As meat prices soar, plant-based turkey becomes a Thanksgiving alternative

As real meat prices continue to soar due to supply-chain disruptions and the highest inflation in decades, fake meat has become an increasingly accessible alternative, just in time for Thanksgiving dinner.

Demand for plant-based meat has grown steadily in recent years, even if only 5% of the American population identifies as vegan or vegetarian. The category’s growth is mostly being driven by flexitarians, consumers who eat meat but are also adding in more plant-based alternatives due to health and sustainability concerns.

Add on the rising cost of turkey for the holiday, up more than 20% year on year, and plant-based holiday centerpieces could gain a real foothold this season. A traditional bird for eight might cost somewhere between $20 to $40 in the U.S. this year, depending on the location; most plant-based alternatives are around $16, and those producers say their prices have not changed significantly since 2020. This holiday season represents a real opportunity for faux-meat producers to gain ground on the Thanksgiving table. 

Yet there are warning signs for plant-based producers. Beyond Meat Inc. saw sales fall off in the third quarter as demand slowed. In early November, Maple Leaf Foods Inc., Canada’s largest food processor, said that the company was “seeing a marked slowdown in the plant-based protein category performance,” according to Chief Executive Officer Michael McCain, prompting a review of its strategy.

In 2019, Bloomberg conducted a taste test of nine imitation Thanksgiving roast products. The results were mixed and the takeaway was clear: Turkey producers had nothing to worry about back then, as the demand and science were not quite there yet to really drive innovation.

This year, things are different. Due to soaring turkey prices because of inflation, supply-chain disruptions and wider availability of fake meat products, consumers are ready to give faux turkeys a second chance. Notably, not one company changed their fake turkey recipe for this Thanksgiving, instead choosing to expand their portfolios of products and increase production capabilities to capture new customers. In short, the fake meat hasn’t much changed, but the customer base has. 

“They are looking for premium products,” said Bob Nolan, senior vice president of insights and analytics at Conagra Brands Inc., which produces the popular plant-based Gardein Holiday Roast. Flexitarian households, which drove 85% of Gardein’s revenue growth this year, won’t just settle for a typical vegan burger patty, he said.

“Beyond and Impossible changed the bar. Consumers are now expecting to find healthy plant-based options without sacrificing taste and experience,” said Darren Seifer, food and beverage industry analyst for NPD Group.

Plant-based turkey is not a guaranteed sell for all flexitarians because, so far, it hasn’t been produced to mimic the fibrous muscle of a real bird. “We’re not at the stage where plant-based turkey will be the same as turkey. Not as close as burgers and sausage are,” said Mitchell Scott, co-founder of  The Very Good Food Company Inc., a public company based in British Columbia that makes plant-based foods. Still, skyrocketing holiday meat prices might incentivize consumers to try a product they might have hesitated to taste before.

Their Very Good Butchers line started selling its version of turkey, “Stuffed Beast,” for Thanksgiving 2017, which, at $40, is on par with, if not pricier than, the cost of its meat-based alternative, depending on the market. The company made a couple hundred in the first year and sold out right away. Last year, it made 9,000; this year, it’s up to around 35,000.

The result of a taste test showed a higher-quality product than many faux turkeys. The roast is tied with twine and flecked with organic carrots and yams, and it has the oniony flavor of a very bready stuffing recipe.

Another big player, Tofurky, is also optimistic about the market, based on this year’s sales to date. The company that makes it has been around since 1980, and its first plant-based holiday roast dates back to 1995. The family-owned business now has several specialty products, including a roast with gravy and a “ham” roast.

“Last year Tofurky saw its plant-based ham roast numbers grow 631% and the holiday feast experienced 126% growth,” said CEO Jaime Athos. Currently, Tofurky is tracking 25% ahead of cumulative orders shipped for the same time last year.

Tofurky has not updated the recipe of its Thanksgiving centerpiece, choosing instead to invoke nostalgia with the holiday roast. It tastes transported from another era, with a gummy texture and salty flavor.

Most analysts agree that chicken is the next big thing in the plant-based meat market. Kellogg Co., Conagra, Maple Leaf and Beyond Meat all launched chicken products this year. The latter had a delayed and lackluster roll out of its chicken tender, though, interpreted by some as a sign of a possible industry slowdown.

Still, the seasonal interest in plant-based turkey appears to be thriving. 

“We are coming up on about 20% more growth this year alone of sales of Field Roast. We would sell more if we could make more,” said Adam Grogan, chief operating officer of Greenleaf Foods SPC, an independent subsidiary of Maple Leaf Foods. For Greenleaf, the main obstacle to higher production is not supply-chain woes but labor shortages, as its product cannot be widely automated.

Smaller companies like Minnesota-based Herbivorous Butcher are facing similar problems. The company started selling its turkey-free feast in 2014, and although CEO Kale Walch has seen demand rise, his company hasn’t been able to cash in on this year’s opportunity due to a limited production capability. Herbivorous Butcher had the plans ready for a much larger production facility but then COVID-19 hit and financing tightened up.

“We stretch ourselves thin ever year,” he said. “We have to cap orders every year.”

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