Plant & Bean was launched in 2019. A spin-off of Brecks Food’s, the company plans to move to the 'next level’ through investment to expand and build its capabilities in the plant-based space.
The first step of its ambitious strategy will see it open what has been described as Europe’s ‘largest’ dedicated plant-based meat production facility.
Located in Boston, Lincolnshire, the new factory will serve markets across Europe. The 65-acre site will have an initial capacity of 55,000 tonnes. It will provide sub-scale companies, larger international brands and retailers with a BRC-certified European manufacturing platform.
And Europe is just the beginning. Chief executive Edwin Bark has a vision to create a global manufacturing proposition that, he believes, meets an untapped and growing need in the sector. According to Bark, who formerly headed up Nestlé’s plant-based business, the ‘fragmented’ plant-based category needs to address a ‘lack of scale’.
“This is such an exciting space to be in, such a meaningful industry but… there is so much fragmentation. It’s a real issue. Everybody is jumping into this space but, generally speaking, the majority of players are really small companies. If you want to make impact you have to drive scale," he told FoodNavigator.
In order to support a ‘real change’ in the food system – which he described as ‘broken’ – Bark argued plant-based brands need to drive up purchase penetration and frequency. To do so, he believes the industry needs to overcome barriers including price and quality.
“We need to bring down the cost of plant-based meat in comparison to animal meat…. If we want to have a larger buy-in of more consumers into a plant-based diet, we need to make it more accessible.
“The other barrier is quality. As much as we know we have reached a tipping point, and there is an increasing number of consumers who are eating plant-based meat, the majority are still not completely satisfied with the quality and taste. Our focus is on improving the quality because if we get that right we will further drive penetration and frequency.”
Complexity, consistency and quality
For Bark, scale offers an answer. The chief executive told us that scale can drive costs down on a number of levels.
In procurement, higher volumes can cut the cost of protein as Plant & Bean partners with its protein suppliers. “By buying at scale we will have more attractive prices but in parallel we will work with seed and crop developers to optimise the crops. We will also work with our partners in protein fractionation processes because that will potentially increase the protein level and therefore bring down again the cost,” he explained.
For Plant & Bean’s customers, being able to work with a partner that can manufacture at scale also reduces business complexity, an important industry insight that Bark carried over from his time at Nestlé.
“One of the challenges if you work with multiple companies who supply you is it is very difficult to secure consistency in price and quality,” he explained.
“When you have multiple suppliers, multiple manufacturers of your products, you drive tremendous complexity… When we talk to our customers, which are leading global brands in the plant-based meat space, they are all very keen to reduce complexity and also to secure consistency.”
Quality and consistency are vital to winning over consumers, the CEO continued. “Increasingly one of the things we have seen with COVID-19 is consumer awareness around food safety health and product quality has increased tremendously. We hear from retailers that they want their suppliers to be a pure-play company – with a dedicated plant-based manufacturing site.”
Innovation for protein diversification
Innovation is another lever that can be used to drive both price and product quality.
New protein sources or more efficient excursion technology, for instance, can cut ingredient expenses. Bark elaborated: “We are confident we will find new sources of protein that have a better cost structure, that can be processed in different ways.”
With pea protein costing twice that of soy, Plant & Bean revealed it is working with its partners on the development of computational breeding technology to achieve a 50% reduction in the cost of peas and beans. The UK group said it is looking at optimising protein extraction, enabling it to extract multiple protein sources at a ‘significantly’ lower cost.
Protein diversification could also help broaden consumer appeal and increase purchase frequency, Bark continued. “The exploration of new sources of protein will be a key benefit coming from this platform… If penetration and frequency increases, consumers will ask themselves: ‘Am I going to have the same type of ingredient every day?’ As much as I love soy because it is a great ingredient, I’m not convinced the whole world will consume it seven days a week.”
The 'next generation' of plant-based products
Innovation is also being leveraged to improve the organoleptic qualities of meat alternatives. “Ultimately, it comes down to taste. If we want to convert die-hard carnivores into plant-based diets, we need to make products as tasty as possible," Bark told us.
For instance, Plant & Bean is working with its partners to improve texture generation, focusing on improved extrusion technology to drive higher machine efficiencies, lower energy use and better plant-based meat textures.
“All these things will come together and will help us to create the next generation of products in plant based meat,” Bark predicted. “There is still room for improvement in terms of moisture, texture, flavour. I see improvement on all these quite complex areas.”
What makes Plant & Bean’s approach to NPD 'unique' is that the company is developing partnerships with research institutes like Wageningen University in Europe and the Singapore Institute of Technology – as well as businesses like Givaudan and Griffith Foods – to build an innovation ecosystem.
“Our ecosystem makes us a very powerful innovation platform,” Bark claimed.
“Collaboration is the new competition. The more you collaborate, the more competitive you are. The challenges are too big to solve on your own. We won’t be able to have hundreds of researchers on all the different development areas. It is too big, so we have to do it together.
“This should put us at the forefront of innovation to drive quality.”
Global scale, local relevance
The company’s mission to build scale does not end with Europe.
“We are trying to build a global plant-based food manufacturing group,” Bark noted. “We are moving from a typical mid-sized manufacturing company to large scale manufacturing, creating an ecosystem for collaborative innovation. And we are already raising funds for our Series B to expand into the US next year. By the end of 2021 we would like to have a facility in the US. Followed by China, Thailand and Brazil.”
This global manufacturing footprint will allow Plant & Bean to serve international brands and their ‘ambitious’ growth plans.
“There is a global need for sizeable, efficient and certified plant-based manufacturing… Our ambition is to accompany our customers, international brands, in their growth plans by supplying consistency in price and quality and by allowing them to have local production,” Bark revealed.
For Plant & Bean this local element is an important piece of the picture. The company recognises regional differences when it comes to ‘taste and texture’ preferences. It also believes that sourcing locally available plant-based proteins will help brands innovate and differentiate in a crowded category.
“Consumers will appreciate the idea of brands working with locally sourced and processed ingredients. With the rise of authentic, purpose-driven, locally sourced brands, it is an important message, ” Bark suggested.
“By coming up with disruptive innovations we want to delight consumers to such an extent that all of our customers will have accelerated growth. This is ultimately about making an impact on the food system… We want to truly contribute to rebuilding the food system because it is broken today.”
Thumbs up from the GFI
The Good Food Institute Europe (GFI), an NGO supporting the development of the plant-based sector, welcomed the news and suggested that the increase in capacity and capabilities will help make plant-based analogues more 'delicious, affordable and accessible'.
Sophie Armour, GFI Europe spokesperson, commented: "People from all walks of life want our food system to be sustainable, healthy and just – but studies consistently show that taste, price and convenience decide what most people eat. This huge new factory will help to make plant-based meat more delicious, affordable and accessible for consumers across Europe – smoothing the transition to a better food system."