Quorn is a household name in the UK and Australia, where it is the biggest player in the meat-free segment.
It’s not quite as well known in America yet, but its new US boss - globe-trotting ex-Kellogg executive Sanjay Panchal - is on a mission to change all that and double the size of the North American business in the next three years.
Made from an edible fungus (‘mycoprotein’) grown using a controlled fermentation process, Quorn was launched in the UK in 1985 and introduced to the US in 2002.
High in protein and fiber and low in saturated fat and calories, Quorn is non-GMO (which in recent months has become much more of a selling point says Panchal), free of the ‘big eight’ allergens, and offers an alternative for shoppers looking for a meaty texture minus soy protein.
It has done particularly well as a poultry substitute, and is best known in the US for its Chik’n cutlets, nuggets and tenders, but has recently expanded its range to include burritos and entrees such as Kung Pao Chik’n.
Quorn could be a $1bn global brand
However, the past 12 months have been challenging, and growth did briefly stall in early 2013, admits Panchal, who spent 17 years at Kellogg in senior marketing and commercial roles in the UK, Australia, Singapore and the US, before taking the helm of Quorn Foods Inc last August.
“We’d been growing in double digits for 10 years,” he told FoodNavigator-USA.
“But we had a difficult start to 2013 as a lot of new competitors came in with lower-priced products with great packaging and marketing concepts but the quality wasn’t great, which can turn consumers away from the category when what we should be doing is surprising and delighting them with amazing products.
“There was also a lot of promotional activity and overall category dollar sales actually went backwards slightly.
“But I’m confident we’re back on track. We exited 2013 back in growth and on January 5, we also took a price reduction as we acknowledged that our prices were at too much of a premium vs the competition. We've gone down from $5.99 to $4.99 or from $4.99 to $4.49 - which is quite a dramatic drop.”
People are choicetarians - they are not trying to actively become vegetarians, they are just getting more food savvy and they want to experiment
Longer-term, however, he reckons Quorn could become a $1bn global brand, and is convinced it has barely scratched the surface in the US. Indeed, in some respects it is still in the “launch phase”, he said.
“Like Gardein [read our interview with CEO Yves Potvin here ], I’m convinced that the category is positioned for phenomenal long term growth.”
Like Potvin, Panchal doesn’t want to pigeonhole his category or the consumers that shop it, and sees Quorn as “just another healthy protein” that meat-eaters, meat reducers and vegetarians can enjoy.
“People are choicetarians - they are not trying to actively become vegetarians, they are just getting more food savvy and they want to experiment. We’re not selling lesser versions of meat.
“And as the only truly global meat-alternative brand we have an enormous amount of expertise to draw upon from the UK, which is our center of excellence. We’ve got a really strong innovation pipeline.”
While the two markets are different - in the UK Quorn has a sizeable refrigerated foods business and a wider range of entrées - there is no reason why it has to remain in the frozen food cabinet in the US, said Panchal.
“There is no reason why we couldn’t have a big refrigerated business in the US. I think in the past the food quality in the refrigerated section of some retailers has been disappointing, but there is no reason that the paradigm can’t be changed. I also think that if we can unlock the foodservice opportunity, this business can more than double.”
Mainstream success at Walmart and Target
Quorn has traditionally performed strongly in the natural retail channel but has been making steady progress in the mainstream grocery market, securing listings in a clutch of leading players from Wegmans, Ahold, Kroger and Target, he said.
“In December, we rolled out to 1,000 Walmart stores [in the main frozen aisle]. But I also personally believe that the natural section in stores will continue to grow.”
What is Quorn?
Quorn mycoprotein is derived from an organism found occurring naturally in the soil in a field in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, UK (Fusarium venenatum strain PTA-2684) in the 1960s.
Today it is produced on a commercial scale in large tanks using a continuous fermentation process fed with glucose, vitamins and minerals before being heat treated. When it is extracted, flavorings are added along with egg white for binding so it can be shaped into nuggets, tenders and cutlets.
So how do you describe it to consumers? Is it a plant? An animal? A fungus? A mold?
While it’s from the fungus family, it’s not a mushroom (the CSPI famously observed that ‘Quorn's fungus is as closely related to mushrooms as humans are to jellyfish’ when the company first hit the US market).
Transparency is key, says Panchal, who points out that growing protein in big vats is considerably more sustainable than raising animals.
"Quorn is a single cell micro-organism, a mycoprotein from the fungus family, produced using a fermentation process very similar to brewing; only we're interested in the solids as opposed to the liquid.
"So if you can wrap your head around yeast, beer or yogurt [which are also manufactured via a fermentation process], you can understand Quorn," he added. “We’re really proud of what we do.”