CHECKOUT: Meet the Makers; Eoin Kennedy Global CCO Plant-It Food Co – Love Irish Food

CHECKOUT: Meet the Makers; Eoin Kennedy Global CCO Plant-It Food Co

From meat-free alternatives to ready meals

In the first of two profiles this month as part of our Meet the Makers series with Love Irish Food, Maev Martin talks to The Plant-It Food Co’s global chief commercial officer Eoin Kennedy about how its name change, brand transformation and product re-positioning is landing with consumers

The Plant-It Food Co’s new brand and new range is the culmination of 12 months of consumer research in the UK and Irish markets. The company is now offering a range of healthy and nutritious meals that are inspired by recipes from all over the world, with influences from Indian, Asian, and Mexican cuisine.

“When the company was launched in the market in 2021, we were easily identified by our predominantly yellow packaging, and our range featured a wide variety of meat-free products, including burgers, goujons, and fillets,” says Eoin. “In 2022, we took a step back and decided to do a complete reset of the business. We are a culinary and nutrition-led company, so we wanted to put the word food in our name. We then carried out a lot of research into what consumers wanted and we identified a gap in the frozen section for healthy and nutritious meals that happen to be plant-based, gluten-free and non-GMO.

“We are an Irish frozen food business that produces plant-based products, and we use Ireland as our test bed when we are launching new products. Once we see the rate of sale and get feedback from the consumer, and we know that we have something that will stand the test of time, we use in-store promotions and social media to promote those products. We have upped our game on social media, particularly on Instagram, to drive our messaging to consumers. From a visual perspective, we have added vibrant colours to our packaging, and our marketing team has done a great job of bringing our new offering to life.”

Healthy & nutritious

The Plant-It Food Co launched its healthy and nutritious ready meals in the Irish market in April of this year. “Where we had standard burger or goujon products that were meat-alternatives, we are now in the ready meal space,” he says. “We launched with our Chilli Burrito Bowl, Buddha Bowl, and Thai Yellow Curry. We also have a Biryani Bowl, Loaded Fries and Spice Bag. Not surprisingly, the latter is performing well in Ireland.” The Plant-It Food Co has pulled its previous meat-free products from the retail sector, but they are still supplying those products to their foodservice clients.

The company’s new gluten-free ready meals are now available in Dunnes Stores, Tesco, SuperValu, Spar, Londis, and several independent retail stores, including the Evergreen health food store in Galway. They have also partnered with Fresh The Good Food Market to enhance some of their deli offerings. “For example, they are using some of our products in their plant-based wraps and sandwiches, including Chick’n fajitas,” says Eoin. “We are also in the process of transitioning our range with Avoca, so we are hoping to have our new ready meals on their shelves by Christmas.”

The Plant-It Food Co’s ready meals are currently selling in eight markets – Ireland, the UK, Canada, the US, the Middle East, Germany, The Baltic countries, and China.

“Because of the health and nutrition benefits, and the gluten-free element, our ready meals range is being very positively received by our retail partners in those countries, which is allowing us to expand very quickly,” says Eoin. “Selling high-quality products that are manufactured in Ireland into overseas markets is very exciting because Ireland has a great food reputation abroad.”

Texture technology

The Plant-It Food Co’s factory in Chapelizod in Dublin uses their own TEX-SOL method to produce products that mirror the texture experience of meat. “That is how we create the texture profile of our plant-based protein products, but we also use the technology to create the centre plate of our ready meals,” he says. “For example, our burrito bowl features our meat-free mince, but we add vegetables and rice to complete the meal, and these are sourced from Irish suppliers. When we were looking to create these meals, the meat alternative market was under pressure, so we made a deliberate move to bring healthy and nutritious alternatives to the market. Our buddha bowl has 11 different vegetable products in it. We focus on good gut health, which is important for wellbeing, and we are calling out high in fibre and rich in protein on our ready meals packaging.”

Growth potential

Back in 2021, the Plant-It brand was available in Tesco, SuperValu, Spar and Avoca stores, which meant that it could be purchased in more than 500 stores nationwide. As of November 2023, The Plant-It Food Co has increased its distribution to over 600 stores in Ireland. “And it is growing on a weekly basis,” says Eoin. “The general ready meals segment is very competitive, and it has exploded in Ireland in recent years, with some fantastic offerings. However, the chilled section in-store can be challenging for plant-based products. That is because of the number of brands in the market and the size of the section. Shelf life can be challenging for plant-based in chilled, but there is more scope for growth in the frozen section.”

Consumer choice

The Plant-It Food Co’s research is telling them that their products are selling well in urban areas, primarily in Dublin, Cork, and Limerick, and that the age profile is between 20 and 35. “Our consumers are young, time-poor professionals who want healthy and nutritious meals on the move,” he says.

“Products like our buddha bowl that are using 11 different vegetables appeal to consumers that don’t necessarily want a meat-alternative product but are looking for a vegetable-led product that is a source of protein. So, as part of our innovation pipeline, we have created vegetable style bites and burger products. We are currently selling these products in the foodservice sector, and we will bring them into the retail space in early 2024. We also have a power vegetable burger and power vegetable bite (packed full of vegetables and high protein), as well as a spinach and red pepper frittata bite, and these are all new innovations for the plant-based market.”

The Plant-It Food Co also produced a Thai cake, which was custom made for the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. It comprises mainly vegetables, seaweed (Atlantic Irish kelp) and soy protein. “They love it,” he says. “This product is currently selling in the foodservice sector, and it is going down very well overseas. It is launching in the retail sector in the US in December, and we will bring further ready meal styles to the market in 2024.

“We see the future of plant based as leaning towards that type of product rather than a product that mimics a meat burger. There is a cohort that still wants that, but there are also a significant number of consumers that lean towards the vegetable-style product, and that is apparent with flexitarians, so we are offering consumers a choice.”

Predicting growth

Eoin is predicting growth in the plant-based category in 2024, but he believes that this growth will be driven by health and nutrition messaging as opposed to focusing solely on promoting meat alternatives.

“A lot of heavily funded companies entered the market with colourful brands, but they forgot about quality and taste and that has led to the demise of some of those companies,” he says. “We exhibited in New York at the end of 2021 and a lot of our fellow exhibitors no longer exist today because funding for the category has dried up. However, when we exhibited at Anuga in Germany a few weeks ago, we could see that the quality of plant-based products has improved. I am confident that we will see a lot of quality plant-based products on the market in 2024.”

Eoin quotes a recent study conducted by Ernst & Young, which projects substantial global growth in plant-based protein sales by 2035. According to the report, global plant-based meat sales are anticipated to soar from $16.5 billion in 2021 to $139.4 billion by 2035, representing a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 16.5%. Funded by Protein Industries Canada, the study leverages data from the Food and Agriculture Organisation, Good Food Institute, and other third-party sources to examine factors impacting the plant-based protein market, including increased price sensitivity, tight labour markets, higher preference for healthy foods, and rapid growth in emerging markets. 

“We look at our own business and how our new ready meals are performing, and we look at the Ernst & Young findings and it gives us confidence to keep doing what we are doing,” he says. “Looking at the global population, protein production needs to increase by 100% by 2050, so the world is going to have to be fed from somewhere. We need to understand that plant-based products offer healthy and nutritious options that allow food manufacturers to meet consumer demand as new regulations reduce the availability of meat-based proteins.”

Price inflation

The Plant-It Food Co’s ready meals are retailing in the Irish market for €4.95. “We don’t envisage introducing any price increase on our side for our products,” he says. “Given the raw materials that we use, we are probably more protected from inflation than other grocery categories, so we are confident that we can remain stable on price. If anything, we will continue to strive to achieve price parity with meat products, and I believe that we will see a push from the wider plant-based sector over the coming months to achieve that parity.”

In a bid to capitalise on Veganuary 2024, The Plant-It Food Co will be running both price and in-store promotions with key partners in January and February. “In addition, we find that in-store tastings are key for plant-based products, so we will be running as many in-store tastings in Ireland as possible,” he says.

Exciting year ahead

The Plant-It Food Co employs 30 people across its sales, marketing, and factory teams in Ireland. “Based on the current contracts that are signed, we expect that to double by the end of next year,” says Eoin. “2024 looks like it will be a very exciting year for us, both domestically and internationally, especially internationally. The ready meals launch in Ireland has helped us to test our products and we have signed a lot of deals internationally as a result, which will help us to drive on with our global ambitions.

“In Ireland, we envisage further organic growth from the independent retailers and multiples that we currently supply, and we will continue to innovate and bring new products to life. Having our own factory in Ireland allows us to be very flexible and move at speed, but the global market is the focus for us next year. Ireland is our test bed and always will be, and it is a fantastic test bed for bringing products to life internationally.” 

Love Irish Food
The Plant-It Food Co is a proud member of Love Irish Food. “The opportunity to gain exposure alongside iconic, well-established brands has been a great help to us in building our brand awareness with Irish consumers,” says Eoin.

“In-store campaigns, competitions, educational webinars, and support on social media are just some of the many ways that the Love Irish Food organisation has helped us since our launch. We appreciate the support that we have received from Love Irish Food, and we look forward to continuing to be part of the Love Irish Food community.”