Although many aspects of business have been stilled by the coronavirus pandemic, Impossible Foods has had two recent big pieces of news.
The first came in mid-March, as restaurant dining rooms across the country were beginning to shut down, office employees were beginning indefinite work-from-home stints, and consumers were filling grocery shopping carts to overflowing with canned goods, frozen pizzas, dried beans and toilet paper. The plant-based meat pioneer had just closed a $500 million funding round. The money was to be used to help the company scale up and expand its retail presence.
A month later, the company announced a significant expansion to the number of retailers where its products can be found. Consumers can now find the Impossible Burger at nearly 1,000 grocery stores across the country — a huge leap from its September retail launch at Gelson's Markets, Wegmans and Fairway Markets.
Rachel Konrad, Impossible Foods' chief communications officer, told Food Dive that the plant-based meat maker — which began selling its plant-based meat solely in restaurants in 2016 — had always planned to go in this direction. Impossible Foods' products are sold in about 17,000 restaurants worldwide, including Burger King, Red Robin, White Castle and Cheesecake Factory.
"Our intention was always for 2020 to be the retail acceleration year, but we definitely accelerated it because of the decline in dining in," she told Food Dive.
Impossible Foods, which is a private company and did not disclose sales numbers, is not the only plant-based meat manufacturer to see sales decline because of restaurant dining rooms closing their doors. Beyond Meat sells its products at thousands of restaurants nationwide, including Carl's Jr., Hardee's, Dunkin' and Del Taco. According to its most recent earnings report, foodservice made up almost 59% of the publicly traded company's revenues. And Before the Butcher launched in the foodservice space in 2017. Its products are sold in thousands of restaurants and cafeterias. The company's Uncut brand has been moving into the retail space in the last year, and is currently available at about 800 stores.
While these companies are all taking a hit as the restaurant industry struggles, they're all working to keep their footing through the pandemic. Innovative ways of getting to consumers are on the top of the companies' lists, as are product expansions and breaking into new markets. But it's been hard across the board.
"It's been a fairly dramatic impact," Danny O'Malley, Before the Butcher's founder and president, told Food Dive. "Fortunately, we're still doing some business on foodservice. Not everybody has shut down, so we are doing some business. And we were diversified enough to continue to do some business, but it's dramatically less than what we were doing before, and I think it'll take a while for us to get it back."
Impossible Foods, founded with the purpose of eradicating animal-based meat from diets, has always planned big.
Konrad said that by the end of 2020, the number of retailers where consumers can find its products should have increased 50-fold. With the announcement two weeks ago, plus more big news on the way, the company is well on its way. She told Food Dive that March's retail sales were record-setting, and April is going to blow those numbers away. The company said earlier this month that a production line in Oakland, California would be dedicated to making the plant-based ground beef for grocery stores.
Impossible Foods started its business in restaurants — particularly restaurants with well-known chefs and frequented by foodies — to prove its credibility as a meat substitute and cement a reputation, Konrad said. But in the grocery store, ground beef accounts for 50% of all beef purchases, according to IRI statistics published by the Beef Checkoff. The retail path forward for Impossible Foods is clear.
"We're hoping to be as ubiquitous as our real competitor, which is ground beef from cows, and that's everywhere," Konrad said.
By the end of the year, she said, it should be. Impossible Foods intends to be in every place that consumers can also buy ground beef. While restaurants are still important to Impossible Foods' business, the company is interested in developing other ways to get into consumers' hands.
Burger King is Impossible Foods' largest restaurant customer, serving Impossible Whoppers as a regular menu item at all 7,200 locations. Konrad said customers there are already accustomed to — and largely expecting — the grab-and-go takeout experience that is one of only a few services most restaurants are providing. In fact, most uses of Impossible Burgers are easily portable, making takeout service for them relatively easy for restaurants and consumers.
"We're hoping to be as ubiquitous as our real competitor, which is ground beef from cows, and that's everywhere."
Chief communications officer, Impossible Foods
But there are also other new ways to get Impossible Burgers. Some restaurants are doubling as grocery stores, and are selling bricks of uncooked Impossible Burger to consumers who order. The company also recently partnered with Cheetah, a San Francisco Bay Area food wholesaler. Cheetah provides contactless consumer pickup of bulk groceries, and sells third pound Impossible Burger patties in eight-packs or cases of 32.
The company has heard many requests for direct-to-consumer ordering ability.
"It's safe to say that we are actively exploring all channels," she said.
Working in Impossible Foods' favor is that its signature product is fairly recession proof, Konrad said. Consumers buy ground beef and burgers through all economic times.
Impossible Foods may see a bump in consumer interest given the source of the pandemic, as well as the potential meat shortage due to coronavirus outbreaks shutting processing plants down. But the company isn't looking at the reasons behind business increases quite in that way.
From the beginning, Impossible Foods has always pushed sustainability, Konrad said. The other side of the sustainability coin is the way Impossible's products are made. There are no slaughterhouses, no messy processing, no production lines with employees standing shoulder-to-shoulder. The manufacturing process and supply chain are much different. And since it's been in the news, consumers are becoming more and more aware of how the meat industry works. Konrad thinks public health might become one of the top reasons for choosing Impossible Burgers in future consumer surveys.
Beyond Meat's origin story is somewhat the opposite of Impossible Foods. The company's products started out in grocery stores and were ubiquitous there before it made the leap into foodservice.
And with such a large portion of business coming from foodservice — which contributed $57.8 million in gross revenue, over retail's $40.6 million, according to the company's last earnings report — the restaurant shutdown could be bad news for the plant-based meat company.
How bad that news is may be apparent soon. Beyond Meat's earnings report comes out next week, on May 5. Company representatives would not talk to Food Dive for this story because they are currently in their pre-earnings quiet period.
However, the company's stock has seen a remarkable jump in the last month, likely buoyed by new deals, optimism about the plant-based sector and negative news about conventional meat. At its low point on April 2, Beyond Meat's stock was trading at $57.95. Last week, it reached a high for the month of $108.78.
Brian Holland, an analyst who covers Beyond Meat for D.A. Davidson, upgraded the outlook on the company's performance from underperform to neutral earlier this month. He told Food Dive he thinks the company's finances are more on the risky side — and will stay there for the next three to 12 months — because of its heavy exposure to foodservice.
Prior to the pandemic effectively shutting down normal business, foodservice was booming for Beyond Meat. Its products — both burgers and sausage — were appearing on menus across the country. The company is trialing a Beyond Burger sandwich at some McDonald's locations in Canada that could move onto menus elsewhere if it is successful. It's also going past the products it sells in retail stores and trying out plant-based chicken nuggets at KFCs in Charlotte, North Carolina and Nashville.
"I think foodservice is their marketing," Holland told Food Dive. "...It's a tough situation."
Consumers who are interested in plant-based meat, but have not tried it may be much more likely to get it at a restaurant than pick it up at the grocery store, Holland said. The investment and commitment are much lower, especially for the type of product that consumers may not know how to prepare and is a little more expensive than animal-based meat. And having the opportunity to taste a Beyond Burger in a restaurant may do more to sell the product than a grocer's meat case that is well stocked with the company's plant-based patties.
"I think foodservice is their marketing. ...It's a tough situation."
Analyst, D.A. Davidson
Although Beyond Meat's rapid expansion makes it difficult to draw much meaning from year-over-year sales comparisons, recent figures in a Bank of America analyst's report showed that Beyond Meat's retail sales more than tripled from mid-March to mid-April compared to last year.
Other positive developments have helped the company out during the outbreak. Just last week, Beyond Meat announced its products would be sold at 3,300 Starbucks in China as part of a new plant-based menu there. The expansion was planned before the pandemic. Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown previously said aggressively bringing the product to Asian markets was one of of the year's goals. The timing of this announcement shows the company still has methods to bolster its earnings.
But Holland doesn't think the recent upswing for Beyond Meat's stock price has much to do with the China deal. It's a great expansion partnership, but at this point may not be bringing immediate increases in revenues. It may instead have more to do with its stability relative to animal-based products, analysts have said.
However, Beyond Meat will definitely have the opportunity to benefit from consumers being less interested in or able to purchase conventional meat because of coronavirus, Holland said. He recommended the company use its earnings report to tout its strong supply chain and ability to work with retailers in the pandemic.
"Consumers may be increasing trust in plant-based protein — or, first and foremost, less trust in animal protein and plant protein as a compelling option," Holland said. "...This backdrop speaks to a need that plant-based meat can serve."
Before the Butcher
While Before the Butcher is smaller and less known than Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat, it has one big thing going for it that the others don't.
Last year, Gregg and Jeff Hamann, independent owners who own ground beef titan Jensen Meat Company, acquired the plant-based startup. The acquisition gave Before the Butcher access to a $25 million line of credit, as well as its own production plant and cold storage warehousing space.
"We were fortunate," company founder and President O'Malley told Food Dive. "We have some very generous investors that have the majority share of the company. We have a sister company that they own as well that produces many of our products as a co-packer for us. And so we were already in a pretty good place. We already had good reserves. Look, we were planning for the ramp up into spring and summer, so we had already started ramping up."
The product ramp-up, however, is complicated by the current shutdown. Before the Butcher started as a company producing plant-based meat products exclusively for foodservice. Its product line has been more diverse than other plant-based meat companies, offering plant-based ground beef, chicken, turkey, sausage, chicken chunks, beef tips and pork shreds.
"These viruses that we're seeing today and that we've seen in the past are animal based, and I think that there will be a greater awareness of the safety and the health benefits of plant-based products like ours."
Founder and president, Before the Butcher
Last year, the company announced it was moving into retail under the Uncut brand. O'Malley said the products first started to appear on shelves in October, and they are currently in about 800 stores nationwide. He anticipated a retail expansion and adding new SKUs this summer. But as the pandemic took hold, many conversations with grocery buyers and distributors abruptly stopped in mid-March and early April.
O'Malley said that conversations have started to pick up again, but it's been difficult because these buyers are picking up after several weeks and are inundated with manufacturers trying to get on their shelves. He's trying to help his products stand out in these times, hosting virtual product demos and sending samples to buyers. But it's also rough because many grocery stores aren't necessarily looking to load their shelves with brand new products now. O'Malley said the fact that he's already got a recognized product and a relationship with groceries and buyers has helped give him a "running head start" to expanding.
While O'Malley didn't discuss specific numbers, as his foodservice business abruptly slowed, retail sales grew quickly. In fact, he said he has a steady supply of product and his distribution centers are able to keep shelves full.
Moving more into retail was always O'Malley's plan for Before the Butcher in 2020. The pandemic and foodservice shutdown affirms to him that he's moving in the right direction. And despite the rough times now, he's optimistic that the company will get through this.
"We're going to manage and and get better as we go forward," he said. "I think that this crisis we are in right now will continue to open up doors for us in plant based. These viruses that we're seeing today and that we've seen in the past are animal based, and I think that there will be a greater awareness of the safety and the health benefits of plant-based products like ours."