As consumers clamor for more variety in plant-based meat, Nestlé's Sweet Earth said it is taking the "opportunity to ride the chicken wave" as it fights to become a market leader in the fast-growing segment, said Jesse Curtis, who oversees the brand for the food giant.
Sweet Earth launched its first Mindful Chik'n line in 2019, the same year its debuted its faux beef options in Awesome Burger and Awesome Grounds. The alternative poultry quickly "outperformed our business expectations," Curtis said, which has given the brand momentum to push ahead with new flavors and products that incorporate Mindful Chik'n.
"Consumers can only eat so many [plant-based] burgers," said Curtis. "People are looking for new options and new choices in the grocery store. Chicken is kind of the next wave to it."
Sweet Earth is adding three new varieties to its Mindful Chik'n Strips line that are central to the brand's push to not only give consumers more flavor options, but to also provide more opportunities to use its products at home or on the go. Shredded Seasoned Chik'n has a classic carnitas-style marinade compatible with salad and sandwiches; the Chipotle Chik'n Strips can feature in tacos; and Shredded Korean Style BBQ is an option for sliders, according to a press release on the launch.
"Consumers can only eat so many [plant-based] burgers. People are looking for new options and new choices in the grocery story. Chicken is kind of the next wave to it."
Brand manager, Nestlé's Sweet Earth
Nestlé's major foray in the U.S. in plant-based food came in 2017 when it purchased Sweet Earth. Since the acquisition, the brand has debuted more than 50 vegetarian and plant-based products, expanding into faux beef, sausage and deli meats, as well as bowls and burritos. Last year alone, Sweet Earth launched more than 19 products, including frozen offerings and pizzas.
The Mindful Chik'n flavor expansion in April is Sweet Earth's "big move for the year," but other extensions are in the works in 2021, Curtis said. The brand plans to roll out new frozen meals that incorporate Mindful Chik’n or Awesome Grounds. New pizza flavors are imminent, and Sweet Earth plans to enter the frozen breakfast bowl category.
"Consumers can only eat one flavor profile for so long so you really do have to introduce new items in there, because no matter what, that's going to increase our presence among consumers and kind of appeal to what they want in the now," she said. "They are going to come in for health and convenience but stay for flavor and variety."
The alluring growth prospects of plant-based meat have attracted several other big-name players such as Tyson Foods, Conagra Brands, Perdue Farms and Kellogg, which have introduced new products or reformulated existing offerings to make them more like meat. Hot upstarts also have flooded the space, including Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods.
Sweet Earth is "continuing to gain market share" and seeing increased distribution for many of its products, Curtis said. "We are slowly but surely making waves in the space."
Nestlé would not divulge specific growth figures or sales of the brand. The company noted, however, that the growth rate of Mindful Chik'n has doubled and the number of stores it is sold in has quadrupled since its launch. Its Awesome Burger has seen similar robust growth, with distribution tripling since its debut in 2019, and product sales per store up 35%, according to Nestlé.
Sweet Earth has been a major beneficiary of its own innovation prowess and Nestlé's production capabilities to get products to market faster — a necessity with more competition, broader consumer demand for plant-based foods and insistence on variety. Curtis said the brand can go from concept to shelf in less than a year, a feat that usually wasn't possible a few years ago.
"People are definitely hungry for more variety in the plant-based sector," she said. "We definitely recognize at Sweet Earth that we have to innovate quickly and look into the future and predict what the food trends are, and using data, really, what is going to be the future of food?"
Plant-based foods are one of the biggest beneficiaries from the ongoing pandemic, with brands like Sweet Earth seeing increased demand as people prepare meals more at home and look for healthier, more sustainable options. According to data from Nielsen, plant-based meat had one of the highest sales growth rates in the first seven months of 2020, with dollar sales up 129%.
Sales of plant-based protein and meat alternatives alone are projected to increase to a whopping $85 billion by 2030, according to investment firm UBS. Today, the category hovers around $1 billion in sales.
"Plant-based chicken is currently a huge leader in this amazing growth category, and we see it being a continuous trend for the year," Curtis said.