‘We’re Not Rabbits’: Veteran Food Creators Bring Flavor To Plant-Based Category

The plant-based food space is rapidly growing. While this trend has been on the rise […]

The plant-based food space is rapidly growing. While this trend has been on the rise for years — a Google Trends analysis shows searches for “plant-based diet” gradually increasing over the last decade — it has been supercharged since the start of the pandemic. In 2020, the plant-based food market was valued at $7 billion, a whopping 27 percent increase from 2019’s then record-high $5 billion, and a study of consumers in the U.K. found that almost 1 in 5 have been eating more plant-based foods since the start of the pandemic.

As more consumers turn toward animal product-free meals and snacks, demand is increasing for snack-based options that are more flavorful than, say, tofu or salad. Consequently, Seth Goldman, chair of the board for Beyond Meat and co-founder and former CEO of Honest Tea, teamed with celebrity chef Spike Mendelsohn (of Top Chef and Iron Chef fame) to co-found Eat the Change, a “planet-based” snack company that has created a line of mushroom jerkies in a variety of flavors — planet-based on the technicality that fungi are not in fact plants. The brand hopes to bring more taste and variety to the vegan snack food category.

“My family, being vegan, we used to joke, we’re not rabbits,” Goldman told PYMNTS in an interview. “We don’t want to just have salad and pasta for dinner. We want to have protein, and something delicious, and I think that’s going to be the expectation … It’s not just that 1 percent of consumers who are looking for it now.”

“I completely agree with Seth,” added Mendelsohn, noting the buzzword “plant-based” is popping up everywhere. “It’s in the supermarket and the shop for when you’re shopping for jeans, it’s in restaurants and … I’ve had record [numbers] of calls in the past year from chefs [who are] developing whole menus plant-based in mind. So it’s a real thing, and I think it’s only going to get wider as we go.”

Putting In The Work

The brand launched in March of 2021, significantly later than the co-founders would have imagined, if you’d asked before the start of the pandemic.

“We were putting these ideas together last year and we realized that last year was not the right year to launch the brand, so we basically held off,” recalled Goldman. “And that actually was useful — it gave us the time to really be creative with making sure we develop the brand proposition the right way, our logo, our product, our formulation, all of that. So we took the year off, put it all toward R&D.”

The brand has also benefitted from consumers’ pent-up demand for novel experiences amid the pandemic, as Goldman, who was in California for the product’s launch at a West Coast grocery chain, noted.

“I’ve been in the store every day, and it’s so refreshing,” he said. “I think people find it refreshing, where we’re some of the first sampling events these stores have had in more than a year, so consumers are really receptive and curious and eager to taste something new, see something new, and I think that’s a result of the pandemic as well.”

However, Goldman added, the rise in online grocery makes it harder for new brands to rely on what was, historically, the most effective way to reach new consumers. He explained, “One downside is that there are fewer people in stores. People have shifted to a lot of Instacart and online shopping, and the downside of that is that you don’t get as much discovery as you might.”

Why Mushroom Jerky?

Mendelsohn describes mushrooms as a “blank canvas,” noting that they “take on really well to flavors.” They also are very jerky-able, allowing Eat the Change to create “the jerky in the very authentic style of jerky making,” Mendelsohn explained, “which is smoking, marinating, and dehydrating.”

Flavor was at the center of the brand’s year-long R&D process, with Mendelsohn noting that the company took the opportunity to “get a lot of feedback on what people are enjoying and what they’re not; not too different for me than launching new menu items in a restaurant.”

“A lot of the plant-based folks think that all you need to do is make [a product] plant-based, and it’s going to sell,” said Goldman. “And there, the key is, taste is still the leading, most important variable. Like it’s great if it’s plant-based, but it has to be delicious … We’ve seen some products in this plant-based category that we literally can’t swallow, and that’s not good.”

Plant-Based Products Across The Eat Category

In addition to Eat the Change, Goldman and Mendelsohn also have an in-Whole Foods Market restaurant chain with a handful of locations on the East Coast, PLNT Burger. The two were able to grow the restaurant’s pre-COVID footprint of one store sevenfold throughout the pandemic, adding six new locations, thanks to the restaurant’s mobile ordering app.

“The conversion to our own app was one of, the more pivotal moments in our young brand,” said Mendelsohn, “and [we were] able to really take advantage of online sales and just kind of push the market that way right now, especially during the pandemic.”

Eat the Change, meanwhile, allows the two to take advantage of the in the eat category toward snack foods.

“You know there’s a big trendy word out there now called snack-ification that’s happening, and people are, a lot of time, especially now on Zoom, resorting to snacking a lot more than actually having whole meals,” explained Mendelsohn. “So for a chef, it’s a really great pivot.”

As far as goals for the future, Goldman said that in one year, he would like to have “mushroom jerky established, and Eat the Change specifically, as part of the fastest growing category in food, which is … plant-based snacks.” Additionally, he said, he hopes the brand will be launching its next product line, “which is going to be equally delicious but in a different category of snacking.”

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