A persistent CEO, a meat buyer, and a gamble—how fake meat finally made it to beef aisle

Making meat.
Making meat.
Image: Reuters/Beck Diefenbach
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It sounds mundane, serving up burgers in Pleasanton, California—a mid-sized town just outside San Francisco. But something momentous recently happened there, and it stands to change how people think about food.

Ethan Brown was at the headquarters of Safeway, the multi-billion dollar grocery chain, meeting with a group of corporate meat buyers. Brown had just finished cooking them a sample plate of burgers, made not from beef or pork or lamb or any other animal, but from plants.

When it comes to what supermarket customers see in the grocery meat section, these executives were among the most influential in the US. Brown, the CEO of Beyond Meat, had been wooing them for some time, hoping for approval to get his plant-based, faux meat patties placed in Safeway stores alongside sirloin steaks and ground beef. Brown remembers their faces, filled with skepticism as they reached for the sandwiches.

“[One] guy takes one bite, throws it in the trash, and says, ‘I’m in,’ ” Brown recalls.

Those two words—’I’m in’—marked one of the biggest moments in the history of Brown’s company, founded in 2009 to create meat-like products derived from the protein in peas and soybeans. For the first time, a plant-based burger, packaged as two fresh burger patties, would be displayed alongside meat in a mainstream supermarket chain, in more than 280 Safeway locations in northern California, northern Nevada and Hawaii.

For the Los Angeles-based company, getting its product in grocery meat cases will vastly expand its potential market. But slipping a meat imitator into the meat section goes beyond a single company—it marks an inflection point for a fast-growing new food industry that wants to deliver the protein-rich foods consumers want and need without involving a live animal. Not long ago, the prospect of infiltrating the meat section was a wild dream for companies working on plant- and lab-based meats. In breaking that barrier, Beyond Meat has opened the window for massive disruption of the traditional meat industry.

No more black bean burgers

Until relatively recently, consumers looking for beef alternatives had to settle for products such as black bean and mushroom burgers that were usually relegated to the freezer section of the grocery store. One of the oldest such products, Quorn, which is made from a mushroom-like fungi called mycoprotein, can only be found in the frozen or chilled food aisles, never among fresh animal meat. But the new set of companies are offering higher-tech alternatives that look, feel, and taste more like meat—and they are packaged and sold in the same way as fresh meats.

It will take time for these new plant-based burgers and meats to hit the mainstream. But the consensus among the scientists and CEOs behind them is that they cannot succeed if they are relegated to the “specialty food'”sections of the grocery store. Consumers need to associate them with the real thing.

Sticking non-meat products alongside traditional meat, of course, is a gamble. It risks confusing consumers, who shop sections of the supermarket with certain expectations. It also threatens to hurt sales. There’s a finite amount of space in any given grocery store, and supermarket managers feel pressure day-in-day-out to make as much money as possible, selling products that have already proven to sell.

Brown spent months unsuccessfully serving up his plant-based burgers to group after group of leading grocery executives around the country. He’s passionate in his pitch, drawing inspiration from summers spent in rural Maryland’s “chicken country,” along the Pennsylvania border, where his family helped run a small farm. It was there that he first began to think about meat production, and how a switch to more plant-based diet could benefit human health and the planet. Those many taste tests often went well—the executives liked the taste and texture of his burgers, Brown said. He and his team walked out of those initial meetings feeling so confident they once exchanged high-fives in the parking lot.

But a few days later, he would get rejection notices. Supermarket meat buyers just didn’t think displaying a plant-based product in the meat case would entice shoppers.

Finally, one decided to take a shot.

Tom Rich is a vice president at Whole Foods Market, where he oversees the company’s 32 stores in the Rocky Mountain region. Early last year, Rich got an email from his boss, the global meat coordinator at Whole Foods, inviting regional buyers to meet with Brown to see and taste his Beyond Meat burger. Rich, a vegetarian, was the only one who responded. He was cautiously optimistic about how the Beyond Meat burger might play in the Boulder, Colorado, Whole Foods store.

Arriving at the store in Boulder, Brown prepared and cooked about six patties. Rich took a bite.

“I just knew at that moment it was something that had to happen,” Rich recalls.

The burgers sell out

The first shipment of Beyond Meat burger—packages of two quarter-pounder plant-based patties—was put on display alongside fresh meat products at the Boulder Whole Foods store on a Thursday in May 2016. By 6pm every package was sold. Rich decided to expand the product to other locations in the then-36 store region, putting it in meat cases as Beyond Meat gained the ability scale production. ”I don’t think [Brown] was prepared for the volume at which we were selling,” Rich says.

It didn’t take long for Whole Foods leadership to notice the popularity of the product. The companies won’t reveal sales volume, but it was enough to catch the attention of company executives overseeing the Whole Foods operations in the mid-Atlantic region, about twice the size of the company’s Rocky Mountain region. That rapid expansion put Beyond Meat’s operation into hyperdrive, and it was a way to show with solid sales data that the product could sell in the context of the meat case—all thanks to one person, Brown said.

“That decision by Tom Rich really made the difference,” he said. In May 2017, Beyond Meat inked the deal with Safeway that put the faux-meat burger in even more meat cases—a first foray into a mainstream market retail operation.

“I think [Beyond Meat] are opening the door for inviting consumers to think about food in an entirely different way,” said longtime grocery analyst Phil Lempert, who calls himself the Supermarket Guru.

That shift in what consumers will grow to expect as they roll their shopping carts by the meat section will help pave the way for other plant-based food companies, and eventually the lab-made meat products of the future. For companies such as Memphis Meats, Mosa Meat, and Super Meat, the Whole Foods experience may open a new outlet.

“The whole non-meat industry, I think it’s going to continue to grow,” says Rich of Whole Foods. “I want to serve our customers and I want to give them what they’re looking for. I want our customers to be able to buy vegetarian meat sliced fresh.”