On the heels of a soaring IPO, Beyond Meat is releasing a newer, “meatier” burger.
On Tuesday, the plant-based meat producer announced the latest iteration of its original patty. The new version will boast a few key differences, with an emphasis on texture and appearance to better represent the natural feel of beef.
Beyond Meat burgers will now come with “juicy marbling,” as the company puts it, to mimic white flecks of fat. This will be represented by plant-based fats like coconut oil and cocoa butter interspersed throughout the product. “[Marbling] is one of the most noticeable attributes of ground beef,” says Beyond Meat founder and CEO Ethan Brown. “And we want to make sure that we capture that for the consumer.”
In addition, burgers now quickly transition from fleshy red to barbecued brown during the cooking process. Food scientists accomplished the feat by way of apple extracts, which oxidize and change color (much like real apples) when exposed to heat. On the aroma end, the product reportedly possesses a “neutral aroma” more in line with meat.
Beyond Meat burgers are also packed with added protein–a mix of pea, mung bean, and now rice protein–to create 20 grams of plant-based protein per four-ounce patty. This change, along with the marbled fats, are meant to re-create a fibrous consistency that feels more like the real thing. The company was intent on creating a “differentiated bite,” says Brown, in which some pieces are harder to chew than others. That’s how an animal muscle is processed, and Beyond Meat, he says, wants to replicate everything, down to the small details.
“Texture is really important to me,” says Brown.”When we bite into a piece of flesh or beef, it’s like riding a bike; it’s immediately familiar to me in a way that is remarkable. And so we need to make sure that we’re delivering a texture experience that is so much much closer to protein. We’ve made strides in that direction that I’m very proud of.”
Fans will “absolutely” be able to taste the difference, notes Brown, saying he’s optimistic they will appreciate the changes. In testing trials over the past year, the majority of those surveyed preferred the new version to its predecessor.
“I don’t think anyone will think that this is something that’s wildly different,” says Brown. Still, he concedes, it’s a risky move; there are potential drawbacks to changing a recipe that’s already amassed millions of fans. Not to mention, constant tweaking isn’t simple for a company that refuses to incorporate gluten or GMOs, which competitors like the Impossible Burger rely on. (“We make our scientists’ lives very difficult,” Brown previously told Fast Company.)
Beyond Meat is dedicated to releasing newer versions, believing the product can always be more meat-like (a strategy intended to keep competitors at bay). It’s why the brand built a state-of the-art, 26,000-square foot R&D lab last year. The El Segundo, California, facility features every machine, gadget, and gizmo dedicated to solving one question: how can we mimic meat? And more importantly, how do we make it look, feel, and taste like the real thing?
“There will be people who are upset, and there will be some that will miss the earlier version,” says Brown. “We’re gonna have to bring them along to the 2.0 because we believe that it’s closer to our mission–to make it indistinguishable from its animal protein equivalent.”
Earlier this year, Beyond Meat discontinued its chicken strips offerings. Brown wasn’t satisfied with the taste, so the company retired it completely. The team felt that, armed with new technology and research, it can build a better iteration. For the time being, Beyond Meat is conducting tests and will reenter the poultry space once it feels confident in an updated product.
As for the new burger, expect some snazzier packaging. The front label will feature a red tab declaring, “NOW EVEN MEATIER.” The inclusion of the term “meatier” is curious since the meat industry took a more aggressive stance over who gets to define “meat.” Last year, for example, the state of Missouri passed a law prohibiting food companies from labeling themselves as “meat” or using terms like “sausage” if products are not from harvested livestock or poultry. (Vegan companies like Tofurky quickly took action.)
Brown says Beyond Meat “plays that as carefully as we can,” yet doesn’t feel the need to bow to industry pressure. The founder feels strongly his company has every right to label its products meat. “If we are providing at a very high level the core composition of meat, we should be able to call it that,” he stresses. “And if it’s presented in the architecture of meat, gets the same satiated experience of meat, then I think consumers will be comfortable with us doing that.”
A sizzling market
When Beyond Meat debuted on the Nasdaq in early May, the stock quickly soared. By the end of its first day of trading, the price more than doubled—closing at $65.75 after being set at $25. That makes it the biggest IPO pop for a company with a market cap larger than $200 million that Wall Street has seen since 2000.
The trend continued through its first quarter, in which the food company surpassed analysts’ expectations. Revenue increased by 215% year-over-year in the first quarter of 2019 to $40.2 million, and it’s predicted its revenue will more than double in 2019.
Currently, Beyond Meat is found in more than 35,000 restaurants, grocery stores, universities, hotels, and stadiums. It also diversifying its product portfolio by launching new products like fake ground beef (which was quickly grabbed by Del Taco). But in the wake of its ongoing success, a number of competitors have joined the market: Nestle, the world’s largest food company, is launching its own meat-like plant burger; Tyson Foods, Inc., which recently ended its investment in Beyond Meat, is set to develop a line of vegan products; meanwhile, Impossible Foods continues to onboard new chain partners like Burger King and Little Caesars.
It’s a booming industry. Over $2 billion has been invested in plant-based meat in the past decade, with more than half of that occurring in 2017 and 2018. And consumers are biting: Plant-based meat sales growth is now outpacing that of traditional meat. A recent report found that sales of plant-based meat grew 23%, while regular meat grew only 2% in the past 12 months. Beyond Meat’s sales had grown 70%.
Analysts have raised concerns as to whether these companies, quickly amassing more retailers and restaurant chains, can meet production needs. Impossible Foods produces 500,000 pounds of its Impossible Burgers per month to serve more than 5,000 restaurants. Beyond Meat, meanwhile, saw sales increase by 70% and sold 50 million burgers since its 2016 debut. The company tripled its production capacity in 2018.
Brown says Beyond Meat invested an “enormous” amount of resources in both personnel and building out production capabilities. Granted, he’s forthcoming that there will be isolated pockets of unexpected shortages, as expected during supply chain transitions. Some product lines that receive less attention, such as its frozen beef products, might see several constraints.
But he’s determined that Beyond Meat can increase demand for its flagship products, namely fresh patties, beef and sausage.
“We have really invested in making sure that we’re not gonna get caught off guard,” says Brown. “We can’t produce an infinite amount, but in terms of near-term demand, we feel comfortable that we can satisfy.”
Still working on the holy grail: vegan steak
With the IPO came greater scrutiny into Beyond Meat’s production methods. On Friday, The New Republic highlighted the fact that the company’s plant-based patties are actually made by two separate beef manufacturers, both of which do not publicly advertise their partnership with the brand. Not much, it could be said, is known about how Beyond Meat actually makes its beloved burgers.
To that end, Brown responds that he’s fully committed to providing customers with more transparency around production methods. The company produces the core proteins, lipids, and flavor profiles internally, then ships it out to be formed into patties. The outside manufacturers reportedly use production lines and rooms for the Beyond Meat inventory that are separate from those they use for their meat products.
In fact, he claims, “people can literally come to our facility without calling.” (That is, provided they sign an NDA). “They’re more than welcome to come look at what we do because I’m very proud of it. It’s very clean.”
Increased media attention and industry analysis, specifically in regard to Beyond Meat’s positioning against competitors, doesn’t seem to phase Brown. By launching nearly a decade ago, it’s evolved into one of the few household names in the space. The company operates across the U.S. and Canada and is ramping up efforts in Europe. Next, it will expand into Asia.
“We have a first-mover advantage, and we plan to stretch that lead,” says Brown.
Brown also sounds mildly skeptical of large companies and conglomerates, already juggling multiple SKUs and food categories, attempting to crack the faux-meat code. Adjusting supply chains and investing in substantial R&D, he notes, is likely more challenging than they anticipate.
“We focus on one thing,” stresses Brown. “I feel very comfortable in our ability to keep focused on what we do and invest in the brand.”
That focus still includes the holy grail of the meat industry: steak. Brown has long sought to veganize the dining staple, and his team of food scientists are still engaged in the project. (“No timeline, but they’re working on it.”) At the same time, he suggests the company is researching so many different animal proteins that he himself isn’t quite sure what’s on the horizon. Brown does know, however, that many more products are in the pipeline.
“It’s funny: the R&D team does things that they don’t even share sometimes,” he muses. “I heard a rumor that they were testing one of their moonshot products. I can’t say which one, but it sounds pretty good. I’m gonna go back there and try to get some answers.”