Plant-based foods are expanding and consumers want more

In the fall of 2018, Jenny Goldfarb suddenly had a craving for a sandwich made from corned beef and pastrami.

For Mrs. Goldfarb – who grew up in a New York Jewish deli family – it was the classic sandwich of her youth. But her longing came with a catch: she is now a vegan.

So she started working with wheat protein, adding beets for a “meat” color, and dipping the mixture in various brines and spices. After a few months, she came up with a vegan replacement. She brought her vegan corned beef from her home in the San Fernando Valley to a Los Angeles deli that placed an order for £ 50. She cried tears of joy in her car.

Today, Ms. Goldfarb is shipping orders for up to £ 50,000 of her Unreal Deli corned beef, turkey and, more recently, slices of steak to grocery stores across the country.

“We just got the green light from Publix,” said Ms. Goldfarb. “They want the retail packages, but they also want to put it in their delis.”

On the waves of success of soy, oats and other dairy alternatives, as well as vegan burgers from Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, a wide range of plant-based foods is riding on the menus of restaurants and in the aisles of grocery stores. And now more and more companies – from small upstarts to established brands – want to take part.

This summer, Panda Express started putting orange chicken with Beyond Chicken from Beyond Meat on the menus of some of its US locations. Peet’s Coffee sells a mung bean-based vegan breakfast sandwich with Just Egg. A New York soft serve shop, 16 Handles, partnered with the popular oatly drink to create a line of vegan candies in flavors like chocolate, chai tea, and iced latte. And Long John Silver’s seafood chain tested plant-based crab cakes and fish fillets at five locations in California and Georgia this summer.

When Eleven Madison Park, a Michelin-starred Manhattan restaurant, reopened in June after closing due to the pandemic more than a year ago, it did so with a new, plant-based menu.

“It started with a plant-based burger, but now plant-based options are becoming available in all sorts of categories,” said Marie Molde, nutritionist and trend analyst at research firm Datassential. “We believe that plant-based chicken is really going to take off.”

Restaurants and grocery stores are responding to changing consumer demands as they move away from meat consumption. The sale of fresh fruit in grocery stores has increased by almost 11 percent and fresh vegetables by 13 percent since 2019, according to Nielsen IQ. While only a small percentage of Americans are true vegans or vegetarians – 5 percent said they were vegetarian in a 2018 Gallup poll – this is not the audience following these new companies and products.

Rather, they chase the taste buds of the vegan-nosy or so-called flexitarians, a much larger group of Americans trying to cut down on the amount of meat they eat. Some shy away from concerns about cruelty to animals, while others say the environment or perceived health benefits are factors. (Whether the plant-based foods, many of which are highly processed, are healthier is controversial.)

“This is not just for vegans – it would be too small a market,” said Mary McGovern, general manager of New Wave Foods, whose seaweed and vegetable protein prawns will be on restaurant menus this fall.

Ms. McGovern sees a much wider audience of millennials, flexitarians, and others interested in trying new plant-based foods. “I’ve been in the food industry for 30 years and I’ve never seen anything like the tectonic shift we’re seeing in the market now,” she said.

Business & Economy


9/8/2021, 6:19 p.m. ET

Just a few years ago, plant-based burgers were a novelty. Today, the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger appear on roughly 5 percent of the menus of all restaurants across the country, and 71 percent of Americans have tried a plant-based burger or other meat alternative, Ms. Molde said.

In grocery stores, sales of alternatives to cheese, milk and fresh meat have been growing at robust double-digit rates for at least two years, according to Nielsen IQ. Almonds, oats and other non-dairy products make up 14 percent of milk sales.

Restaurants jump on the train with both feet. Orders for herbal products from major grocers rose 20 percent in June from the same point in time in 2019, according to the NPD group.

Still, it can be difficult to appeal to flexitarians or the occasional vegan consumer. They know the taste and texture of real shrimp and turkey, and if vegan alternatives don’t taste good, they won’t be back.

Megan Schmitt from Chicago switched from vegetarian to vegan about four years ago and remembered her disappointment with the vegan cheese on the market.

“It tasted like cardboard or rubber,” she said. “If you hadn’t eaten cheese in years, it would be fine, but it wouldn’t satisfy anyone who switched back and forth from the real thing.”

So Ms. Schmitt began fermenting a variety of nut-based preparations and later switched to soy for her artisanal cheeses, Cheeze & Thank You, including Fontina Black Garlic Truffle and Dill Havarti. They’ll be available in most Whole Foods stores in the Midwest this fall.

“I like to look at my cheese as a canvas,” says Ms. Schmitt. “This is my art form. I want my product to be a feast for the eyes as well as the mouth. “

Reina Montenegro was in a similar situation. For six years she tried to create a vegan version of the spam she grew up with. “Spam was the last thing I ate before going vegan because I knew I would never eat it again,” she said.

Then she heard about OmniPork Luncheon, vegetable oblong pieces that look like spam and are made by OmniFoods of Hong Kong. For most of a year, Ms. Montenegro said she had been harassing company executives into bringing the product to the United States. Finally, in April, her restaurant, Chef Reina, in Brisbane, California, which specializes in vegan Filipino home cooking, became one of a dozen restaurants in the US using OmniPork products.

“We sold it out immediately,” said Ms. Montenegro. “The only difference with the OmniPork product is the sodium content – it’s lower than in real life. But in terms of taste and texture, it’s perfect. “

OmniFoods announced last month that its vegan pork products are now available in locations on the Sprouts Farmers Market and that Whole Foods stores in 16 states have started selling some of its products.

Ms. Goldfarb from Unreal Deli originally planned to introduce her vegan deli meats to restaurants. Earlier last year, it signed contracts to supply a variety of restaurants, stadiums and universities. But when the pandemic broke out, she quickly planned to sell in grocery stores instead.

Now Ms. Goldfarb is back in talks with a number of restaurant chains, she said.

“The vegans and vegetarians, they will be in your corner. We are working on catching the flexitarians, ”said Ms. Goldfarb. “We’re trying to talk to someone who has been eating meat all their life but now wants an alternative two or three times a week.”

She also has her next vegan delicacy target in her sights: ham.

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