The fake chicken wars have begun

Chicken is America’s favorite meat. The average citizen chows down on 54.6 pounds of it a year. And yet, to date, plant-based meat startups have mostly invested in duplicating beef and pork. The strategy makes some sense—chicken is widely regarded as healthier than red meat, and it has a fraction of the environmental impact. Through these lenses, chicken didn’t need a plant makeover.

But in the last two years, the plant-based chicken industry has been heating up. And nowhere is that more clear than Beyond Meat’s new product, Beyond Chicken Tenders. The new product isn’t headed to grocery stores, but will go on sale at nearly 400 restaurants including Sarpino’s Pizza, Bad Mutha Clucka, and Jailbird this week, along with cafeterias and stadiums in the future. Featuring 14g of protein and 40{8a924211cc822977802140fcd9ee67aa8e3c0868cac8d22acbf0be98ed6534bd} less saturated fat than the average tender, the product is a signpost for the industry: Plant chicken is having a moment.

Beyond Meat has plenty of company, as plant-based chicken is projected to be a roughly $1 billion industry by 2027. From the startup Daring, to Gen Z’s beloved Nuggs, to Lightlife’s (makers of the most popular plant-based hot dogs) new tenders and filets, to Kellogg’s Incogmeato Chik’n (launched in 2021), to the most recent investments of food giant Nestlé, the industry is trying to sell generations of Americans who grew up on chicken nuggets and tenders a plant-based option.

Despite the sudden interest, Beyond Meat has a long, tenuous relationship with poultry. Chicken was actually the company’s very first product, sold in precut strips complete with grill lines to mimic a sliced chicken breast. The product took years to develop, in conjunction with the University of Minnesota, using extrusion and pressure forming (much like how cereals and snack puffs are made) to squish plant proteins into a texture that mimicked chicken. The New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman declared the product “finally, [a] fake chicken worth eating” in 2012.

[Photo: Beyond Meat]

But was it?

I still remember grabbing a package of Beyond Chicken off the freezer shelf after cutting meat out of my diet for the first time. It was such a relief—I can still eat chicken! But while the Beyond Chicken strips looked convincing on a plate, they were rubbery, and had all sorts of off flavors. I bought them one or two times before finally admitting that tofu just tasted better.

Ethan Brown, founder and CEO of Beyond Meat, says the chicken strips were selling fine. But when the company started making its beef, it had to reprioritize its products.

“We were getting such traction with the Beyond Burger and our beef lines, we literally had a capacity issue,” he says. Brown, who has always been open about the shortcomings of Beyond products in our interviews, insists that dumping Beyond Chicken wasn’t a quality issue. But he does suggest that it was something of a strategic error for the company to pursue chicken first when the world wasn’t completely primed for it yet, because much of Beyond Meat’s sales pitch has been that it’s a healthier alternative to animal meat.

“Consumers will first pull away from beef when coming off animal protein,” says Brown. “People come off beef, then off poultry. I think the decision to go off poultry is a lifestyle decision, but it’s not one where you go the doctor and they say, ‘You have to stop eating chicken!’”

With beef and pork products in place, Beyond Meat has steered back toward chicken. You may remember that the company has tested an exclusive chicken tender with KFC, and having tasted it, the product is delicious; it seems 100 years more advanced than Beyond’s original chicken strips. They shred in your mouth with all those secret herbs and spices; I bet they would fool most people.

But Brown minimizes that KFC partnership for the time being, only because it hasn’t seen wide release yet (but the KFC chicken is still coming, promises Beyond Meat). That means the true second chapter is these new Beyond Chicken Tenders. The company sent a couple batches to my home to try (fried up with dipping sauces, and on sandwiches).

[Photo: Beyond Meat]

My first impression is that they don’t come close to what I’d expected after trying the KFC tenders. These are long logs, almost like tapered mozzarella sticks rather than fried filets, coated in breadcrumbs rather than having that hand battered feel. You bite in, and it tastes a lot like chicken, but they don’t shred like a chicken finger, either. The texture is mostly uniform.

I realize that my expectations are wrong, like when you take a sip of Coke expecting it to be tea, and it tastes like poison for a second before your brain adjusts. While the product is called a “tender,” it’s not meant to be a whole muscle piece of protein like a true tender is. It’s actually made more like a ground-up-and-fried nugget, or one of those cheap chicken patty sandwiches you might remember from grade school lunch. This product is produced through pressure and extrusion, much like the original Beyond Chicken was.

And when I think of it through that “it’s actually a long nugget” lens, I’m a whole lot happier with the new tender. Laid three-wide on a brioche slider, with spicy mayo and a pickle to mimic something like the Popeyes Spicy Chicken Sandwich, they’re delicious—and yes, a product I’d pay for. (It’s still no Popeye’s, but I scarf it and wish I had another.)

However, what I don’t understand is why this particular product exists when Beyond Meat has proven it can create a more convincing overall piece of chicken for KFC. Brown explains it’s not a matter of capabilities, but a matter of cost. And Beyond Chicken Tenders have been designed to be produced cheaply—almost like how Apple sells an iPhone Pro starting at $1,000 but also an iPhone SE starting at $400.

As Brown explains, perfectly recreated whole muscle plant chicken, like the Beyond Chicken that debuted for KFC, is a north star for the company. But to be sold everywhere, Beyond Meat can’t only prioritize duplicating chicken breast perfectly. It also has to compete with all the real chicken that’s processed for bargain bin pricing, like we see in machine-formed patties and nuggets. And in those instances, duplicating a machine-formed texture is a cheaper option.

Indeed, price parity has been difficult for Beyond Meat and Impossible, each of which sells plant beef that costs more than beef sourced from cows. And Brown views these new tenders, not as the biggest money maker for Beyond Meat or a technical showcase of its capabilities, but as a way to penetrate new markets and keep building the brand anywhere and everywhere it can fit.

“That part of our business is important,” says Brown. “When you go back to stadiums and arenas, and you can go to these stands and you can get this product, that’s important…just [for] exposure.”

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