humane Society of the United States.
It is currently midway through a fresh financing round, said Brown, although he would not provide details at this stage of the process.