Consumer Appetite for Plant-Based Foods

Remember in 2019 when the big news was that big burger chains (even chicken QSRs) were adding plant-based items from Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat to their menus? Demand soared, and stocks climbed.

Fast-forward two years and the landscape, according to analysts at least, remains promising. Bloomberg Intelligence reported that in 2020, the plant-based foods market was worth $29.4 billion, and it could grow to $162 billion in 2030. They’re not alone in this assessment. Investment bank UBS forecasts that by 2030, the plant-based foods space will grow from about $5 billion to $85 billion.

While investors are bullish on the outlook of plant-based offerings, what about consumers? How do they feel about meat alternatives? Is interest still there, or has guests’ love affair with plant-based options cooled? For its latest report, Revenue Management Solutions surveyed restaurant diners located throughout the U.S. to find out. Here are the findings:

After a spike in 2020, plant-based eating habits have stabilized. The last time RMS asked restaurant-goers about their consumption of plant-based meat alternatives was in August 2020. It’s worth remembering that at that time, the country (and world) was around five months into the pandemic and embracing new habits, including boredom-busting behaviors like increased use of drive-thrus.

Along with the addition of new and exciting meat-free options to menus, guests were keen to experiment. When asked about frequency, in 2020, 39% of respondents stated they were eating plant-based meat alternatives at least once a week, if not multiple times a week.

When asked the same question, “How often do you eat plant-based meat alternatives?,” a year later, responses indicated that consumers’ plant-based eating habits had remained stable.

The most notable change in consumption was a 5% increase among the “curious but not-yet overly committed consumer” who reported eating plant-based meat once a month.

As for who is consuming plant-based meat, it’s likely no surprise that the majority comes from younger generations. In fact, 56% of Gen Z and 49% of millennials consume plant-based meat at least every couple of months.

The share of respondents who had still never tried plant-based meats decreased to 26% for Gen Z and 33% for millennials, indicating these two groups have a growing appetite for non-meat alternatives. Boomers sat nearly in the middle, with 55% of the older generation never having tried plant-based meat alternatives — suggesting substantial whitespace opportunity among this segment.

More to choose from, but consumers like it less

QSRs have not slowed down on adding plant-based items to their menus, but guests show signs of fatigue. When RMS asked survey respondents if they liked the taste of plant-based meats, when compared to 2020, there was an overall 7% decrease. The share of diners who agreed that they did not like the concept of plant-based meats was equally unfavorable, with a 10% increase from 2020.

Yet a deep dive into the demographics indicates that again, it’s Gen Z that enjoys plant-based meats the most, with 1 in 2 saying they liked the taste. Fourteen percent said they would even trade loyalty and switch to a competitor if it offered a plant-based alternative that their preferred restaurant brand did not.

Where RMS sees plant-based opportunity for QSRs

Gen Z. They have shifted their habits from plant-based meat trials to periodic consumption. The RMS survey found a 7% increase among Gen Z-ers who ate plant-based meat alternatives at least once a week and a 9% increase among those who ate the non-meat options once a month.

Younger urban dwellers. People who consume plant-based meat alternatives are more likely to be younger, frequent diners (defined as eating FAFH at least five times per week) who live in higher-income family households in urban/suburban areas.

Sustainability efforts. While fewer consumers believe in the environmental and health benefits of plant-based meats, consumers are concerned about restaurants’ effect on the environment. Almost 1 in 2 believe restaurants produce too much food waste, and nearly 1 in 3 agree that restaurants use harmful packaging. Gen Z is most concerned about restaurants’ environmental effects. QSRs can apply this insight by communicating what you are doing to reduce your carbon footprint and how your stores support sustainability in the food industry.
Price equity. Just because an item is plant-based, consumers are not expecting it to cost more than traditional, meat-based menu items. In fact, 1 in 2 diners consider plant-based meat too expensive. Major QSRs like McDonald’s UK have taken note, charging the same for its McPlant as its Quarter Pounder with Cheese. Business Insider also reports that prices at Subway are the same for its roast chicken and plant-based chicken sandwiches. Strategic menu engineering can help on this front.
Whether your brand offers only a few plant-based items or none at all, RMS is here to support you and your brand’s growth. We encourage you to reach out to schedule aa personalized demo of our solutions. RMS is committed to equipping you with a path forward — informed by data. Contact us today.

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