Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA at the Natural Products Expo West Show in Anaheim, California, last week, Woodruff said that aside from CPG giants such as Gardein (Conagra) Sophie's Kitchen is right in the mix with other players in the burgeoning category such as Good Catch Foods in the US and Novish in Europe in terms of size, distribution, and consumer following.
But that's about to change with its 'less-fishy' burger product, several innovations including an extension outside of plant-based seafood, and a recent partnership with national distributor Southwind Foods.
"[Right now] We’re all kind of in the space, but they don’t have Southwind Food behind them. There's going to be a big shift for us this year," Woodruff told FoodNavigator-USA.
As a company that does over $650m in retail sales of animal protein per year, the impact Southwind Foods can have on Sophie's Kitchen and the entire plant-based seafood category is huge, said Woodruff, who said the partnership will unlock new distribution points and accelerate consumer awareness for the brand, which is currently distributed in Walmart, Whole Foods, and Sprouts, among other retailers.
On the flip side, Southwind Foods is now an active player in the plant-based movement, which surpassed $7bn in retail sales in 2020 growing by double digits, according to the Plant Based Foods Association (although sales for some categories have slowed with some in the industry experts speculating the total addressable market for plant-based alternatives may be a good deal smaller than originally projected).
"The big players in each category can choose to participate or get displaced, but if they don’t participate, they’re going to get displaced," maintained Woodruff.
Woodruff commented that what drives him and the company forward is the impact that producing a plant-based seafood analogue can have from an animal conversation standpoint where in the seafood industry many species of fish are at risk of overfishing and in extreme cases extinction.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 34.2% of fisheries are overfished, a number that crept up since the 1980s.
"There is a demand that exceeds the supply of wild caught and farm raised. There’s no way to meet the demand with current production," said Woodruff, who in addition to having a PhD in Biological Anthropology, worked with primatologist Jane Goodall in the Congo where he supported her work in primate conservation efforts.
"I realized I could save ten square miles of forest and 20 primates, or I can save 60,000 lbs of animal flesh out of the supply chain from one single production run," he said. "That’s a big change, it’s super scalable. It’s leveraging business to drive the change instead of trying to go against the stream."
Sophie's Kitchen portfolio includes shelf-stable cans of 'toona', frozen crab cakes, fish fillets, and shrimp, and chilled smoked salmon slices.
Most recently, the company introduced its fish burgers, which Woodruff claims will "change the industry" due to their mild and not fishy or swampy flavor (that can come from algae oil) and a flaky texture that closely mimics real fish, said Woodruff. The plant-based frozen burgers are available in original whitefish, original salmon, mango jalapeño whitefish, spicy salmon, miso salmon, and Mediterranean whitefish, and like the rest of the company's product portfolio are gluten-free, soy-free, and non-GMO.
The company also debuted its plant-based sauces (cocktail and tartar sauce) and veggie cuts (taco filling, BBQ shreds, and spicy teriyaki). The company also has a strong presence in foodservice where it supplies plant-based ground beef and BBQ pork alternatives.
"We want everyone to focus on our seafood, but behind the scenes we're doing a lot in foodservice on the plant-based meat side," added Woodruff.