Impossible Foods had long planned to bring its signature plant-based burgers to more consumers by selling them at grocery stores.
At the beginning of 2020, shoppers at about 150 stores nationwide could find the squares of plant-based beef in their frozen or refrigerated cases. Impossible Foods CFO David Lee said the plan for the year was to continue expanding to retail locations at a modest pace.
And then the pandemic hit.
"I think this global pandemic has forced all companies to adjust," Lee said. "In our case, it was about adjusting to the customer. We knew that the vast majority of our customers were meat eaters. We knew that they were sheltering in place. And as a result, we really wanted to make sure they could still have access to the Impossible Burger."
The modest pace of previous plans was quickly forgotten. Impossible Foods did not simply see a retail expansion in 2020 — it saw a retail explosion. Today, Impossible Burgers are sold in more than 11,000 grocery stores nationwide — a 77-fold increase over 2019.
Impossible Foods also quickly put together the plant-based meat sector's first direct-to-consumer ordering website, which allowed consumers in the lower 48 states to get Impossible Burgers delivered to their homes in two days.
On the foodservice side, the company launched its Impossible Sausage in Starbucks, Burger King and any restaurant that wants to carry it. Currently, about 30,000 foodservice outlets in the United States carry Impossible Foods' products, Lee said.
Quickly pivoting its business plan to serve consumers in a situation nobody expected helped both Impossible Foods and the plant-based sector as a whole. As people faced a pandemic that has no cure or guaranteed treatments yet, many looked to the plant-based sector for better-for-you dishes. According to Nielsen, meat alternatives saw the third highest sales increase — 129% — during the first seven months of the pandemic. And by working to get Impossible Burgers in more places that consumers generally buy conventional meat, it makes it easier for a plant-based choice to be seen as normal.
Impossible Foods laid the groundwork for this pivot in previous years. Before its initial retail launch, the company forged a manufacturing partnership with global retail food supplier OSI Group. The massive reach of OSI, plus upgrades to increase manufacturing capacity at Impossible Foods' main plant in Oakland, California, helped the company keep the plant-based beef coming, Lee said.
The scale-up also received big support from the funding community. In 2020, Impossible Foods received a whopping $700 million from investors — a $500 million round in March and $200 million in August.
Getting Impossible Burgers to more consumers has helped the company quickly move toward one of the plant-based sector's goals: getting them to buy less meat. Impossible Foods has made this goal their mantra, and pledges to eliminate the need for animals for food by 2035. Sharing statistics the company got from crunching loyalty card data, Impossible Foods founder and CEO Pat Brown said that 90% of Impossible Foods' customers are meat eaters. Seven in 10 who buy the product once, he said, are repeat consumers.
"Once you kind of step out of your sort of robotic buying behavior and, at least for our product, try it, a significant number of consumers either aren't gonna go back [to previous meat-buying habits] or they're going to become regular consumers," Brown said.
This pivot from Impossible Foods has not only set a new bar for how food companies can get their products to consumers, but it also has inspired the next generation of up-and-coming startups, said Lux Research analyst Harini Venkataraman.
"The business model in which these companies are operating in is they have really viewed retail and direct to consumer as one of the main models. Some of them even have a go-to-market strategy where they start directly to consumer," she said.
While Impossible Foods' biggest innovation of 2020 had nothing to do with its products, both Lee and Brown said the future holds more new developments, products and ways to displace the need for animal agriculture. The company showed off a prototype of Impossible Milk at a virtual press conference in October, and recently launched a recruiting drive to bring scientists of any discipline to leave their current jobs and double the company's R&D department.
Though 2020 was a banner year of growth for Impossible Foods, Lee said he expects the company's growth to accelerate in the future.
"Our technology has demonstrated that though we'll get larger, we'll have a greater and greater ability to grow faster," Lee said. "Everything from the fact that scale gives us a lower cost of goods sold, and our technology was designed to use far fewer input ingredients. From the incumbent industry that's made from the animal to the acceptance by more and more on the inevitability that a better version of meat, in our case made entirely from plants, is the future."