Don’t Be Chicken: Rising Through the Plant-Based Pecking Order
Plant-based brands are taking a crack at the poultry space, aiming to rise through the pecking order and solidify their spot in the ever-evolving market. While beef was one of the first protein sources to see a wide range of meat analogues, now chicken, one of the most beloved center plate ingredients around the world, has joined the fray. Legacy players like Gardein are innovating to keep up with rising demand, while new players like Daring, Alpha Foods and SIMULATE are looking to bring fresh consumers into the category. Will they soon be leading the flock?
Natural shoppers seem open to the idea. According to SPINS, natural channel sales of plant-based frozen meat, seafood and poultry were up 30% year over year for the 12 week period ending early August 2020, while their animal-derived counterparts saw just 17% growth. The segment was also the fastest growing among other plant-based categories including milk, jerky and yogurt. Even more recently, Nielsen reported meat alternatives grew 129% year over year for the 31 week period ending October 3, 2020. The category is among the top five with the greatest increase in sales amid the pandemic. Consumers are hungry for plant-based proteins across the board, and brands are already making big moves.
Even giants like Unilever are convinced this will be a lasting trend. The conglomerate recently announced the launch of its “Future Foods'' initiative with the aim of “making plant-based food the new normal.” The company set a €1 billion sales goal for plant-based alternatives and has recently focused on growing its brand, The Vegetarian Butcher, which “hacks” your meat favorites, including its flagship “nochicken” chunks.
Movers and shakers, celebrities and activists are also driving the mission forward, promoting plant-based eating and brands like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. And it’s working. Consumers are starting to see plants as a viable option to help them meet their health goals, reduce their impact on the environment, and protect animals. In a survey done by Aramark, 80% of consumers said they would try plant-based foods that are completely new to them. They’re primed for competition in the space, eager to try what’s new and what’s next, and less intimidated by the once-obscure idea. The door is open and entrepreneurs are ready for their chance to be on the bleeding-edge of CPG.
A Daring Approach
So how do you stand out? Ross Mackay and Eliott Kessas might say, be Daring. In December of 2019 their UK-based brand, Daring Foods, announced the U.S. launch of its original pieces. With the help of strategic partner Rastelli Foods Group, the company boldly positioned itself to help consumers in every corner of the country swap out their chicken for, well, not chicken. In fact, the brand didn’t shy away from drawing a clear line in the sand, calling itself “the opposite of chicken” on front-of-pack.
From there, Daring hatched its plan to kick off a nationwide rollout in Sprouts, a natural choice for a brand that wants to reach shoppers looking for products with simple, non-gmo ingredients. A few months later it added two new SKUs, Cajun and Lemon & Herb, attempting to appeal to plant-curious consumers with bold flavors as the key driver of trial. The brand’s extended line spiced up the freezer aisle with eye-catching colors that broke the neutral tone norms of natural products.
It wasn’t long before investors stepped up to join its fearless mission. In September of 2020, Daring Foods closed an $8 million Series A round of funding and launched breaded pieces; a move that put it into closer competition with some of the brands that already existed in the set.
A few years before Daring made its debut, Cole Orobetz and Loren Wallis were dreaming up a company that would change the way consumers viewed plant-based proteins. At the time, Orobetz, a former venture capital investor, was looking for a better solution to help him reduce meat in his diet, and Wallis had handed over the reins of his previous venture, Good Karma Foods, to a new leader. The pair’s goal was to develop a brand that appealed to the mainstream consumer. So, they decided to start with the familiar, then explore new frontiers.
Alpha Foods launched its first product, frozen burritos, in the largest retailer in the world: Walmart. The decision to go big was a risk, but one they were betting would pay off. It did. The brand quickly expanded to stretch across the freezer aisle with pizzas, tamales, and pot pies; all convenient options the American consumer was comfortable pulling off the shelf. Alpha wasn’t trying to push consumers out of their comfort zone, they were trying to fit inside of it.
With legs to stand on, the brand continued pecking away at the possibilities with the addition of protein-packed chick’n nuggets and chick’n patties. In 2019, they closed a $7 million seed round of funding and took a giant leap across the globe. The brand partnered with Green Common, a plant-based grocery store and cafe, to bring their nuggets to consumers in Hong Kong. The brand reached eight-figure revenue that year, and in true Alpha-style, closed a massive $28 million Series A round and doubled down in Hong Kong with a KFC partnership in 2020.
Rewriting the Script
But Alpha and Daring aren’t the only ones rising through the pecking order. Founded by Australian tech entrepreneur Ben Pasternak at just 19 years old, NUGGS leans heavily into the idea that its plant-based nuggets are not “real” meat but a “simulation.” The clever approach to branding and meme-forward marketing is quickly helping it establish a cult following. Its regular “software updates” and the launch of its “beta-testing program” subscription service are terms you wouldn’t expect to hear in the food space, but they make sense coming from a young techstar.
Following its initial success online, NUGGS quickly formed a parent company, SIMULATE, in July of 2020, to allow room for expansion beyond its plant-based nuggets. Simultaneously, they announced an additional $4.1 million capital raise, bringing their total funding to $11 million, and shared their plans to launch in retail.
If Alpha is playing by the rules and Daring is breaking them, NUGGS is rewriting them entirely, yet each seems to be moving forward in their goals. While all these brands individually are success stories in their own right, what’s telling about their ascents is just how ready consumers are for innovation, and how much opportunity there is across channels.
A Featherless Future
Though competition brings about a need for more investment in marketing and sales, it can also be an indicator of success in a category and create a larger message for consumers to tune into. So while each brand is forging their own path in the market, together they are playing a vital role in ensuring the long-term viability of plant-based poultry.
Do their differentiated game plans give them each a fighting chance amongst the larger protein space? Is plant-based chicken the next meatless beef? Let us know what you think about the plant-based chicken and protein space and who you're betting will rise to the top, or, send us your input on what innovative topics, brands and categories we should dive into next! Shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org