The plant-based foods category is diversifying as retail sales have continued to increase, even during the COVID-19 outbreak. According to Euromonitor, the meat-substitute market is expected to reach $2.5 billion by 2023.
Such impressive numbers may have you wondering if you should try the tofu and look into entering this emerging market. Let’s lean on the “know before you go” adage and help you make an informed decision.
First things first: Understand your recipe and needs
The first thing you should ask yourself when considering the plant-based food arena is “where are you in the research and development process?” There’s a big difference between having an idea and having a product.
You don’t want to build a facility before knowing what your processing is going to look like. You need to develop your recipe first, because you don’t want to be drastically altering your process after your facility has already been designed. Check out Stellar’s free Strategic Planning Guide to identify best practices on where to begin.
Analyze your budget and the market
Once you’re beyond this point, you need to start looking at your budget and understand what will make your product profitable. Analyze your sales projections and equipment costs to understand what you can afford to invest and still be competitive in the market. There are typically comfortable margins in plant-based foods, so that’s not usually as much of a limiting factor — but sales still need to be there. Projected sales are a big part of the equation when starting up a plant.
In addition, it’s important to know how you want to grow your company. Are you considering local distribution? Global? How big is your vision? How big is your budget? What are your investors willing to put into your process? This market is pretty new, so it’s important to chart your course early while also being nimble.
Tailor your processing to your product
Different foods require different processing steps. Even among the plant-based protein options, different ones may require different approaches, and different controls may be needed in order to achieve your desired texture and taste. It is important to design a process that is tailored to your product.
In addition, there are a lot more checks in the process when it comes to temperatures and mix times needed for certain plant-based proteins, because you’re trying to create a standalone protein as opposed to using one as an ingredient in a larger product. Soy and other protein sources all have various control points, temperatures and manufacturing times. It’s critical to understand the specific parameters to produce a consistent taste, texture and product.
What will you do with byproduct and waste?
From a design standpoint, you must also consider the waste streams that can be created as a result of plant-based protein production.
Some of the byproduct — such as whey byproduct or water that contains a lot of protein — can be reused, but you need to have a recipient that can handle those waste streams. For example, the production of tofu produces a great deal of byproduct “waste” that can be repurposed, but that involves finding a partner who can utilize it.
This kind of waste isn’t something many disposal sites will take in or that municipalities want going down their sewer drains, especially because a dedicated plant-based protein facility produces a high volume of this byproduct.
Get to know the unknowns: Requirements, standards and equipment
In terms of processing, there isn’t much difference between meat vs. plant-based proteins. However, many of the requirements related to temperature, cleanliness, washdowns and other risks are better defined in the meat sector since it’s been around longer.
In the relatively new plant-based market, there’s still a lot of testing going on and a lot of unknowns at stake. Yes, you still have to clean, but how often? And with what? You still have to control times and temperatures, but these standards are less established in the plant-based protein market.
And as far as equipment goes, much of the same equipment is used in plant-based protein facilities and meat facilities, but plant-based operations often include equipment from the baking industry as well since they process plants and flours. The equipment in a plant-based protein facility can really be a fusion of dairy, bakery and meat equipment in one space.
The good news is, since this equipment is established, it’s already designed to meet food safety standards — it’s just a matter of defining what is needed to produce your product and getting familiar with the new additions to your line.
Jump over — don’t bypass — your biggest hurdle
The biggest challenge when it comes to processing plant-based protein is defining what your market is going to be. It’s important to take the time to do this early in your planning process, developing who your target consumers are and what void your product is filling so that you can design your manufacturing around that.
Are you appealing only to those on a plant-based diet? What about the growing number of so-called flexitarians? Is your product meant to be a replacement or alternative for another legacy category? All of these variables can affect your potential for volume, and that needs to be accounted for up front.
Many of today’s plant-based protein products start as small, home-grown ideas. It’s often entrepreneurs who are developing products in their own kitchens for their own families. A big challenge is understanding what is required to take a product from a small-batch, hands-on idea to a large-scale food production.
Scaling up like that comes with a lot of adjustments and a steep learning curve that may involve tweaking your recipe or how you approach the way the product is made. That’s why it’s critical to partner with someone who can help you navigate that process and who understands food manufacturing on a large scale. (Our Strategic Planning Best Practices Checklist is a good tool to help you get started.)
Imagine the possibilities
While there are many factors to consider when entering this new realm, with the right planning and preparation, it can be done. There are plenty of success stories out there, such as Amy’s Kitchen growing from an in-home kitchen startup to a large-scale brand found in stores around the country. There’s also Beyond Meat, which has taken off in retail stores and is now in several restaurants and fast food chains. Plant-based proteins are definitely having their moment – the question is, will you make it yours?
Are you considering investment in the plant-based foods market? Have questions about it or about your processing facility in general? Leave a comment below or call us at 800-488-2900.