The Plant-Based Turkey Challenge

Consumers’ appetite for plant-based foods shot up during the COVID pandemic and will again over the holidays. Why that’s a huge challenge for giant food firms.

The smell of gravy wafted through the dining room. Butter slid scrumptiously down the sides of the homemade mashed potato pile. Bacon and blue cheese mingled with roasted brussels sprouts. And at the middle of the table was, of course, the centerpiece of the meal: a gorgeous, golden-brown, perfectly seasoned plant-based turkey alternative.

Smaller gatherings and social distancing won’t be the only things that are different this Thanksgiving. On many tables across the country, instead of a traditional turkey, there will be a plant-based meat alternative. To be sure, plant-based proteins have come a long way since the debut of the Tofurkey in 1995. Data shows that 30% of Americans are willing to consider a meat-free Thanksgiving—part of a much larger trend toward plant-based proteins that shot up during COVID-19. Indeed, according to some estimates, the market for plant-based proteins and alternative meats will explode to $85 billion by 2030, 20 times larger than today.

Both the growing global population and consumers making more sustainable health-conscious food choices are driving much of the trend, says Frederika Tielenius Kruythoff, a Korn Ferry senior client partner responsible for the firm’s Agribusiness practice in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. So is the pandemic, which created meat shortages that opened consumers’ eyes and mouths to meatless options at the grocery story. “COVID heightened awareness around the impact of meat on the environment and health,” Kruythoff says. “It encouraged more people to find alternatives to the animal-based food supply chain.”

All of that is expected to carry over to Thanksgiving and the rest of the holidays, says Sean McBurney, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and sector leader of the firm’s North America Agriculture practice. The data certainly backs that assumption—the Plant Based Foods Association, which represents 170 companies in the sector, and Kroger, the largest grocer in the United States, found that plant-based protein sales increased by 23% when sold in the meat department. “This is the time of year when consumers are spending significant time in the meat department,” McBurney says. “Based on the data, the likelihood of their choosing plant-based products sold there will increase significantly.”

But while the trend is creating excitement among the start-ups and other specialty food firms familiar with creating these options, it has caught many giant, traditional food firms off guard. Few of them have developed the technology or other resources needed, as well as built up the talent. Indeed, the fact that none of them have yet to find an alternative to replicate the taste, texture, and look of a turkey is a testament to how hard it will be for food manufacturers to keep up with consumer tastes.

“There’s a lack of agility in decision-making more than anything,” says Kruythoff. These firms, she says, are focused on developing new products along at a slower, more precise pace. “So the muscles around learning fast, failing fast, adjusting, and taking risks are not well-developed,” she says.

In her view, Kruythoff says all food manufacturers will need to operate with a greater level of purpose and enterprise agility, so they can quickly shift investments, talent, and production resources, moving out of slow-growth areas and into fast-growing ones. “Success in the future will depend on developing new specialty products like plant-based turkey,” she says.