Impossible Foods CEO Peter McGuinness says he is concerned about the state of the plant-based meat category right now.
However, he is quick to qualify that the plant-based meat category is not where Impossible is trying to compete. The California-based company is not trying to steal market share from Beyond Meat or anyone else that makes meat alternatives. What McGuinness wants Impossible to do is displace sales of animal meat.
To do that, he said, Impossible needs to double down on improving its product.
“Nine out of 10 people will tell you it's the best plant-based burger,” McGuinness said. “I want to make a great burger. I want to lose the qualification. …My benchmark is not ‘Do we taste better than pea protein burgers?’”
It’s a tall order for any company in the plant-based meat space, especially as inflation, changes in consumer preferences and inconsistent product quality between different brands have led to falling sales across the category.
And while Impossible is in a good place — McGuinness said the private company is gaining market share, continuing to grow overall and consistently ranking as one of the top plant-based brands in terms of weekly revenue — the declines in the category overall make doing business more challenging.
McGuinness, the former chief operating officer at Chobani, has brought a similar level of passion to the job. In the 14 months since he’s become CEO, McGuinness has been using social media and well-placed TV appearances to make the case for the company and plant-based meat.
McGuinness has a three-part strategy to make Impossible — and the plant-based meat sector as a whole — grow into something that can steal a bigger piece of the meat segment. McGuinness said people who endlessly say the plant-based meat category has fundamental problems drive him crazy.
“The category hasn’t even started,” McGuinness said. “We haven't even started. We're in first gear. I'm saying this in a positive way, not in a pejorative way. I'm saying it in an exciting way.”
He paused, then continued.
“You know what keeps me up at night?” he said. “Not the cynics. Not the naysayers. Not the people with the misinformation and myths and all that B.S. It's the opportunity that sits right in front of us.”
It’s a ‘hell of a start’
In order for Impossible to break out of the “plant-based” categorization — at least in the minds of consumers — it needs to make products that are at least as good as meat, McGuinness said. After all, the company is looking to get shoppers to buy plant-based products instead of meat from animals.
McGuinness said Impossible’s products are the best in the plant-based segment in terms of mimicking meat.
“If I'm being honest and objective, and this is what I tell the team, we're not there yet,” he said. “Hell of a start.”
Impossible — as well as other companies in the space — have more “food work” to do, McGuinness said. The company’s R&D team has a large team of scientists, and it just hired longtime Amyris science lead Sunil Chandran as its new chief science officer. The R&D team is focused on improving different aspects of Impossible’s beef, chicken and pork analogs, McGuinness said.
Impossible currently has 40 SKUs in beef, chicken and pork products, and they are focused on improving those, McGuinness said. There are no immediate plans to go into different product lines. “Let’s perfect — absolutely perfect — what we have,” he said.
While improvement is a priority for Impossible, McGuinness said he’d be fine with another plant-based manufacturer launching something that exceeds what his company is doing.
“The better we all can make our products, the better the category is,” McGuinness said. “I'm a proponent for us and everybody else to up their game.”
Impossible Foods is launching one of those improvements today. The new Impossible Indulgent Burger is a more premium version of the company’s classic offering. The one-third pound patties are bigger, more flavorful and thicker, the company says. It is available at some restaurants, and will start rolling out to retailers this summer.
John Baumgartner, managing director for equity research in food and healthy living for Mizuho Securities USA, largely agrees with McGuinness. The key to growth for plant-based meat is making a product that tastes good and consumers can afford, he said.
“If you can win on taste and price, you open a lot of doors,” he said.
Increase the awareness
Inside the food industry, there are few — if any — who haven’t heard of Impossible.
But in the wider world of consumers, there are many who don’t know about the company. McGuinness said 85% of consumers aren’t aware of Impossible Foods. The company’s products have just a 5% household penetration — so, he said, 95% of consumers have yet to try them.
Impossible’s products are getting to consumers, but they are not yet ubiquitous. They’re on shelves at more than 30,000 retail locations — with just under six SKUs available at each, on average. The company’s offerings also are on about 45,000 foodservice menus — but McGuinness said there are 1.4 million foodservice locations in the United States.
Impossible is working to increase knowledge and household penetration with its first large-scale marketing campaign, which kicked off during the Tony Awards earlier this month. The campaign plays on Impossible products’ similarity to meat, as well as the nutritional and sustainability benefits of plant-based products versus those derived through traditional agriculture.
McGuinness said opponents of plant-based meat have spoken out against the products for years, saying they’re overprocessed and lacking in nutrition. And the plant-based segment hadn’t adequately responded, he said — largely because those making the meat analogs were busy with product development and scaling up.
But doing nothing to get the message out is no longer an option, McGuinness said.
“We've been on our back foot, and we’ve got to get on our front foot, and we’ve got to take charge of our own destiny,” McGuinness said. “We’ve got to own our own narrative.”
McGuinness said he’s also pushing widespread samplings. The company’s tasting trials have shown 50% of people who try Impossible’s products become repeat buyers, he said.
Made in the USA
A lot of the language around plant-based meat, McGuinness said, has been hijacked by people trying to sow disinformation — or who just don’t understand the segment.
“It’s not ‘bicoastal meat.’ It's not ‘faux meat.’ It's not processed. It's not elitist, not academic. This is real food,” he said. “I was at Yankee Stadium two days ago. I had an Impossible Burger and a beer. It was a beautiful thing. This is Americana.”
There is a lot of talk about plant-based meat being something scary, made in China or grown in a lab, McGuinness said.
Impossible’s products are none of those things. They’re made from crops grown in middle America by local farmers. Impossible’s meat analogs are made in its manufacturing facilities in California and Illinois. And the products are nutrient-dense, with less saturated fat and similar protein levels compared to meat, with no cholesterol.
McGuinness said he knows what it takes to boost plant-based meat as a category, and continue to grow Impossible as a company. It’s all about recognizing — and taking advantage of — the opportunity.
“I don't see anything fundamental or foundationally wrong that's hard to overcome,” he continued. “There's things that just haven't been done that we have to do.