Speaking as Cargill announced it was temporaily idling its plant in Schuyler, Nebraska - the latest in a wave of meat plant closures - and Kroger, Sam's Club and Costco placed restrictions on meat purchases, Impossible Foods unveiled plans to aggressively ramp up its presence in retail stores this year, beginning with a roll out at 1,700 Kroger stores.
“We’re predicting a 50-fold increase from where we were at the start of the year [150 stores] by the year end [taking the brand to 7,500 stores], but it could be a lot higher than that,” said chief communications officer Rachel Konrad, who said many retailers had seen the explosive growth the brand had experienced with early adopters and decided to take it on, even in the current challenging climate.
Impossible Foods: ‘We’re predicting a 50-fold increase from where we were at the start of the year’
Given the need for social distancing, however, Impossible Burgers may hit new stores this year without quite as much fanfare, as instore sampling is off the menu and new products are accompanied by fewer point of sale materials, she told FoodNavigator-USA.
“Retailers are very willing to getting us in the door, but for pure bandwidth reasons, they are making this very simplified without the bells and whistles we saw last year, which is fine, because shoppers are not in the mood.”
Impossible Burgers are now available in around 2,700 stores in the US including Kroger-owned stores in 29 states plus Kroger.com for curbside pickup and delivery; Albertsons-owned stores in California and Nevada; Jewel-Osco stores in Chicago, eastern Iowa and northwest Indiana; Wegmans stores along the Eastern seaboard; Gelson’s stores in Southern California; and Fairway Markets in New York.
Foodservice accounts showing some resilience
While foodservice accounts – which generated the vast majority of sales at Impossible Foods pre-COVID-19 – have been badly hit by coronavirus, many of its customers, notably Burger King, offer drive-thru, while the company has been working closely with restaurant and e-commerce partners to find new ways to get its plant-based meat into consumers’ hands, said Konrad.
Recent tie-ups include deals with e-commerce startup Cheetah, which has begun selling Impossible Burgers for pickup in the Bay Area; and Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors, which now sells Impossible patties directly to consumers nationwide through its online store, she added.
“Plant-based food remains one of the fastest-growing categories at Kroger. We’re excited to continue growing our selection, especially as more customers than ever are purchasing meat products made from plants.”
Joe Grieshaber, SVP merchandising, Kroger
‘We’ve gone into a deep state of cognitive dissonance about where our food comes from’
As to whether coronavirus presents a window of opportunity for plant-based meats to present themselves as more reliable protein sources than some animal products, Konrad stressed that no production facility – whether it makes plant- or animal-based meat – is immune from COVID-19.
She added: “This is a virus, so no industry is immune from it; but our employees at Oakland are not literally working shoulder to shoulder with wizard saws, so it’s easier for us to employ social distancing.”
It’s also too early to say if coronavirus will accelerate the adoption of plant-based meat, but if nothing else, pictures of slaughterhouse workers standing shoulder to shoulder hacking at carcasses on Americans’ TV screens and social media feeds serves as a sobering reminder of what goes into making our favorite foods, said Konrad.
“I’d say as a civilization we’ve gone into a deep state of cognitive dissonance about where our favorite foods come from.
“We program ourselves from an early age not to look. But there are moments that pierce into that cognitive dissonance and maybe we are having one of those moments now,” added Konrad, who said 50 of the firm’s 150 R&D staff that have been unable to do functional work outside of the lab in recent weeks (and have instead been working on patent applications, white papers etc) are now heading back to work in the group’s HQ with new protocols, staggered shifts and PPE.
“I think everybody is looking at this and asking how will the world be different as a result? By and large, most of our [investment] thesis remains the same, although I think people will be looking even more at automation. It makes clear the potential of decentralization of supply chains, transparency and traceability and greater resiliency in our supply chain.
“The value of having proteins from different sources has never been more important.”
Matt Walker, managing director, S2G Ventures (which has invested in plant-based brands including Beyond Meat (meat) and Ripple (dairy) and cultivated/cell-cultured meat firm Future Meat Technologies)
“African swine fever had already decimated Asian swine herds before COVID-19 came along to put further strain on Asia's meat supply, and the rest of the world's meat industries are in serious danger of being unable to maintain status quo production.
“Agricultural challenges in commodity crop production and processing will be slower to percolate into the food chain, meaning plant-based burgers and chicken alternatives have a window of opportunity right now to present themselves as more reliable alternatives – or potentially the only choice – next to empty meat cases in grocery stores. Only products in retail today will benefit immediately, but longer-term, expect more people to shift to "flexitarian" approaches to protein consumption.”
Dr Sara Olson, director of research, Lux Research
Atlantic Natural Foods CEO: ‘I’ve been around the food business for 40+ years and I’ve never seen anything like this before’
Atlantic Natural Foods has experienced a surge of interest in its Loma Linda microwaveable plant-based meal pouches, TUNO canned tuna alternatives, neat plant-based eggs, cookie mixes and meat alternatives, and its canned Loma Linda ‘blue’ line, with sales rising sharply in March and sustaining at +25% YoY in April, CEO Doug Hines told FoodNavigator-USA.
‘We’re the #1 plant-protein on Amazon, and certain of our larger [bricks & mortar] customers also want to become more engaged in shelf-stable plant-based. Our meal solutions are just flying off the shelves… they’ve jumped about 100% and TUNO is up 50%. Our neat egg [made from chia seeds and chickpeas] is also doing really well as people are baking so much.
“I’ve been around the food business for 40+ years and I’ve never seen anything like this before. We’ve also seen a lot of new trial and I think this is really positive for the category at retail as I don’t think the foodservice business is going to come back [as strong as it was pre-covid].”
‘All you need is one person to get sick...’
That said, there’s no room for complacency, he said, echoing Impossible Foods by noting that plant-based meat factories remain vulnerable, even if they don’t pack in workers as closely as traditional meat plants.
“We started thinking about this back in January in our factory in Thailand as they have dealt with these issues before with SARS,” said Hines, who said strict protocols were also put in place in the firm’s plant in Nashville, North Carolina, including enhanced cleaning and sanitation, temperature checks, banning external visitors and non-essential staff from the site, plastic shields between staff on the packing lines, and PPE.
“We only have a little over 125 employees and every night I go to sleep and I worry about what they are all doing as it would be a calamity… All you need is one person to get sick...”
Innovation conversations with retailers back on after 8-week hiatus
One team member in the North Carolina plant, for example, recently learned that his father had tested positive, so he was sent home to self-quarantine, and the plant was closed for a few days for extra cleaning, said Hines.
“I think the meat companies initially tried to power through it, but you have to err on the side of caution.”
As for innovation, he said, ANF had started re-engaging with retailers about new products after an “eight-week hiatus” with new products expected to hit stores in the summer, he said.