According to data released last week from Circana and crunched by 210analytics, dollar sales of refrigerated and frozen plant-based meat alternatives in July fell 12.2% year-over-year to $81.6m, with unit and volume sales falling even more to 13.9m and 10m respectively, or the equivalent of 18.7% and 17.9%.
Responding to slower velocities, some retailers are rethinking how many plant-based protein products they stock and where. According to Circana data, retailers carried on average 12.6 frozen plant-based protein items per store, which was down 15.4% from a year ago.
Despite this slowdown, food-tech startup TiNDLE Foods, formerly Next Gen Foods, announced this month that it will expand its plant-based chicken offerings and into new categories and additional distribution channels – reinforcing its commitment to create a more sustainable food system.
In this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts Podcast, TiNDLE Foods CEO Andre Menezes explains why he is still bullish about alternative proteins, why continuing to refine offerings is vital for countering climate change and how the company is growing despite mounting headwinds pushing back against the category overall. He also shares details on the company’s upcoming new products, rebrand and expanded R&D center in Chicago to further support innovation.
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The environment – not food trends – motivates TiNDLE to see beyond current challenges
When TiNDLE launched in 2020, plant-based protein sales were on the upswing thanks in part to the pandemic encouraging consumers to try new foods and influx of players coming to the category.
But as Menezes explains, the category’s upward trend wasn’t the driving factor behind TiNDLE’s launch – rather he says he and co-founder Timo Recker started the company to help ease the food industry’s environmental pressure at a time when the negative impacts of climate change were mounting and inescapable. This is also why he says he is confident in the long-term growth potential of plant-based meat.
“One of the most important and most challenging missions that I think one company could try to do, which is basically to replace animal farming as our main source of protein production for humanity … is very much the reason why we started the company,” Menezes said.
To do this Menezes says he and his co-founder started with taste because most people have been raised and educated over the centuries to love meat, cheese and animal products.
“Those are the center of social occasions,” what people serve to guests and so if consumers are going to replace them it must be with something equally flavorful and delicious, he said.
“That’s the starting point for our journey,” and the primary focus when the company was in stealth mode from early 2000 to early 2021 when it launched in a few small markets abroad before coming to the US in 2022 with its malleable chicken made from plants, which requires 74% less land and 82% less water than poultry chicken and produces 88% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than its animal counterpart.
Go-to-market focuses on restaurants before retail
Scaling up meant working with chefs to introduce Americans to TiNDLE’s chicken at restaurants where it could be perfectly prepared before making the product available at retail and teaching consumers to cook it on their own.
But in between the company’s launch in 2020 and its introduction to the US, the tide for plant-based protein turned and the industry began to see sales, units and volume slide, investors pull back, and sometimes out, and consumer concerns mount about the nutritional value, taste and price of plant-based options.
But Menezes says many of these challenges didn’t impact TiNDLE and he characterized their impact for the overall industry as an “adjustment” rather than the beginning of the end.
He explains the plant-based protein category is still young and small compared to the animal agriculture industry and as such doesn’t having the funding and leverage of meat and dairy companies to secure shelf space, advertising and lobbying. But as it grows – something that will take a generation – it will be able to better compete on each of those fronts.
A three-prong strategy for success
TiNDLE has been able to avoid many of the pitfalls of its predecessors by following a three-prong strategy that begins with addressing consumers’ basic desires for taste and texture, adopting an agnostic approach to ingredients and strategically introducing its products to consumers first through restaurants and more recently at retail.
After working closely with restaurants over the past year to introduce TiNDLE’s chicken to consumers, the company is now launching a broader selection of chicken products for consumers to enjoy at home via partnerships with the online retailers Goodbelly and PlantX. The line-up includes nuggets, sandwich patties, tenders, popcorn patties, a schnitzel and next month boneless wings.
As TiNDLE moves into different retail channels, it is also expanding beyond chicken with its recent acquisition of Mwah!, which makes plant-based gelato, and plans to launch this year a plant-based sausage.
TiNDLE takes asset light approach to stretch investor funds
TiNDLE’s fast-growth and R&D are possible in part because last year it secured one of the largest series A funding rounds for a plant-based brand, including $100 million from investors including K3, MPL Ventures, Temasek and GGV.
But Menezes says the company is also able to stretch those dollars for a bigger impact by being capital efficient – a quality that he says is increasingly important as the economy tightens and investors become more selective.
“The way we designed our business since the beginning was to be very capital efficient and very flexible, meaning we could be global but without having to” build production facilities beyond those for R&D, he said.
Looking forward, Menezes says TiNDLE will follow this same ethos to be a sustainable, efficient and smart business that delivers what consumers want and continues to grow. For the category at large, he reiterated his belief that the challenges facing plant-based protein are only “a temporary stress” that will dissipate as consumers learn more about the food system’s impact on climate change and as products in the space improve.