Plants Are Invading the Meat Aisle at Kroger

Aug 01, 2017

The largest supermarket in the U.S. has a new name in the meat aisle. It just so happens that it’s not made of meat.

The plant-based Beyond Burger, made by startup Beyond Meat, began rolling out in more than 600 Kroger-owned (kr) stores in June—a move that has more than tripled the burger's distribution within two months.

“It’s a very strong signal,” Beyond Meat CEO and founder Ethan Brown tells Fortune. “Much of the world is drawn toward animal protein as a source of protein,” he adds, but “that is really starting to change.”

The Beyond Burger first went into Whole Foods (wfm) in 2016, but the admittance into Kroger—and Safeway (swy) a few months prior—is an indication that meat alternatives are gaining appeal among the mainstream who may be looking to cut down on their meat consumption for environmental, animal welfare, and health reasons. The Beyond Burger has half the saturated fat compared to a burger made with the real thing and is cholesterol free.

Brown wants his product to appeal to meat eaters rather than just the small percentage of the U.S. population that is vegan or vegetarian. by making a burger that is “indistinguishable from the animal protein equivalent." He's also "adamant that it has to get in the meat case.” When the product first went into Whole Foods, the company found the burger's turnover was vastly improved when it was in the meat case. "People are not looking for protein next to ice cream," Brown says.

In this case, Kroger was the pursuer. Russ Richardson, Kroger’s vice president of meat and seafood, first read about Beyond Meat in a trade magazine and reached out to the company through Tyson (tsn), which has a 5% stake in the startup.

“I thought it would have a great following based on how eating habits are changing,” Richardson says. “It’s different from anything else we offer in the meat department today.”

Richardson also was aligned with Brown’s vision to offer the Beyond Burger in the meat department. “To be quite honest with you,” he says, “it never crossed my mind of putting it anywhere else.”

Beyond Meat’s mission is to create a product that tastes, behaves, and looks exactly like meat but is produced using far fewer resources. Brown says you would never choose a method of converting plant material to meat that is so inefficient as it is through an animal. Beyond Meat has “identified that bottleneck and removed it—which is the animal.”

Animals consume a large amount of plant matter, which is run through their digestive system to produce muscle. Beyond Meat instead takes plant matter and runs it through a heating, cooling, and pressure process to realign the protein so it takes on the structure of animal protein. The company today uses pea protein but Brown says it will soon use other types like lentil or fava beans.

He acknowledges that the product is not perfect but it is “close enough” that people are buying it in large numbers. The Kroger deal, however, is “deliver or die for us,” says Brown. “We asked to be in the meat case and now we have to bring the consumer to that ring.”

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