Yankees-Tested Vegan Sausage Going National at Whole Foods

(Bloomberg) -- The next generation of vegan meat now includes sausage made from peas, beets and coconut oil. And you can have one with a beer while watching the Yankees play in the Bronx.

Beyond Meat, the plant-based protein company backed by Bill Gates and Tyson Foods Inc., rolled out one of its newest products -- vegan bratwurst -- at Yankee Stadium this season. And now it’s launching the brats, as well as sweet and hot Italian sausages, nationally at Whole Foods.

Sales at the company doubled last year as it expanded its namesake Beyond Burger into thousands of grocery stores, including Safeway, Kroger and Target. The burger, along with its competitor from Impossible Foods, is part of a new generation of vegan meat substitutes that promise to mimic the taste of real ground beef, replete with blood and grill-produced sizzle.

Beyond Burger got its start at Whole Foods, where health-conscious shoppers have long sought out niche vegan products. It’s now being sold in the meat case at conventional stores across the U.S. and and is also on the menu at thousands of restaurants, including mainstream chains like TGI Fridays.

Ethan Brown, chief executive officer of the El Segundo, California-based company, said he thinks the new plant-based sausage will have similar appeal as more consumers, including high-profile athletes, try to eat less meat.

Beyond Sausage is already on the menu at a handful of restaurants in Chicago and New York, and at a Yankee Stadium outpost of restaurant chain Bareburger.

Celebrity Vegans

“It’s a massive trend that’s happening and creates a lot of demand,” Brown said in an interview.

Vegan eating -- once the province of strict dieters and animals-rights activists -- has been gaining broader acceptance in recent years, helped by endorsements from celebrities such as Tom Brady, Kyrie Irving and Beyonce. And while still small, the market for vegan meat is growing. Sales in the “chilled meat substitutes” category, which includes meatless sausages and burgers, surged to almost $200 million last year, up 44 percent since 2012, according to Euromonitor.

The trend has caught the attention of investors and large U.S. food companies grappling with shifting consumer trends. Beyond Meat drew the attention of both Bill Gates and General Mills Inc. after it was founded in 2009 with a focus on frozen chicken substitutes. Tyson Foods, the largest U.S. meat producer, took a stake in 2016 and now owns more than 5 percent of the company.

Beyond Meat also is backed by Don Thompson, the former CEO of McDonald’s Corp., whose venture firm Cleveland Avenue led a recent $55 million round that will help the company more than triple production.

Beyond Sausage hit the market in December, selling at a single Whole Foods store in Boulder, Colorado -- the same location where the burger debuted. For years, upstart food brands have sought to get a foothold at Whole Foods, where discerning shoppers can help build the kind of buzz that can launch a product onto the national radar.

Brand Incubator

Whole Foods’s position as a brand incubator has been called into question since the organic chain was acquired by Amazon.com Inc. The company is centralizing its operations, making it more difficult for some small brands to get attention. At the same time, some of the largest grocery sellers, including Walmart Inc. and Kroger, have worked to embrace startups to lock in customers.

For Brown, Whole Foods is still the best place to roll out the Beyond Sausage nationally.

“I’m going to ride it out with them -- I’m very loyal,” Brown said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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