Meat substitutes like veggie burgers, tofu and seitan have been slowly gaining in popularity in recent years.
Most shoppers who reach for such faux foods do so for health and wellness reasons. Some are strict vegetarians or vegans, avoiding meat altogether. Others are simply opting for leaner versions of the real deal — like shoppers who reach for ground turkey instead of beef, for instance.
Because mock meats are seen as a better-for-you alternative, they can be found more readily at health-focused supermarkets and at stores in specific regions of the country, retailers told SN.
“Here in the Midwest, veggie burgers, hot dogs and other meat substitutes aren't huge sellers,” said Grant Berry, meat manager for Orchard Markets, the two-store supermarket based in Spring Lake, Mich. “They might sell better in states like California and other places where there are more vegetarians.”
Orchard Markets does sell a few brands, including frozen vegetable patties made by Morningstar and Gardenburger. But Berry chooses to forgo fresher varieties that would require him to constantly restock inventory and discard expired products.
Ted Taft, managing director, Meridian Consulting, Westport, Conn., agrees that geography plays a significant role in where these products are carried. Certain types of supermarkets have a better chance of selling meat substitutes compared to others, as well, he said.
“Places like Denver and other Western markets are very high in natural product consumption and healthy eating in general, so it makes sense that people would want to buy meat substitutes more there,” noted Taft. “That also carries over to natural-channel retailers like Whole Foods and Wild Oats.”
Whole Foods sells a wide array of “un-meat” items. Tofurky meatless deli slices, Light Life Smart Dogs hot dogs and White Wave assorted tofu and seitan are just a few of the items carried there.
Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., also stocks substitutes. The chain carries Yves Veggie Cuisine Ham and numerous Morningstar SKUs, including sausage patties, sausage links, Chik patties, veggie bacon strips, mushroom burgers and veggie-style steak strips. The retailer even has its own brand of firm and extra-firm tofu, available in 14.5-ounce and 16-ounce packages, respectively.
Sales of such protein replacements are steadily increasing. During the 52 weeks that ended April 19, total sales of meat substitutes were up 2.9% to $311.2 million, according to the Nielsen Group, Chicago.
Jim Wisner, president, Wisner Marketing Group, Libertyville, Ill., believes that the ongoing health and wellness trend is and will continue to be the driving factor in this category. In particular, an increased aversion to saturated fat has some shoppers swapping out red meat for paler proteins.
“Some people are trying to eat less red meat, but they still want the taste and feel of a burger, so they're choosing meat substitutes,” he told SN. “The vegetarian market also continues to grow, so there is some sales growth due to that movement as well.”
At Orchard Markets, an increasing number of shoppers are reaching for white rather than red. Those watching their waistlines or cholesterol levels — or both — tend to buy chicken instead of steak during grilling season, said Berry. Many even ask for ground turkey as a replacement for ground beef when making burgers.
“We used to have frozen ground turkey in our freezers, but our customers have requested it so often in recent years that we've started keeping it in our fresh meat case too,” said Berry. “They're also replacing traditional bacon, sausage and hot dogs with turkey bacon, turkey sausage and turkey dogs because it's healthier.”
Jennie-O, Louis Rich and Applegate Farms have turkey franks on the market. So does Butterball, which also makes turkey bacon and turkey sausage.
Eric Anderson, co-president, Fresh Encounter, Findlay, Ohio, has witnessed a similar pattern. Turkey has gained in popularity in his chain's stores, too.
“Italian-style turkey sausage is a great substitute for pork kielbasa or bratwurst,” he said. “Ground turkey is another hot product, because it's a great source of protein and a lot leaner than beef.”
Fresh Encounters' shoppers frequently use ground turkey in traditional dishes like tacos, lasagna and meatloaf. They also incorporate Italian-spiced turkey sausage, such as the Sweet Italian variety made by Perdue, into pasta recipes, said Anderson.
While meat substitutes are slowly spilling over into the mainstream, Tofurky, Boca burgers and other vegetable- and soy-based products are still no match for the meat-and-potatoes mentality in some regions of the country, Anderson said.
“We don't currently carry any meat substitutes. We promote ourselves as the go-to guys for high-quality real meat, so it wouldn't make sense for us to carry anything fake,” he told SN. “The health and wellness trend is definitely alive and well here, but our shoppers aren't willing to give up their beloved meats — not yet, anyway.”
Tim Cummiskey, grocery manager for Highland Park Markets, Glastonbury, Conn., has the same outlook. Like Fresh Encounter, Highland Park places a lot of emphasis on its full-service meat departments.
“We would be sending mixed signals if we pushed the quality of our meat departments and then stocked imitation meat items,” he said. “It's such a big thing, it even says right on our bags, ‘Best meat in town.’”
While pretend proteins have their place, Jim Hertel, managing partner, Willard Bishop, Barrington, Ill., feels that retailers should take a close look at their markets before putting too much effort into the category. Those located in markets with high levels of disposable income stand to benefit the most.
“Meat substitutes and vegetarian products have historically had success among a relatively narrow base of consumers, maybe 10% to 20%, particularly those who are upscale,” he said.
Wisner believes that most retailers are already giving the category the attention it warrants. In the majority of markets, he said, it is best to promote meat protein substitutes once or twice a year, and a small to midsized selection is appropriate.
“Retailers seem to be doing a good job satisfying the demand that is there,” he said. “If they continue to keep an eye on sales and listen to what their shoppers want, they'll know when to step it up or when to cut back.”