Veggie burgers have never shared the same reputation for flavor and satiety as their meaty opposites. The grainy, puck-shaped patties often fell short on a number of qualities which, in turn, smothered sales. For many years, the category survived on regular purchases by vegetarians and vegans.
Today a whole new class of consumers is flipping over veggie burgers as demand stretches beyond the simple desire to avoid meat. Sales of frozen meat-free burgers in the conventional channel are down 4.4% over the past year, to $130 million, according to data from Nielsen-owned SPINS.
Yet that doesn't take into account the new varieties hitting the market, which are primarily fresh, refrigerated products. Either way, they're attracting special-needs consumers, and that's driving renewed interest in product development.
“With the increase in allergies, particularly with children, and the increase in celiac disease, people are always looking for another option, something to substitute a common food item they can't eat,” said Michelle Mix, corporate dietitian for Hannaford Supermarkets.
Luckily for those consumers, veggie burgers taste better and are more filling than they once were. Nicole Lawrence, co-founder of FeelGoods Cafe, St. James, N.Y., offers more than 15 types of burgers to retail and foodservice clients, in flavor combinations like sweet potato, cheddar and spinach, or a brown rice-based eggplant, basil and sun-dried tomato.
“The flavor is there. People just need something that tastes good and leaves them satisfied,” she said. “It's a burger that's substantial and filling, not some flimsy thing.”
Not surprisingly, FeelGoods calls their creations Edgy Burgers. Lawrence notes that their buyers are looking for products that are soy-free and are truly vegetable- and grain-based.
The super-nutritious, high-protein grain quinoa has emerged as an ideal base in many revamped burger recipes. A new company, Denver-based Qrunch Foods, makes a product that lives up to its name.
“People are excited about it because it's a paradigm shift in the veggie burger category,” said co-founder Jim Adams. “We're moving away from soy and providing people with something new and different.”
Supermarket sales are improving as retailers give the veggie burgers a higher profile in their burger alternative sets. Mix believes that simply promoting the updated, adventuresome ingredient lists would be enough to capture a broader audience.
“The ingredients in and of themselves are becoming more interesting, which makes products tempting just to try,” she said.