Daring Foods CEO talks plant-based chicken: ‘In every retailer, we’re performing above the category average’

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Ross Mackay: 'Animal rights activists and experts on the environmental impact of food production have been begging us to stop eating meat for a long time, but chicken consumption is still increasing...' Image credit: Daring Foods
Ross Mackay: 'Animal rights activists and experts on the environmental impact of food production have been begging us to stop eating meat for a long time, but chicken consumption is still increasing...' Image credit: Daring Foods

Related tags Daring Foods plant-based plant-based chicken Meat alternatives

While plant-based meat sales have slowed significantly over the past year with many commentators blaming the inflationary environment, Daring - a premium brand deploying pricy high-moisture extrusion to make its plant-based chicken pieces – is going from strength to strength, says co-founder and CEO Ross Mackay, suggesting price is not necessarily what’s holding the category back.

“I feel like price is not the barrier to entry for consumers in this category,” ​said Mackay, a Scot who started development work on the Daring​  brand in the UK in 2018, shifted focus to the US market in 2019, and launched in 2020.

The Daring brand is now in 11,000+ retail locations including Walmart, Albertsons, Target, Sprouts, Publix and Whole Foods; and 600+ foodservice outlets including three test locations with Starbucks in Washington DC.

“The problem is that most plant-based meat products are inferior to animal derived protein and they’re not seen by consumers as tastier or healthier," ​suggested Mackay.​ "Fundamentally, we need better products. There are lot of products on the shelf that don't meet consumers’ needs on health, taste and texture.”

With 90 calories per 70g serving, Daring original pieces​ have less fat, fewer calories, more fiber and roughly the same level of protein as most rivals, and a notably shorter and cleaner label with six ingredients: water, soy protein concentrate, sunflower oil, salt, natural flavor, and spices, with no methylcellulose, wheat gluten, carrageenan, gums, starches, or titanium dioxide, he told FoodNavigator-USA.  

We’re a premium-priced product usually at $6.99 or $7.99 on shelf and we’ve grown 486% over the past 52 weeks.”

Repeat purchase rate of over 33%

As for velocity – units per store per week – he said, “We’re performing above the category average in every single retailer we’re in and we're adding a lot of incremental growth to the category. If you look at the top 10 brands, Daring remains the only one that is actually seeing positive growth outside of I think Impossible Foods and Gardein, so that’s exciting.”

As for repeat rates and household penetration, he said, “In the year to date ​[2022], 1.4m new households in the US tried Daring for the first time, the largest increase in household penetration amongst new entrants to the category, with a repeat purchase rate of over 33% according to Numerator data for the 52 weeks ending in the third quarter of 2022.”

Daring Foods chicken pieces
With 90 calories per 70g serving, Daring original pieces (center) have less fat, fewer calories, more fiber and roughly the same level of protein as most rivals, and a notably shorter and cleaner label with six ingredients: water, soy protein concentrate, sunflower oil, salt, natural flavor, and spices. Image credit: Daring Foods

‘Daring has the #1 unbreaded plant-based chicken item in all measured SPINS channels in the 24 weeks ending October 30’

While Mackay believes there is potential for the Daring brand in multiple parts of the store, it has thus far prioritized the frozen aisle, where meat alternatives are performing significantly better than they are in the fresh meat case.

“Daring is in the freezer set within all of our retailers,” ​explained Mackay, who has raised $125m and built a team of 42 people over the past four years.

“We have innovations in fresh and ready to eat, but the freezer remains the area for growth within plant-based chicken at retail.”

And within plant-based meat, he said, SPINS data shows that “Plant-based chicken was the leading growth driver in plant-based meat in the 52 weeks to October 30, 2022, with dollar sales growing at 16% year-on-year in a total plant-based meat category down 1%​ [total MULO and natural channel combined, refrigerated and frozen].”  

Of the top 15 plant-based meat brands, Daring (at +486%) was the fastest growing brand on a percentage dollar growth basis in the 52 weeks ending October 30, he added. “Daring has risen to the #5 brand of plant-based chicken overall and is the #2 driver of growth for plant-based chicken in the 24 weeks ending October 30.”

He added: “Daring has the #1 unbreaded plant-based chicken item in all measured SPINS channels in the 24 weeks ending October 30 and Daring is now the #4 brand in the plant-chicken category overall in terms of household penetration.”

Daring Foods breaded chicken pieces Dec 2022
The Daring brand is now in 11,000+ retail locations including Walmart, Albertsons, Target, Sprouts, Publix and Whole Foods; and 600+ foodservice outlets including three test locations with Starbucks. Image credit: Daring Foods

Shake out at retail ahead? ‘The category was oversaturated with burgers and breaded nuggets’

Retailers, he claimed, “have had a tough time to understand which products and which categories to give space to; the category was oversaturated with burgers and breaded nuggets and what we've done successfully is give the retailer options for something in the un-breaded category.  

“I think you're going to see a lot of brands lose shelf space as retailers consolidate and give more space to brands that are actually performing and can support growth from a supply chain perspective.”

Manufacturing plant-based meat alternatives: ‘You might have to extrude in one facility, bread in another facility, and pack in another facility’

On the manufacturing front, while most players in the category are using low-moisture extrusion and rehydrating shelf-stable textured soy or pea protein, Daring is using high-moisture extrusion, which isn’t cheap and requires a temperature-controlled supply chain, and then using injection marination to provide different flavor profiles from lemon & herb to cajun chicken.   

According to Mackay: “We have an internal R&D team headed by our SVP of R&D innovation, Paul Neumann, who was previously at Kellogg's and then Califia Farms, and we build all of our products at our innovation hub here in Culver City, and then take them to contract manufacturers to produce at scale.

“So our strategy is to remain asset light; you have to to raise a tremendous amount of capital to support both the back end and the brand building.”

He added: “When you look at the supply chain in this country for plant-based, you might have to extrude in one facility, bread in another facility, and pack in another facility, which of course doesn't help margins as you're spending a significant amount of your COGS on freight, fulfillment, and transportation.

“Fixing that is going to require more investment by other companies, not just Daring, to optimize the supply chain with us. Thankfully, we have some very strategic investors and partners so we're working on it, but it's very rare to find a single source location​ [to carry out all manufacturing steps in one facility], but I would say that it's top of mind for us and many other manufacturers out there.”

Go to market strategy: ‘It was a daunting experience to go into Walmart so early as a brand’

On the distribution front, Daring has been aggressively adding new accounts in recent months, with particular success in Walmart with all four SKUs, said Mackay. “It was a daunting experience to go into Walmart so early as a brand ​[at a lower price of $5.49], but we have a great relationship with the team there and we're performing very well, which I think shows that plant-based meat products don’t just work in premium or coastal stores."

Starbucks test: ‘The feedback has been tremendous’

Daring has also been building a presence in the foodservice channel, he said: “We recently hired a VP of that channel and we are now nationally distributed through DOT Foods. We’re seeing a lot of success in colleges and universities, although I think we probably underestimated the lead times in this channel.”

It’s early days, but trials at three Starbucks outlets in Washington D.C. with breakfast biscuits with Daring plant-based chicken sausage; Daring plant-based chicken sandwiches; and plant-based egg and Daring chicken sausage bites in partnership with Eat Just; are encouraging, said Mackay.

“The feedback has been tremendous, so we're hopeful it can move into more and more doors as Daring as a premium brand I think aligns really well with the Starbucks brand.”

MEAT ALTERNATIVES - US retail sales: October 2022 vs October 2021​​​​​

  • plant-based-meat-GettyImages-Aamulya
    GettyImages-Aamulya
    Frozen and refrigerated meat alternatives combined: 
    ​​​$ sales -4.7%, volume -11.6%
  • Frozen meat alternatives (2/3 of category sales): ​​​$ sales +10.2%, volumes -4.6%
  • Refrigerated meat alternatives: ​​​$ sales -18.2%, volumes -18.4%
  • Fresh and processed conventional meat: ​​​$ sales +2.5%, volume -2.6%
  • Frozen meat & poultry conventional: ​​​$ sales +5.9%, units -7.6%
  • Total food & beverage:​​ $ sales +9.1%, units -4%

Source​​​:  IRI data crunched by 210 Analytics.     

Marketing and messaging: ‘Animal rights activists and experts on the environmental impact of food production have been begging us to stop eating meat for a long time, but chicken consumption is still increasing’

When it comes to messaging, Daring has found success by focusing on health and clean labels, said Mackay, who recently teamed up with Kourtney Kardashian and Travis Barker on some custom content and events.

“Animal welfare and environmental factors are very important to me personally, but for a lot of consumers, they’re so disassociated from​ [how their food is produced] that ​[these things] are not...​ [moving the needle]."

Put bluntly, he added, “Animal rights activists and experts on the environmental impact of food production have been begging us to stop eating meat for a long time, but chicken consumption is still increasing because consumers enjoy the taste and they see it as healthier ​[than red meat], so if you're not delivering a plant-based product that healthier and tastier, it’s hard to increase market share.”

The innovation pipeline

In the coming months, he said, we can expect to see more flavors of unbreaded and breaded Daring pieces; innovations in the convenient ready-to-eat and ready-to-cook arena following the brand’s success with sous vide products; and “some exciting collaborations with other brands. We’re going to utilize our product in a variety of new ways next year.”

Kardashian-Daring-Foods-Photo_Credit__Ellen_Von_Unwerth
Photo Credit: Ellen Von Unwerth

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