Over the last few years, meatless meat has gone mainstream, in large part due to the popularity of plant-based burgers from Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods that taste more like beef than the veggie burgers of the past.
Now, plant-based chicken is getting its turn in the spotlight. Starting January 10, Beyond Fried Chicken will be available at KFC’s nearly 4,000 US locations, the first — and biggest —nationwide rollout of plant-based poultry at a major chicken chain. It will be served as part of a combo meal, or in six- or 12-piece orders. (KFC says the six-piece order will start at $6.99 but may vary by location. For comparison, an eight-piece order of Chick-fil-A chicken nuggets cost $8.39 at a location near me in Maryland.)
Beyond Meat already has a plant-based chicken tender available in thousands of grocery stores and restaurants, but this product is slightly different and, to my mind (and taste buds), a big improvement. It might even be the best plant-based chicken product on the market.
Beyond Fried Chicken will be available for a “limited time only, while supplies last.” But Kevin Hochman, CEO of KFC, says he’s optimistic it will be a sustainable success.
“We expect it’ll sell out,” he said. “Based on the speed of that sell-out and customer reaction, that’ll determine what our plans will be next. But our intent isn’t to be one and done.” KFC’s parent company, Yum! Brands, which also owns Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, has entered into an agreement with Beyond Meat to launch more products, including a plant-based carne asada at Taco Bell.
The partnership is a sign of the fast food sector’s continued interest in plant-based meat alternatives despite several short-lived trials, like Dunkin’ pulling its Beyond sausage from thousands of locations, and Little Caesar’s failed trial of Impossible sausage (though the chain is now experimenting with meat-free pepperoni).
Hochman says he isn’t worried. “Will there be blips when there’s an onset of a pandemic? Of course,” he said. “We do think that ultimately this idea of more and more plant-based protein being consumed is a fait accompli. It’s going to happen, it’s really about when.”
The KFC launch comes at a time when Beyond Meat needs some good news. Amid supply chain issues, revenue shortfalls, and increased competition in the plant-based protein category, the meat-free darling has struggled on the stock market: Its stock price fell 38 percent in the fourth quarter of 2020, from $105 to $65.
Last year wasn’t so good to other plant-based meat giants, like Maple Leaf Foods and Morningstar, either. Both companies fell short of earnings goals amid signs that the rapid growth the plant-based sector experienced in recent years is slowing down. Impossible Foods has experienced a huge spike in sales during the pandemic, reporting 85 percent growth in retail year over year, though much of that spike can be attributed to the fact that, pre-pandemic, Impossible’s retail footprint was tiny.
Beyond Meat’s KFC partnership, as well as Chipotle’s announcement this week that it’s trialing an in-house veggie chorizo nationwide, will be important tests for the plant-based food industry as a whole. It remains to be seen if it can mature from a curiosity to a sector that can actually compete in a meat market still dominated by the real thing.
But how does Beyond Fried Chicken actually taste?
I first tried Beyond Meat’s chicken tenders last summer when the company launched the product in a few hundred restaurants. I thought it was good, but not great — something I’d happily eat again (and have), but it didn’t mark the same leap in quality that its burgers showed compared to traditional vegetarian offerings.
Beyond Fried Chicken is a different story. The breading is designed to resemble what’s used in KFC’s conventional fried chicken, and features more flavor and crunch than Beyond’s retail product. But the biggest improvement is in the faux chicken itself.
Most plant-based meat, including Beyond’s retail tenders, is made with “chop and form” technology, meaning food producers take a lot of ground-up plant protein, form it into a nugget or tender, and bread and fry it. But Beyond Fried Chicken is made using “whole muscle” technology meant to better imitate whole-muscle cuts of meat, like a chicken breast or a ribeye steak. That means its texture is notably firmer.
“We began the company with plant-based chicken over a decade ago, so we’ve had in our DNA this notion of creating that muscle structure that’s unique,” Ethan Brown, CEO of Beyond Meat, said. But it’s taken time to make a plant-based chicken that doesn’t just taste but also feels like chicken from animals. KFC’s Hochman thinks they’ve nailed it with the Beyond Fried Chicken.
But for Beyond Fried Chicken to take off, the over 90 percent of Americans who regularly eat meat also have to agree — not just vegans like myself. So I took a six-piece box of Beyond Fried Chicken over to a (non-vegan) neighbor’s house to get their thoughts. The results were mixed.
“Having not ever had a plant-based meat product before, it’s good, but it doesn’t taste like a chicken nugget,” my neighbor Lynn Rose told me. “If I was personally invested in staying away from meat products, this would be a good product; it’s something I’d order and be satisfied at a fast food restaurant. But it’s a very different taste than any kind of meat.”
Her 24-year-old son, Braeden, disagreed: “I really love the texture of it. It’s more sturdy and tastes more like meat. The taste is good. I’m really enjoying these. This is probably one of the better plant-based proteins I’ve had.”
Lynn’s husband, Kevin, came down to try the last one. “The breading’s good,” he said. “It has a chicken breast texture to it. It’s pretty dense. Eating this without the breading, though, it doesn’t really taste a lot like chicken.”
That still might be enough. White-meat chicken by itself is fairly bland — the breading, spicing, and oil impart much of a KFC chicken product’s flavor. And the plant-based meat industry is still quite young. Beyond Meat launched in 2009, and it’ll take more research and development to replicate the flavor of chicken and other meats as closely as possible.
A great deal is at stake with these efforts. Animal agriculture accounts for about 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and the meat industry subjects tens of billions of animals to cruel factory farm conditions each year. But despite growing awareness of those facts, global meat consumption is on the rise, and moral suasion alone is unlikely to change that. Better, more realistic plant-based products that appeal to meat eaters could help, and over the last few years there’s been a rush of new startups trying to up the ante on plant-based meat — especially meat-free chicken.
The race for a better plant-based chicken is accelerating
Until last year, the plant-based meat market mostly consisted of beef and sausage alternatives, with just a few chicken products — many mediocre, and a few pretty good. Then last summer, Beyond Meat launched a chicken tender product, and a few months later, so did Impossible Foods. Both were fine, but didn’t represent a big step up in quality the way their burgers did for faux beef.
In recent years, a number of new startups focused entirely on plant-based poultry have emerged to fill that void.
One of those new entrants is Rebellyous Foods, based in Seattle. Its vegan chicken is available in a few hundred grocery stores, and the company is intent on making its products cost-competitive with the real thing. NUGGS, a startup with marketing catered to the extremely online Gen Z set, has products sold in Walmart, as are chicken products from LA-based startup Daring Foods.
Gardein, a company that’s been around since 2003, recently started selling a new filet product — essentially a big, breaded, faux chicken patty. And retailers like Target, Whole Foods, Wegman’s, and Kroger have launched their own vegetarian chicken products in recent years.
“It’s a third wave, if you will,” says Zak Weston, food service and supply chain manager of the Good Food Institute, a group that advocates for meat and dairy alternatives. “There were burgers, then sausages, and now chicken.”
How the pandemic has scrambled plant-based retail
From 2019 to 2020, total plant-based meat sales rose a whopping 45 percent, which was twice as fast as conventional meat. But that growth came from a very low baseline — plant-based meat still makes up less than 1 percent of the total US meat market.
As data from market research firm IRI shows, over the last year that growth began to reverse. In November 2021, sales of refrigerated plant-based meat alternatives dropped 6.6 percent compared to November 2020.
Anne-Marie Roerink, food industry analyst and president of market research and consulting firm 210 Analytics, analyzed the IRI data, and told me over email that this deceleration can be attributed in part to the pandemic.
As many restaurants remained shuttered in 2021, she said, “a lot of the food service demand moved to retail for a substantial part of the year.” As a result, “more stores started carrying refrigerated plant-based alternatives and/or added more items to the case,” Roerink told me. Without a lot of new product launches or new distribution — and with vaccinated customers returning to restaurants and fast food franchises — maintaining the rapid growth of 2020 and early 2021 was unrealistic.
However, she says brands are doing all the right things to drive sales: bringing down prices, increasing promotions, and making improvements to taste and texture. The question is whether that’s enough to make plant-based protein a serious contender in the meat aisle — and in fast food franchises.