Plant Based World Expo: “This Is Here to Stay, and Keep Growing”

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New York City, NY–The Plant Based World Conference & Expo (PBWCE) was packed—at times, attendees couldn’t make it through the aisles.

Plant-based meat was, to no one’s surprise, a huge segment, and it went beyond Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. Maika, Abbott’s Butcher, and LightLife were among the brands offering up their products for judgement—and, according to the crowds around their booths, that judgement was favorable. Those looking for bacon instead of burgers found it at Pig Out Pigless Bacon’s booth.

Jerky, one of our Expo West trends, was trending here, too, and there were options. Vegetarian Plus had a vegan jerky; Pan’s Mushroom Jerky had, as the name implies, a mushroom jerky; and if neither of those grabbed you, how about coconut jerky from Foreal Foods?

Plant-based cheeses were abundant, too: Miyoko’s Kitchen, which I fought my way up to after my coworker, Kurtcia Collazo, admitted to elbowing her way up to the counter for a shot at their beloved products (verdict: absolutely worth it); Pleese, another plant-based cheese company holding their own; and Good Planet, which deserves a special shoutout for serving up an absolutely delicious grilled cheese that was absolutely vegan.

Nothing in the natural arena would be complete without CBD, so of course, PBWCE had some. CBD Thera, Curaleaf, and Rawkarma all offered up their supplements to the masses, and were well received. That said, CBD booths didn’t garner quite the crowds that the plant-based meat and cheese booths did. Attendees seemed to be there for one reason, and that reason was to eat plants.

That very much included plant-based desserts: Nadamoo was passing out ice cream cups as quickly as staffers could fill them, and the treat easily rivaled dairy ice cream in terms of taste and texture. Fat Badger was there, handing out cookies. (WholeFoods consensus: A great name and really, really great cookies, across all flavors.) Abe’s Muffins was there, and was undeniably delicious.

There were beverages aplenty: Goldthread was showcasing tonics that were thoroughly refreshing (WholeFoods staff opinion: Try the Green Minerals, which, as the booth staffers told us, win everybody over. Personal opinion: Lavender Bliss and Honey Rose are also worth a try, and maybe a second try, too.) Remedy Organics was also present, and I didn’t once see those staffers sitting idle: The booth was swarmed.

Of course, there were the unexpected companies. How about The Jackfruit Company, handing out samples of tex-mex jackfruit tacos? Or Asarasi, showcasing organic water sourced from trees? Reprise, a company that makes plant-based athletic wear, was also in attendance. Yondu was there, offering samples of radishes cooked with their vegetable essence Umami Seasoning—fermented soybeans blended with concentrated vegetable broth—marking the first time I’ve ever enjoyed a radish (as the chef told me: if you can win people over to liking radishes, it must be good.).

Other companies worth looking out for, according to my coworkers: Good Catch, a vegan seafood company; Jada Spices, which makes chicken salt (that contains no chicken); and The Worthy Company, creators of the superfood blendie bowl, which WholeFoods publisher Heather Wainer declared the most innovative product at the show.

 

Education

“This is not a fad, this is here to stay, and keep growing,” said Beena Goldenberg, CEO of Hain Celestial Canada, and her opinion was echoed across the educational panels. According to Julie Emmett, the senior director of retail partnerships at the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA), 6% of the U.S. population is vegetarian, one-third is flexitarian, and around 50% are omnivores. Purchases are driven by taste first, followed by health, then sustainability, then animal health. She noted that baby boomers tend more towards the health arena, whereas millennials look for more sustainability, but that those are far from strict delineations.

Caroline Bushnell, associate director of corporate engagement at The Good Food Institute, noted that the plant-based shopper spends 60% more per basket than the average shopper: “This is a customer you want,” she stressed. More than that, she adds, ease of accessibility is key: If you put almond milk in the middle of the store, no one will be able to find it. Emmett agreed, adding that signage is critical: “If products are hard to find, no one but vegans will go looking for them.” Imagine how much growth you could see by visibly calling out products, using the front-of-store cooler to display them, and merchandising products with their animal-based counterparts?

And yes, there still is plenty of growth to be had. According to experts, this trend has barely caught on, let alone taken off. Even plant-based milk—the forefront of the plant-based movement—is only at around 15% penetration, according to Sandeep Patel, CFO of Califia Farms. “When you think about how ubiquitous dairy is, how much it’s used in, that’s not much at all,” he said. Mike Messersmith, GM of the US branch of Oatly, agreed that plant-based milk hasn’t even hit acceleration yet, let alone the rest of the plant-based market. He’s personally looking forward to the future: Young people, he notes, are more likely than their parents to move away from animal products—and as they grow up and start their own families, they’ll be raising children the same way.

To help your store’s growth, Ann Beaty, director of Kroger Merchandise Consulting with 84.51, and Jessica Hochman, senior manager of natural insights & innovation research at SPINS and former employee of Whole Foods Market, both emphasized the necessity of training. If that training involves health programs intended to get your employees eating healthier, all the better—they’ll know what they’re talking about and how to sell it.

In terms of what you stock, Tim Miller, senior grocery category manager at Earth Fare, says, “The consumer helps us decide what’s going to be on the shelves”—what do your customers want? Ask them, and stock that. To get you started, though, here’s what some experts want to see:  Emmett says that “sauces and dips are ripe for growth”—why, as she asks, would anyone dip their plant-based foods in a sauce that isn’t equally healthy? Beaty hopes to see more ready-to-eat meals, more grab’n’go, in the plant-based arena, so that people without the time to cook can get into plant-based. Bushnell is looking for more plant-based seafood alternatives—meat alternatives, she notes, are huge, but seafood is limited in availability. These are great recommendations for any manufacturers out there, but also for retailers: Seek out sauces from companies like Good Foods, all plant-based; if you’ve got a hot bar or sell sandwiches, gear them towards the plant-based community; stock foods from Sophie’s Kitchen and Good Catch to appeal to the fish-lovers in your customer base.

Derek Sarno, author of Wicked Healthy and chef & director of plant-based innovation at Tesco, offered this final advice: “Don’t tell; cook.” Don’t tell people plant-based food tastes good; cook it for them. When people eat something delicious, they want more—and that will go farther than any discussion of health or animal cruelty.

 

Final Word

Keep an eye on local laws. Martin Kruger, COO of Follow Your Heart, said “The only thing that can get in our way is legislation, lobbyists.” Michelle Simon, executive director of PBFA, discussed the topic in-depth, noting that the milk lobby is trying to force FDA to enforce a dairy-based definition of milk. While that hasn’t gone anywhere, there’s a range of labeling laws making an unfortunate amount of progress on the state level. Missouri passed a bill regarding meat alternative labeling; North Carolina and Maryland passed bills regarding dairy alternative labeling, but those laws won’t kick in unless several other states sign similar bills; Arkansas has banned the use of “rice” in non-rice foods, such as cauliflower rice. Contact your congressmen, and make it clear that these kinds of laws will hurt your business, and to reassure them that no, customers aren’t under the impression that Beyond Meat is real beef or that almond milk is dairy milk—they’re just looking for options.

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