Food and Nutrition

Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown on Business During the Pandemic, Kentucky Fried ‘Chicken,’ and Never Truly Being Done Perfecting a Product

Emily Laurence

Emily LaurenceAugust 14, 2020

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Photo: Provided; Art: W+G Creative

It’s been 11 years since Ethan Brown founded Beyond Meat, a line of plant-based meat products that taste—almost unbelievably—like the real thing. (In fact, the vast majority of people who buy them are not vegetarian or vegan.)

The brand was a disrupter from the start, with Brown insisting in the early days that grocery stores place the products in the meat section, aisles away from brands like Bocca and Morning Star. Currently, Beyond Meat products are sold in more than 112,000 grocery stores, restaurants, hotels, stadiums, and college campuses. Fast food chains including Dunkin’ Donuts, Carl’s Jr., and Starbucks all permanently have Beyond Meat products on the menu, with KFC newly hopping on board—it has been experimenting with a new plant-based chicken product from the brand.

Basically, any place you expect to find meat, Beyond Meat is there or soon plans to be.

The pandemic certainly hasn’t hindered the brand’s success. In fact, sales are up a whopping 69 percent since this time last year, with a reported $113.3 million in sales last quarter. On top of that, the first Beyond Meat clinical trial, conducted by Stanford University, was published this week in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, comparing the health effects of their plant-based burgers to beef burgers. A run-down of the high points: Participants who ate the Beyond burgers had lower LDL cholesterol and better cardiovascular health than the beef burger eaters. (They also lost an average of two pounds over the course of two months.)

Constant innovation along with the brand’s commitment to health and accessibility is exactly why Well+Good named Brown a Well+Good 2020 Changemaker. Here, Brown talks about staying fully committed to their mission, the ups and down of never truly being done perfecting a product, and working through the pandemic.

Well+Good: Tell me about the first Beyond Meat clinical trial that came out this week. What does it mean to the brand?

Ethan Brown: It’s really exciting! It’s important that people have a firm understanding of the health benefits of plant-based meat versus just plant-based eating. As plant-based eating becomes more mainstream, there’s a lot of focus on the health claims around plant-based meat. With the clinical trial, we now have data we can point to showing the [benefits] of the products.

I definitely found the findings about cholesterol and heart health interesting because when we’ve asked dietitians about Beyond Meat products in the past, they’ve always flagged the saturated fat content. This study shows participants who ate Beyond Meat every day saw a drop in LDL cholesterol levels on average 10 milligrams per deciliter.

EB: Exactly. Nutrition is really important to us and it’s why we’ve never really done perfecting the products. Even after something comes out, we’re still working to make it even healthier and better tasting.

It’s like an iPhone: You come out with something and then later release a 2.0 version and then a 3.0 version. You’re never done! Isn’t that frustrating?

EB: A little bit! But innovation is at the core of what we do. Not only do we have to innovate faster than [other companies], but we have self-imposed restrictions in place that our team of 150 of the best and brightest scientists, technicians, and engineers have to work with. For example, one restriction is that they can’t use any genetically modified ingredients, so they can’t use any synthetic additives. Besides that, they also have to consider sustainability and cost. It makes their jobs harder, but it results in better products in the end.

Besides nutrition, it’s clear that affordability has always been important to the brand. For example, you’ve chosen to focus more on fast food chains than high-end restaurants.

EB: It’s hugely important to us. When affordability is a factor, it makes it more accessible to a greater number of people. If all we do is sell to the super wealthy, then we’re not making a real dent in solving the issues we’re trying to solve.

Speaking of accessibility, KFC is the latest place selling Beyond Meat with Beyond Fried Chicken. Is it on the menu permanently now?

EB: Working with KFC has been so fun. We did an initial pop-up launch in Atlanta and then tests in Nashville, Charlotte, and a recent sneak peek in California. The response was just amazing. This isn’t something we’re pushing on consumers; it’s something they want. They want to be able to have a delicious and satisfying experience of eating protein but sourced in new ways. In terms of it being on the menu permanently, let’s just say we feel really good about our relationship with them.

Does it also mean we’ll soon be able to buy Beyond Meat chicken in stores sometime soon?

EB: Yes, that’s something you can expect from us. We actually released a chicken product back in 2013, but we took it off the market to reformulate it. We don’t have an exact timeline for the new release, but it’s something we’re excited about.

How has COVID-19 affected Beyond Meat?

EB: It’s been harder for us for sure. Before the pandemic, our sales were 50 percent retail, 50 percent food service. Now, we’re over 80 percent retail. So that’s been a tough pivot that so much of our business on the food service side went away. But thankfully, things really picked up for us in retail. I think what’s important for everyone to remember is that the pandemic isn’t going to last forever. This isn’t the first pandemic and history has shown that the economy will come back. I just read this really interesting book, The Ghost Map, about the cholera outbreak in London in the 1850s and how devastating that was for the city. But they recovered from that and we will recover from this.

Just some light pandemic reading material.

EB: It’s super interesting and it mirrors the initial stages of the pandemic because people really had no idea what was happening. But it just shows that what we’re going through now is temporary. It won’t last forever.

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