After two decades in the U.S. market, fermented meat analog company Quorn is ready to grab a much bigger share of the chicken sector.
"I'm sure you've read about the chicken sandwich wars that are going on right now in the industry and you know, we want to play in that space with a product that we think is better than a chicken sandwich," said Judd Zusel, president of Quorn Foods USA. "So not a meat alternative, but really, better than the real thing."
Quorn, which is currently the world's largest producer of mycoprotein for food, has always had a vegetarian-friendly product offering. Mycoprotein, created from a fungus through fermentation, is said to be versatile, nutritious and produced with a minimal carbon footprint. But as more QSRs are leveling up their chicken sandwich offerings and more consumers are reaching for plant-based chicken, the British meat analog brand is seizing the opportunity.
Days after parent company Monde Nissin's $1 billion initial public offering on the Philippine Stock Exchange last year, executives said one of their top priorities was expanding Quorn in the United States. After the IPO, Quorn CEO Marco Bertacca told Bloomberg that the brand's ambition is to be the world's top alternative chicken provider. Monde Nissin committed to spend nearly 16 billion pesos ($335 million) to expand Quorn's U.S. presence.
As new Quorn products are hitting stores, its offerings are being talked up by "chief mom officer" Drew Barrymore and a new marketing campaign is in the wings, Zusel said the company's ambitions are right on target with what it can achieve. Quorn is able to deliver on consumer expectations, he said.
"We want them to have an amazing experience the first time," Zusel said. "We want them to taste the food and go, 'Wow, it's not an alternative. I'm not trading off. This is actually as good as or better than what I usually eat.' "
Targeting America's tastebuds
Quorn's products first entered grocers' freezers in the U.S. in 2002, making it a veteran brand in the meat alternatives category.
Zusel said the recent trend toward meat alternatives has supercharged the brand's potential. Quorn has always been more popular in the U.K., where it was founded based on research dating back to the 1960s. About 90% of Quorn's 2020 sales were in the U.K. and Europe, Bloomberg has reported.
To make products more targeted to the American palate, Quorn opened a culinary development center in Dallas last year. At the 10,000-square-foot facility, the company tests culinary equipment and coatings on mycoprotein. It has a commercial kitchen to replicate conditions at restaurants ranging from fine dining to fast food. And it has a new product development lab to help design offerings for the U.S. consumer. Zusel said that the center can both create new products as well as fine-tune those developed in Great Britain to be primed for U.S. consumers.
"We want to play in that space with a product that we think is better than a chicken sandwich. So not a meat alternative, but really, better than the real thing."
President, Quorn Foods USA
Quorn now has a U.S.-based executive chef, as well. Steven Kalil comes to the company with three decades of experience at large food companies, including PepsiCo, The Cheesecake Factory and Chili's Grill & Bar.
At the end of last year, Quorn launched its newest U.S.-centric products, which are on their way to grocery shelves. They include new Meatless ChiQin Cutlets — sandwich-sized breaded patties in Homestyle and spicy Kickin' varieties — and Meatless ChiQin Wings — breaded chunks that mimic boneless chicken wing appetizers.
"There was a lot of time and effort put into the process of the crumb system, the breading, what are the flavor profiles, how hot do we make the Kickin' product from a Scoville standpoint," Zusel said. "A lot of research done there with consumers, a lot of testing done with Chef Steven, a lot of people involved in the process."
So far, Zusel said, Quorn is getting positive consumer feedback on the new products. Quorn currently has the top repeat buying rates in meatless products at Kroger, he said. And Zusel believes that the high repeat buying rate is not an anomaly — consumers will continue to buy Quorn products if they have one good experience, he said.
Getting into the limelight
Aside from improving its product offerings for U.S. consumers, Quorn has big plans to increase its marketing and positioning, Zusel said. It aims to go from a brand that's buried in the freezer section to one that's talked about, seen throughout social media and pop culture, and enjoyed at restaurants throughout the country.
As Quorn ramps up its marketing and redesigns its packaging, its first move was partnering with a well-known spokesperson. Zusel said its partnership with Barrymore as chief mom officer was perfect for the direction Quorn is hoping to go in the United States.
"Drew is our target consumer," Zusel said. "She's a mom. She has kids. She wants to feed her kids healthier foods. She cares about the environment. She cares about the planet. She really loves the brand."
Barrymore has already been promoting Quorn through segments on her show and Instagram posts to her nearly 15 million followers. She also made social media headlines after she offered rapper Cardi B help transitioning to a vegan diet. Zusel said that the agreement with Barrymore is deep, and she will provide an authentic voice to influence both consumers and future product development.
Messaging about Quorn will be getting out to consumers in other ways as the year continues, Zusel said. The company's new marketing campaign will focus on its claim that Quorn products are healthy and good for the planet. Zusel described the messaging as a "cornucopia of good" the company presents. Quorn has long informed consumers about the water, electricity and emissions it says they save by consuming its products rather than animal-derived equivalents. As consumer interest in sustainable food deepens, this message may resonate more now than previously.
And Quorn is also likely to be breaking out of the grocery store freezer case. Zusel said the company is talking about restaurant partnerships, which had not previously been a U.S. priority. He would not talk about any specific plans yet, but Quorn is working on unique products for foodservice companies at its culinary center — similar to its "Zero Chicken" sandwich at U.K. KFC restaurants. Quorn also recently hired Kevin Eiden as its VP of foodservice to work on forming and deepening restaurant partnerships. And last year, Quorn partnered with the Boston Red Sox's Fenway Park, where its wings are sold in the main concession area, suites and the restaurant.
The road to becoming the top alternative chicken maker is Quorn's for the taking, Zusel said. People who haven't tried the company's products will give them a chance as more grocery stores and restaurants expand meatless options, he said.
"It comes down to amazing food, and part of the reason why I joined Quorn and why I love working here is because I feel like it has the best food on the market," Zusel said. "...I think having the best foods and having innovative new product development ideas are going to be really important to win in the future."