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Peter McGuinness is hopping mad. After a recent BusinessWeek cover story slammed plant-based meat as an unappealing fad that’s losing its sizzle, McGuinness, CEO of Impossible Foods, says it took him “a New Jersey minute” before he decided to come out fighting.
Just days after the story was published, McGuinness took the extraordinary step of buying a full-page ad in the New York Times, poking fun at the naysayers. And that was just the beginning. “There are a lot of myths and misconceptions out there. But the fact is, we are growing,” says the Garden State native who joined Impossible last April. “We’re in a category that is in first gear. It hasn’t even been created yet, and people are trying to say that it’s the death of it, or it’s a fad. In the beginning, the internet was a fad. In the beginning, cars were a fad and horses were going to stay. Electric cars were a fad. I just don’t like the implication, nor do I think it’s accurate.”
As soon as I saw the dust-up last week, I wanted to talk to McGuinness and give him a chance to air his grievances. He and the Oakland, Calif.-based company have claimed for years that plant-based meat is healthier for people and better for the planet. But plant-based meats are also more expensive than their animal meat competition—and that was true even before the recent surge of inflation we’ve all endured. Perhaps owing to that pressure on household food budgets, meat alternatives, as a category, have seen slower growth lately.
Even so, McGuinness and Impossible deserve some credit for expanding its reach amid the pandemic and other challenges. The company’s retail sales jumped 50% in 2022. And by volume, its flagship Impossible Beef outpaced all other plant-based meat brands in the U.S. Its brand recognition among consumers is increasing as well, despite a lack of sustained advertising or marketing. One reason for that, perhaps: Its burgers, sausage links, meatballs, and chicken patties are on the menu at Burger King, Starbucks, and on Delta and United Airlines flights.
McGuinness shared his thoughts with me last week, opining on his battle with skeptics, the high price of plant-based meat (which he says will come down soon), and his favorite way to eat Impossible meatballs.
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This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Most people in your position simply ignore bad press. Why did you feel you had to respond publicly to the BusinessWeek piece?
Look, as a leader in the category, I think we’re there to defend, support and try and build the category. I thought it was relatively one-sided. There are two sides to every story. What we did in the New York Times was just telling the other side of the story, and there are people with other points of view. We made a decision to carry the torch for the category. We’re a very mission-oriented, conscious company. So when the category gets piled on, I do want to tell the other side of that. You have a $7 to $8 billion global category of plant-based meat that’s been around for 20 years, and it’s a fad? I mean, 90% of the people who eat our plant-based meat, eat animal meat. So we’re not a vegan company. We’re not a vegetarian company. We’re making products that stand up against the animal products that taste great, that are better for you and better for the planet.
I believe it’s yet to be built and created.
Despite Impossible’s sales growth, data shows the plant-based meat category has been plateauing lately. What’s happening there?
Couple problems with that. One, what is the category of plant-based meat? What are you putting in there? We don’t believe that we are in that Nielsen defined category with veggie burgers and mushroom burgers. We don’t have a problem with them, but that’s not what we’re trying to do. We want to displace the animal analog. And in doing so, we want to save water, trees and avoid [greenhouse gasses]. And in doing so, we want people to have an animal meat-like experience, but have 33% less saturated fat and zero cholesterol. And so that’s a different category. So, you want to throw Impossible in that category? I object to that.
If you’re trying to convince a hardcore, meat-loving friend to try out Impossible, what would be your main approach?
You’ve got to start with taste. Taste, texture, flavor. And what do we hear from every animal lover? ‘That tastes much better than I thought. That’s a pretty good burger.’ It’s the same reaction we get every time. And by the way, that’s how we do our taste tests. We taste everything against the animal equivalent, not a plant-based equivalent. And our aspiration is not to be the best plant based. I want a great burger. I don’t want a great plant-based burger.
And then you get into the nutritional profile. It is zero trans fat, zero cholesterol. So you’re eating zero-cholesterol beef. No matter who you are—you’re crazy educated, you’re less educated, you’re rich, you’re less rich, you’re in the middle of the country, you’re on the coast—I don’t think people love cholesterol. So cholesterol-free meat that tastes damn good? Sounds pretty good to me. And then look, depending on the people, you can then talk about the planet. And it’s undeniable.
And that’s why I get frustrated about, “Hey, the category is dead.” Right now, we have 17% awareness. So 83% of the country’s never even heard of us. We have 5% household penetration; 95% of the country hasn’t even tried us yet, and we’re still growing at those growth rates. We’re not even in second gear yet. One in two repeat because they have a positive experience. And those are animal eaters. Those are not vegetarians and vegans.
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In preparation for this interview, my wife and I went out to our local supermarket but had a hard time finding the product. We looked first in the veggie burger area. It wasn’t with those products. Then we looked in the meat section. It wasn’t there. Turns out, it had its own refrigeration case at the back of the store. Are you hearing that people are having trouble finding your products in stores?
It’s a challenge. Listen, it gets merchandised in different places with different banners. ShopRite does it differently, Stop & Shop, Kroger, Walmart, depending on where you are. Our preference, and we push grocery stores to do it, is put it right next to the animal. Yes, tertiarily, you can put it in vegan or vegetarian. But if we’re going after someone who eats animal protein, they’re not going to be in the vegan set. So they’re not going to see us. We’re working on that and it’s getting better. It’s a bit of a treasure hunt to find it, which we’re working on aggressively.
Impossible hasn’t done any sustained advertising or marketing to grow awareness, to entice new customers. Is that a strategy you’re rethinking? Will it change going forward?
Yes, it’s very much in the plan for ’23 and ’24, to do sustained, compelling advertising and marketing. So we just hired our first ever chief demand officer. Basically, all demand functions—from corporate communications to product commercialization, to packaging, to marketing, to advertising, to pricing, category management, retail execution—it’s all under one demand leader. One budget, no fiefdoms. So those are big pieces and we’ve allocated dollars to invest. We’ll spend more in ’23 than we’ve ever spent in marketing and advertising. And we’ll spend more in ’24 than in ’23.
It’s a very big part of our plan. When you have low household penetration—5%—you’ve got to get it more available, more accessible, more approachable. I think the category’s done a lousy job of explaining and marketing itself. It’s been bi-coastal or it’s been upper income. This has to be mass. Have it at a ballpark, have it on a July 4th on the grill.
Inflation is a huge issue for consumers and plant-based meat was already more expensive than real meat. Has inflation hurt the growth of your products? Do you think the prices might come down to compete with real meat?
It’s a great question. I think inflation affects every category because so many manufacturers have increased prices because their input costs have gone up. We haven’t. If you look over the past two and a half years, as we’ve scaled, we’ve come down 23% in price in two and a half years. The animal has gone up 22% in price because it’s inefficient protein. Animals drink a ton of water. They eat a ton of food, which, by the way, grain and feed is way up. Then you have to slaughter them. That’s heavy labor factories, and then you have to ship it everywhere, with fuel costs up.
We’re way more efficient. This is another myth: Plant-based meat is killing farmers. I was in Decatur two months ago, in Illinois, where all of our soy is grown. We are pro-farming. That soy goes to three factories in the U.S. And we turn that soy into ground beef. It’s a simple, efficient process.
And so to answer your question, I predict we’ll continue to come down as volume grows.
And then the other misconception is that we’re more expensive than everything. It’s not the case on chicken nuggets. It’s not the case if you look at our ground beef. We’re, in many cases, less expensive than organic ground beef and we’re less expensive than grass fed ground beef.
What do you say to critics who claim you’re trying to take away their burgers—trying to take away their beef?
We’re not taking away anything. We’re just adding an option. If you want to try the option, great. People want better options. People want choice. We’re not marketing against or trying to take anything away.
And we’re going to continually improve our products. We’re on beef 2.5. We’ve only been around for five years and we think our food stacks up quite well. But what I will tell you is we’re working aggressively on 3.0 versions of our products. We love our current products, but we can even get them better in terms of taste, texture, flavor, nutrition. We’re a restless, fanatical product company. We love our products and always think there’s room to improve them.
That’s a lot of research and development spending, though. Is that going to hurt efforts to bring the price down?
No. And when you say it’s a lot of R&D, it’s improving our existing products. So that’s easier than coming up with brand new, frontier stuff. And in doing so, we’re going to make the taste, texture, flavor, and nutrition profile better. We also want that to come in more economically where we can pass that on to the consumer as well.
What’s your favorite Impossible product, and what’s your favorite way to prepare it?
We make a meatball—it’s 50% “pork” and 50% “beef.” It’s a home style meatball, and I love it with spaghetti and sauce, but my favorite way to eat it is a beautiful, fresh hoagie sub. Put about four meatballs on there, smother it in tomato sauce, maybe sprinkle a tiny bit of parmesan on it, just a wee bit. I promise you it’s delicious, and you 100% will not be able to tell the difference.
Finally, can you give me one song or album, one book, and one movie that gives us some insight into who you are and what inspires you?
- Album: Working on a Dream by Bruce Springsteen
- Book: A Movable Feast by Earnest Hemingway
- Movie: A River Runs Through It
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