Kroger, the largest grocery store chain in the U.S., announced that its own plant-based "beef" burger will be on the shelves of its nearly 2,800 stores this fall. The announcement at the Good Food Institute Conference in San Francisco is a significant indication that plant-based burgers have moved from novelty to commodity, from new tech to grocery staple.
What was once a crusade led by startup and soaring IPO Beyond Meat is now a must-do product category, offered or announced by food giants ranging from Tyson's hybrid Raised & Rooted, Nestle's Sweet Earth, , and now Kroger's Simple Truth house brand, which it says is the largest natural foods brand in the US.
"It's really the trust of the Simple Truth brand that's going to cut through," says Gil Phipps, vice president of branding and marketing at Kroger. "A lot of the success of the Simple Truth brand has been making quality, natural foods accessible and affordable." Affordability s a key point: Pricing for the Kroger plant burger isn't announced yet, but Phipps emphatically says that it will be well under the Beyond Burger, which runs $6 to $7 for two patties at retail, and presumably below the Impossible Burger which adds a substantial dollar to the cost of a.
Even at a stout premium, plant-based burgers are the hottest quick-serve restaurant trend of 2019. Through the first 8 months of the year, 228 million of them were ordered at US quick serve restaurants, according to NPD research. That reflects a 10% growth rate at time when the beef burger sector was flat, though nearly 30 times larger. If that ratio seems out of line with the percentage of vegans in the US, it's because the vast majority of those ordering or buying plant-based burgers also eat meat.
Along with its burger, Kroger will also launch plant-based sausages, ground beef and deli slices this fall. Even sooner, it will offer a plant-based queso that Phipps says is revolutionary. "I'm from Austin, Texas. I love queso. I never didn't like the taste of it, but I never ate a bunch of it and thought 'that was a great idea!' Now there will be a great queso that I can eat, and when I'm done I've just eaten a bunch of plants."
A bunch of highly processed plants, for sure, which brings up an area of pushback being faced by burgers conjured from peas, rice and beets.
"I don't think eating highly processed foods is healthy," Whole Foods CEO John Mackey said on CNBC recently. "As for health, I will not endorse that, and that is about as big of a criticism that I will do in public."
Kroger has yet to release ingredient or nutrition labels for its coming burgers or ground "beef" product, but "we're going to stand for being delicious and proud of what's not in our foods," say's Kroger's Phipps.
"People use the world 'processed' as if it's a bad thing" says Barb Stuckey, president and chief innovation officer at Mattson, a major food and beverage development company. "We've been processing foods like chocolate, coffee and wine for millennia."