With so many pizza brands now offering some form of build-your-own pies, the "meat-conscious" customer has always had some options, whether they be going strictly all cheese or adding any combination of vegetables, fruits and even now, a few crickets or varmint variations.
Still, meatless substitute toppings have been few and far between at most pizza restaurants and that might be a mistake moving forward since the market for meatless food products is booming, particularly with the appearance of a number of not just flavorful, but darn near meaty-tasting options.
The meatless products market alone is forecast to grow steadily by 2021, from the current annual $700 million in sales to $850 million, according to Euromonitor International. In case you're counting, that's an opportunity for about $1 billion meat replacement product sales over that same time period. In short, that means people are liking these products a lot and might just be seeking to cover their pizzas with some form of them.
After all, this shift is just a part of the transition we've seen from "natural" to "organic" to now meatless restaurant items — all part of an overall progression in the whole category of "better-for-you" "all natural" products that is emblematic of the notion that the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts.
Is the pizza industry ready to innovate in this category? If it follows in the footsteps of the quick-service category, it likely will not be. In my opinion, even under the increasing pressure to do so, the QSR industry is still not positioned for new product innovation leadership.
In the case of the quick-service category, the lack of innovation leadership has resulted from a growing dependence on QSR suppliers to provide new product "silver bullets" that every restaurant chain requests from the same suppliers. In turn, that supplier-customer relationship has defaulted to restaurant chains' research and development departments now becoming centers for line extension development.
End result, in my view? The days of breakthrough product innovation — like the popcorn chicken that I co-developed at KFC — may be over in the strictly QSR category, unless restaurant chains implement efficient new product innovation processes.
Models for meatless innovation for pizza restaurateurs
I believe new product innovation — when it comes to meatless offerings — will come from either consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies or private equity start-ups. Examples of CPG innovation-driven companies are PepsiCo, Nestle, Kellogg and General Mills.
For instance, my former employer, PepsiCo — maker of Cheetos, Rice-A-Roni and Quaker Oats — earlier this year issued a request for proposals on "novel protein sources" for its snacks and beverages. PepsiCo is primarily focused on "plant-based" proteins but said it would consider insects or mycoproteins — an ingredient made from fermented fungus.
As for start-up companies, Beyond Meat appears to be the innovation leader with a product most like traditional meat hamburgers. They use coconut oil as their fat simulation and beet juice to replicate the red meat color. Other start-up companies include Memphis Meats Inc., Kuli-Kuli, Sweet Earth Foods, Aspire Food Group, Hampton Creek, Daiya, Tyson Foods, Amy's Kitchen, Morning Star Farms, Light Life, Veggie Grill, Trader Joe's, Kit Hill, Engine 2 and Tropical.
Likewise, Food Technical Consulting (Full disclosure: This is my company) recently developed and implemented a research program into meatless products at Colorado State University. Both the university and state of Colorado are putting $18 million into a state-of-the-art expansion of the current teaching, research and USDA inspection facility there and we have already evaluated various starch, pea, and bean products that enhance assorted meat properties.
But like the development happening on so many fronts around this idea of meatless food, there are plenty of other ingredients to look at. For instance, the list includes for us everything from a leaf - moringa, and cricket protein, to duckweed, kaniwa (seed) and meal worm powder.
In short then, it's clear that meatless products are going to play a role and possibly a substantial one, in all of the food industry going forward. Pizza restaurateurs would do well to take note and begin thinking how to incorporate these offerings — whatever form they ultimately come in — into their line-ups.