Home » Colorado-Based Natural Grocers Among Pioneers Of Meat Alternatives

Colorado-Based Natural Grocers Among Pioneers Of Meat Alternatives

by John McCurry / contributing writer

Are plant-based substitutes for meat, dairy and other animal products morphing from trend to staple? Some of the sector’s proponents believe so. These alternatives point to soaring sales over the past two years and increased interest from venture capitalists in investing in startups.

“Consumers now more than ever are conscious of their sustainable footprint and their health,” said Melinda

Melinda Goodman

Goodman, a food industry marketer and observer of the plant-based sector.  “They want choices and good products are coming into the market every day. Everyone from big food, to celebrities and venture capital is funding R&D and new product launches in the category.”

Goodman said the only stumbling block could be the continued COVID-19 pandemic and an economic recession that may slow marketing investments. That might limit shopper behavior by limiting their ability to experience and try new products. But even if new products are slower to the market, she said established brands will continue to grow.

The early months of the pandemic have also provided a major boost to plant-based food sales. A survey released by the Plant Based Foods Association and marketing analytics company SPINS showed plant-based food sales were up 90 percent in mid-March compared to 2019. Throughout the four weeks following peak panic buying, total plant-based foods sales grew at 27 percent, which is 35 percent faster than total retail food, according to PBFA.

Retail popularity

Plant-based meat alternatives have long been popular at Natural Grocers, a Colorado-based chain with 159 stores in 20 states mostly west of the Mississippi River.

“We’ve always had a very strong customer base for this type of item,” said Laura Perkins, VP of purchasing. “We’ve always carried them in our stores. We have customers among various groups – vegan and vegetarian and animal protein eaters.”

Sausage and burger substitutes are among the more popular products, and Natural Grocers helps drive that by promoting meat alternatives. Interest has increased at stores across the chain, but that hasn’t necessarily led to more store space.

Perkins said Natural Grocers has always had a robust program of meat alternatives and has the right amount of space dedicated to it. There is always some produce on the decline that can be taken out of the mix to make space for new items.

“It’s going to continue to grow,” Perkins said. “We are seeing growth outside of just meat substitutes. We are also seeing strong growth in plant-based yogurts, kefirs and cheese.”

Perkins said all plant-based products must meet Natural Grocers high standards. As a result, the chain may have fewer products than other stores and the products that meet the standards do well. 

“Any new product has to go through ingredient review,” Perkins said. “There is a  significant list of things we won’t carry. If we feel strongly about it, we may ask the company if they are willing to change ingredients. We’ve had success with that with some products. Others let us know they are not changing, and they move on.”

According to Perkins, it is hard to determine if plant-based product sales have been boosted by the pandemic. Some sales of meat alternatives may have been driven by the issues that were happening in the meat industry. In general, it is more likely that people were at home and had more time to experiment with cooking and wanted to try new and different things, she said. 

On the horizon will be more meat alternatives resembling real meat – mostly beef, but some chicken. These could be on the menu for the holidays and other occasions when people want something substantial like roast beef. Perkins said she has seen some seafood alternatives as well.

“The category has come a long way,” she said. “There are many more products to choose from. There may even be some who are trying it and not even knowing that it is a meat alternative. When they find out, if they enjoyed it, they will go back and buy it again. 

“It’s on the rise and will continue to rise, with the innovations and improvements they are making in the products. We get new product pitches daily, and we review them on a monthly basis.”

Natural Grocers makes annual predictions for the coming year. Last December, the chain ranked responsible plant-based food choices as one of the top 10 trends for 2020. The company’s nutrition experts urged plant-based consumers to shift to truly sustainable food choices and support organic farming methods that foster soil health. 

State among plant-based centers

Arron Mansika, executive director of Naturally Boulder, an organization that promotes natural products across Colorado, agrees that plant-based products are one of the hottest trends. Companies that were already exclusively plant-based are leading the way, but others are rapidly innovating to include that in their range of products.

“We are seeing more demand and companies are beginning to step up that have a unique angle on plant-based products,” Mansika said. “There is lot of demand and a lot of action.”

Arron Mansika

Service providers are better educating themselves on the need for new formulations, marketing and labeling. 

Many of Naturally Boulder’s sponsors are involved with plant-based products, including some recent startups.

“Just in the past month, we have picked up a new sponsor who is exclusively plant-based protein,” Mansika said. “There are a lot of startups in the natural and organic world that are developing amazing products. They are developing new flavor profiles that are delicious and innovative.”

To Mansika, plant-based food was already poised for a big growth year in 2020. The pandemic and its accompanying supply chain issues have helped further propel that momentum. 

“Plant-based food was going to have some growth and acceptance anyway,” he said. “There was an inevitability about it. People might be hesitant at first, then gradually they begin to try it and there is more and more acceptance. There are too many good things about it for it not to go from being a trend to being an accepted staple.”

The Boulder/Denver area is one of the national hotspots for plant-based food activity. As an example, Mansika cited Danone, which has major operations in nearby Broomfield and Louisville. It has been experimenting with – and advocating for – plant-based foods for decades. He describes Danone as an anchor for the category. He also noted that some of the earliest development of plant-based products, beginning with soy milk, emanated from Boulder. 

Other notable brands in the region include Good Karma Foods and Meati Foods, which has developed fungi-based steaks. Also, Planterra Foods, developer of OZO plant-based protein, is located a few miles away in Lafayette.

A robust outlook

“We are only at the ground floor now,” Mansika said. “It’s only going to get bigger. We are not yet doing justice to the brands who have been doing this for decades already. Also, it’s not new. They are definitely gaining speed and momentum. It’s going to gain more attention from the global food producers.”

Goodman said the most exciting prospects for the plant-based category going forward are the expansion of the meat-based products with chicken, pork and seafood alternatives being tested, including plant-based bacon. 

“Plant-based ice cream is on the rise. And like meat, taste and texture is improving, allowing for restaurant introductions like plant-based milkshakes,” she said. 

“That is in line with the idea of comfort food. More and more consumers want their plant-based foods to also meet their needs for comfort food like chicken nuggets and mac and cheese, which are staples in the homes of families with kids.”

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