Dan Whitmyer has led marketing and digital strategy for leading brands in the healthcare, CPG, retail and restaurant spaces. At Kickdrum, he guides client relationships while crafting insights and strategies.
COVID-19 has dramatically changed the American lifestyle. As cities across the country shutter bars and restaurants and establish “shelter in place” orders, grocery stores’ shelves have emptied at alarming rates. The skyrocketing demand has analysts wondering if the beef and pork industries can keep up.
As the pandemic puts pressure on the supply chain, it’s possible that plant-based meat options are about to have another big moment.
In their 2018 “Year in Food” report, Grubhub identified plant-based food as a trend that was rising in popularity. Investors had put more than $13 billion into U.S. plant-based meat companies in 2017 and 2018, which coincided with consumers pushing for both healthier and more sustainable diets.
Then in 2019, plant-based meat had its first big mainstream boom when seemingly every quick service restaurant lined up, one-by-one, to release a new plant-based menu item. Burger King had the Impossible Whopper, Taco Bell the Oatrageous Tacos, KFC premiered Beyond Fried Chicken. Even Little Caesars started selling pizzas with plant-based sausage.
Whether the explosion of plant-based options at QSRs was anything more than an industry-wide strategy to drive short-term trial is an open question, but plant-based meat is also poised for growth at the grocery.
According to a January survey by Gallup, 41% of Americans have tried a plant-based meat product at some point, with more than half of those who have tried it agreeing that they’re very or somewhat likely to continue eating plant-based meat products as part of their diets. With emptier-than-usual grocery store shelves, the 41% of people who’ve tried plant-based meat products could increase when consumers are presented with fewer options than usual while looking for available protein options with acceptable shelf lives.
Then again, if consumers turn to food as a way to cope with stress — and we all know there’s plenty of that to go around — we could see increased purchases of comfort food, possibly at the expense of plant-based meat. And with restaurants focused on maximizing carryout and delivery through their marketing messages, the demand for plant-based meat could lighten without the benefit of multiple restaurants building ad campaigns around their new plant-based menu items.
It might all just come down to the wallet. It’s common for consumers to cut expensive foods from their shopping lists — like red meat — during a recession. During the 2008 recession, low-cost sources of protein like nuts, eggs, and legumes found their way into more people’s diets as they looked to save money. As the stock markets tank, record numbers of Americans apply for unemployment, and analysts predict a recession, demand for meat could decrease. Let’s face it, meat is expensive.
If industry analysts are correct that plant-based meat will soon be less expensive than conventional meat options, it could be plant-based meat products that start finding their way into more shoppers’ carts looking to save some money at their dinner tables. But if plant-based manufacturers don’t find efficiencies in the supply chain and meat alternatives remain as expensive as traditional meat options, it probably won’t capture the low-cost, protein-on-a-budget shoppers.
So much is still uncertain and only time will tell if plant-based meat is embraced as part of our new normal, or simply something we fondly remember from our pre-pandemic lives.