Would You Like Plant Cheese on That?
In the past year, you could hardly avoid all the articles, marketing and water cooler discussions about plant-based burgers such as the Impossible Burger, Beyond and all the rest.
The intense reaction and major demand (at least to try out the new burgers) has gotten the food industry to think harder about other plant-based alternatives to traditional food products, namely dairy.
According to research firm Nielsen, it’s a growth category. In the last year, plant-based cheese grew 41 percent. Plant-based milks grew, too, and now make up 13 percent of U.S. retail milk sales. And this has happened while sales of traditional dairy cheese remained flat. So plant-based alternatives are driving a lot of the category growth.
And expect a lot of plant-based menu items coming to franchised brands soon. Leading the pack in terms of likely volume is Jamba. The company (it dropped "Juice" from its name earlier this year) is bringing oat milk to all of its more than 800 locations around the world. It fits with the brand’s recent pivot to be more health focused, removing sugars and bringing the health halo back to smoothies without sacrificing taste, as Geoff Henry, the president of Jamba, said.
“It’s surprising in terms of how quickly its becoming mainstream, you have 65 percent of consumers that are seeking plant-based alternatives in grocery stores. So it’s capturing headlines and there's a whole host of resons,” said Henry. “The products also just taste good, for a tradeoff there’s not really much they have to trade off.”
He said while they have almond and soymilk in the stores already, oat milk is one of the sexy new alternatives out there today. The company signed a partnership with one of the biggest providers, Oatly.
“Oat milk is one of the top of mind categories, we’ve seen data points that over the last several years the desire for plant based milk has risen by like 35 percent,” said Henry.
Consumers can swap in Oatly milk for any dairy, but Jamba will also build flavors around the product such as the Smooth Talkin’ Mango and the Matcha Lemon Squeeze.
Fatburger is also tapping into the vegan dairy craze, bringing Daiya plant-based cheese and Craig’s Vegan Ice Cream to swap in for dairy standards. Fatburger CEO Andy Wiederhorn said they expect the same sort of response they saw with the Impossible Burger. He said the company continues to see broad demand from the growing cohort of flexitarians.
“We’re targeting all our customers from flexitarians to vegans. We’ve found that flexitarians are certainly curious about plant-based and dairy-free menu items and will change up their typical order to try these items,” said Wiederhorn. “We see a broad interest and demand for it.”
For the generally sustainable French-style bakery franchise, Le Pain Quotidien, vegan cheese is the key to a new to plant-based menu item and hits on those same demographics.
The company launched a Belgian style “tartine” that features Delicata squash, scallion, pecans, cucumber and arugula, which all sits atop scallion flavored Treeline cheese; which is made from cashews. Kathryn Arffa, the product marketing manager for Le Pain Quotidien, said she’s thrilled with the size of the flexitarians segment.
“I personally am a little surprised and thrilled by it,” said Arffa. “It’s not about cutting meat out necessarily but providing options for flexitarians. Your average consumer may eat meat regularly but opt out once in a while. That has really gone mainstream.”
She said one big consideration is not trying to mimic traditional cheese, just make it good.
“It’s about deliciousness. In my mind, I’m personally not trying to replicate cheese in this. But this was one of our most popular dishes when it was taste tested,” said Arffa, though she said the product should mimic the qualities of what is replaced. “Part of it in the mimicking part is mimicking the content of the food, like your protein or vitamin intake, that’s an important thing for food producers to keep in mind. Treeline has a good amount of protein.”
She said another big consideration was not squeezing those vegans.
“One thing I feel strongly about and Le Pain Quotidien feels strongly about is the importance of providing a vegan alternative that is not an upcharge. We’re trying not to base it on, ‘Oh you’re a vegan, you’ll pay more,’” said Arffa.
At $10.99, the Delicata Squash & Cashew Cheese Tartine is actually priced below other tartine options.
But will all this go as crazy as plant-based burgers? Maybe, now that it’s targeting all those flexitarians instead of the traditional demographic of just vegans, and getting products that hold up to non-vegan demands.
Treeline cheese CEO Justin Lambeth said it’s a marketing and quality function.
“I think the No. 1 thing holding up the category is low-quality products, they're either coconut based or oil based. There are a number of us that are doing non-oil based and a higher quality product,” said Lambeth. “Then you have to have broad appeal.”
That was the big trick for plant-based burgers—including vegans and vegetarians but making it about more than a better vegan product.
“I think the plant-based meat did two things that were really, really smart. First, they developed a fantastic product,” said Lambeth. “Then second, they targeted mainstream outlets where people would try them. I think the two big opportunities to catch up, in addition to vegans, inclusive of vegans, we have to target mainstream consumers. So the types of people who like cheddar and mozzarella, and the forms sliced or shredded.”
He said with a similar fraction of the market that plant-based burgers reached was an incredible feat, one that could be achieved by dairy alternatives, too.
“Imagine the volume you could get if you could get 1 percent of the pizza world topped with a plant-based cheese, the volume would be absolutely huge,” said Lambeth.