Plant-Based Jerky: A Multibillion Dollar Industry?

Cleveland — While the meat snack sector shows no signs of slowing (see Candy & Snack TODAY September/October 2019), the burgeoning plant-based jerky sector’s ascent certainly warrants attention. 

Industry experts expect plant-based jerky to be a multibillion-dollar market in the not-so-distant future. 

“If we as producers deliver flavor, texture and a satisfying eating experience the demographics will broaden well beyond today’s young consumers, much like other alternative meat products that appeal to all ages,” says Rody Hawkins, president and CEO of Improved Nature, LLC. “When that happens, everything will fall into place. In short, plant-based jerky could become a multibillion market within the next few years.”

Indeed, says Courtney Boyd Myers, founder and CEO of Akua, which makes kelp jerky. She cites a recent CNBC report stating the alternative-meat market could reach $140 billion within the next decade, capturing about 10 percent of the $1.4 trillion global meat category. She is confident plant-based jerky will be a big part of that growth.

Zak Weston, industry analyst at the Good Foods Institute, predicts at least two major food companies will be rolling out products in the sector during the next few years. 

“The plant-based revolution currently disrupting the fresh meat market is likely to reverberate across a broader range of categories in the future,” confirms Tom Vierhile, vice-president of strategic insights for Innova Market Insights, adding: “That includes jerky.” 

Although the sector represents just a small slice of the overall jerky market, the onslaught of plant-based items featuring ingredients such as soy, seitan, mushrooms, kelp and coconut, and flavored much the same as their meat-based counterparts — hickory smoked, barbecue, chipotle, mesquite and teriyaki — are not only appealing to vegetarians and vegans but also a growing number of conscious omnivores known as “flexitarians.”

The result, according to SPINS LLC data, is a near 60 percent jump in sales since 2017, putting the segment at $3.9 million versus 14 percent growth for meat-based jerky, a $1.7 billion segment.

Populated by about a dozen less-than-a-decade-old companies each generating $100,000 to $300,000 in annual sales, the sector has a bright future, says Weston. “The plant-based trend in general, with products such as plant-based meats and milk, shows staying power and a lot of potential for growth,” he tells Candy & Snack TODAY.

Vierhile agrees, adding words matter when it comes to marketing meatless offerings. “According to our 2019 global survey, consumers believe a product claiming to be plant-based tastes better than a product claiming to be vegan or vegetarian,” Vierhile says. “Also, they see plant-based as healthier and more affordable than vegan and vegetarian.” 

Changing Demographics

As the product offerings in the segment continue to grow, the target audience is expanding as well. Ed Sofsky, sales director and co-founder of 18-year-old Primal Spirit Foods, Inc., producer of soy/seitan-based jerky, points out: “In the beginning, our primary target was strict vegetarians. Now, with the fast-food world and mainstream grocery stores selling plant-based meat alternatives, it’s clear these items are no longer marketed only to vegans and vegetarians, who are still about 80 percent of our business, but also to flexitarians, who simply wish to add healthier alternatives to their everyday diets.”

Max Buckner, director of sales at Foreal Foods, which makes coconut jerky, says consumers seeking out the company’s products are comprised of more vegetarians and flexitarians than vegans. 

Shannon Lehotsky, marketing manager at Pan’s Mushroom Jerky, concurs. “Flexitarians represent a huge opportunity for us,” she says. “Consumer attitudes, in general, are changing when it comes to lifestyle and diet choices and reducing meat consumption with alternatives such as plant-based jerky is a lot more manageable than a strict vegan lifestyle.”

According to consumer research, the sector is currently being driven by a younger, health-conscious demographic.

“Younger consumers are more likely to pursue vegan or vegetarian lifestyles and diets, so it follows that these groups gravitate toward plant-based jerky,” says Vierhile.

Buckner adds that this consumer group also tends to be more sustainably minded and socially conscious. “They love the fact that we are working to reduce food waste by using upcycled coconut meat,” he points out, adding that plant-based jerky is nutrient dense, making it popular among athletes and outdoor enthusiasts.

As market growth continues, companies are seeking feedback from friends, Kickstarter backers and consumers at farmers markets and street fairs. 

“We’ve done countless rounds of tastings with friends and friends of friends to determine what works and what doesn’t,” says Boyd Myers. 

“We reach out to our most loyal customers and Kickstarter backers for opinions on new recipes and products,” adds Buckner. 

The feedback that perhaps matters most comes from retailers as meatless jerky matures beyond health food stores and gains shelf space across mainstream outlets. Exactly where to merchandise the product in these stores appears to be a subject for debate. 

“Since plant-based jerky is a new sector, a lot of retailers are still trying to figure out where to place us,” Buckner tells Candy & Snack TODAY. “We often land in the traditional jerky set, though we feel more at home in functional snack and grab ’n go sets and interesting secondary locations, such as salad bars.”

Many retailers are realizing they need to offer more plant-based options within their traditional sets, says Lehotsky. “While placing plant-based jerky alongside traditional jerky is smart, so is placement next to such items as chickpea snacks and coconut chips.”

Weston, however, says plant-based options within traditional sets do best, citing plant-based milk as an example. Before gaining consistent placement in dairy cases, sales lagged, he says. “Now these products account for 13 percent of overall milk sales.” 

A different perspective is served up by Hawkins, whose company produces plant-based protein nuggets, tenders and filets and recently developed a pair of plant-based jerky items with meat snack company Perky Jerky, LLC.

“As we see more plant-based snacks introduced, more retailers will provide sections devoted to these products,” Hawkins predicts. “That’s important because consumers need to know where to look for these products.” 

There also needs to be a greater acceptance by mass merchandisers and convenience stores, says Weston. When that happens, he says, sales could really take off.  C&ST