When COVID-19 hit, the firm’s core business – which targeted schools, stadiums, hospitals, colleges and corporate cafeterias – basically dried up overnight, said founder and CEO Christie Lagally, a former Boeing engineer on a mission to catapult meat alternatives toward price parity with animal-based meat through more efficient production techniques.
“We’d been planning to go into retail in about two years’ time, but as a result of the pandemic, we had to do it overnight,” said Lagally, who raised $6m in a series A round just before COVID-19 hit.
“We had to come up with retail packaging, but we also changed the size and shape of the nuggets, which meant we also had to change the cooking time,” added Lagally, who said the pandemic had highlighted the value of having its own manufacturing facility, which enabled it to move at lightning speed.
“We wanted to create something affordable for the whole family, so we came up with a 1lb pack [MRSP $5.99] that contains five servings [whereas rival plant-based meat brands typically offer smaller packs that serve 2-3 but still cost $5-6)].”
‘This [plant-based meat] market has continued to grow throughout the pandemic’
It’s a challenging time to launch new products given the turmoil many retailers are experiencing, but many retailers see that plant-based products are flying off shelves and are open to bringing in new products, said Lagally.
“This market has continued to grow throughout the pandemic, so as this has gone on, we’re seeing more and more retailers get back to us wanting the product.”
‘Between two thirds and three quarters of the cost of plant based meat is the cost of manufacturing’
Meanwhile, the company’s core mission – to develop more efficient ways of producing plant-based meat at scale – hasn’t changed, said Lagally, who says the only way to “democratize plant-based meat” is to redesign production lines so you can make it more efficiently.
“The recent investment was intended to help us scale production in this facility and ramp up the development of prototype equipment. We have three pieces of equipment we’re hoping to prototype later this summer that would make our whole process continuous [vs a batch process] and enable us to lower the cost of production and increase volume.
“Our recent estimates show that between two thirds and three quarters of the cost of plant based meat is the cost of manufacturing, so we have a huge opportunity to streamline that."
She added: “Chicken is still maybe 40 cents a pound vs a dollar or more for plant-based ingredients, which reflects the scale of the chicken industry and the incredible automation we’ve seen in the industry, but logically plant-based chicken should be cheaper.”
What makes Rebellyous plant-based nuggets special is the production process, founder Christie Lagally told FoodNavigator-USA last year.
“It’s how we process the protein ... and how we keep the air out of it to create a really dense product that releases juice, not air, when you cook it.By redesigning the manufacturing process, we are getting much closer to chicken than what’s on the market today.
“Our products [which have a base of wheat and non-GMO soy protein] have a really dense texture very like a whole chicken breast, because we use a special chopping process that ensures we don’t get a foamy product, which you often get in plant-based products which can get a lot of air in there or not enough water, which can make them dry.
"Our nuggets actually plump when you cook them and release a lot of juices and flavor.”
Will COVID-19 accelerate the adoption curve for plant-based meat?
As to whether COVID-19 will accelerate the adoption of plant-based meat, it’s too early to say, said Lagally. However, higher prices, supply chain disruption, and continuing negative PR about the grim conditions for animals and humans in industrialized meat production are prompting a conversation about where we get our protein from that is moving beyond the trade press into the mainstream, she said.
And this obviously creates an opportunity for plant-based products: “We have a product that is better for the environment, and better for animals.”
If nothing else, it should force the meat industry to change the way it works, she said. “There are things we could do to make chicken processing less dangerous for workers and one of them is to slow things down.”
Greenleaf Foods – which owns plant-based meat brands Lightlife and Field Roast – has experienced a sustained uplift in sales in recent weeks, said president Dan Curtin, who said that having control over your supply chain (the products are made in-house) has also helped the company manage risk and meet heightened demand.
“I think this is a pivotal moment for plant-based foods,” added Curtin, who told FoodNavigator-USA that growth was coming both from existing fans buying more as more food is consumed in the home, and new trial, although the company hasn’t quantified the contribution from the latter.
“We see significant upside in this category. Household penetration is still in the single digits although it’s increasing all the time, and we’re incredibly well positioned to grow with our two platforms. Lightlife is all about clean nourishing health, and Field Roast is all about the taste experience, the culinary experience.”
Speaking on the firm’s Q1 earnings call on April 30, Michael McCain, CEO Maple Leaf Foods, parent company of Greenleaf Foods, said: “We continue to see strong adoption of our Lightlife fresh burgers, grounds, and sausages, assisted by new formulations launched in December to dramatically improve these products in taste and texture. We continued to build on this position with additional innovations under the Field Roast brand, including breakfast sausage patties and links, as well as plant-based chicken nuggets, which were both released in February.”