Tim Hortons is serving plant-based patties in breakfast sandwiches, A&W’s veggie burgers are doing so well it can’t keep them in stock, Maple Leaf is spending more than US$300 million building a plant-based protein food-processing facility in Indiana and California-based Beyond Meat shares have almost tripled in just a little over two months since going public.
Convenience and mass marketing of meat alternatives — and the fact more consumers are discovering they taste good — are making demand for plant-based choices a hot consumer trend.
That’s just a couple of reasons why French company Roquette could not have picked a better time to build the largest pea-protein plant in the world in Portage la Prairie.
"We just wish the plant was up and running today," said Jim Bozikis, a spokesman for Roquette out of its Americas headquarters near Chicago.
But the spike in demand is not something particularly surprising to Roquette, an 80-year-old, family-owned business that operates in 100 countries and is a global leader in every aspect of plant-based ingredients and a pioneer in extracting and marketing plant proteins.
The company made the decision to invest $400 million in the Portage la Prairie plant long before Beyond Meat became the hot brand it is today.
In fact, Roquette has been a supplier to Beyond Meat for 10 years already. Yellow pea protein is an important ingredient in a lot of veggie-burger configurations and Roquette is going to be able to double its pea-protein production when Portage is complete.
Unfortunately for the company, that’s not going to happen until the end of next year, about one year later than it originally suggested, and that is partly because of the undeniable spike in global demand.
The company did its official groundbreaking in September 2017 and did about six months’ worth of prep work, but then stopped.
"As we looked at our ambitions and our projections for pea protein, we saw that, yeah, they are not only on target, but even better than we had expected," Bozikis said. "We wanted to make sure we were preparing for all the products we could make and that we were building it right, given that you only get a chance to build it once."
Part of the rethinking of the project was to design the plant to allow for expansion as well as production of organic pea protein.
Dave Shambrock, executive director of Food & Beverage Manitoba, the provincial food-processing industry association, said there’s no question Roquette is a well-respected global company. But the rapid growth in demand of plant-based meat alternatives with fast-food companies tripping over each other launching their own version of the veggie burger is definitely spiking demand.
"It has caught many of us off guard how quickly it grew from something that mid-sized niche players were involved in, to where companies like Maple Leaf are putting serious money on the table," he said.
The current consumer trendiness of meat alternatives is also making the Prairie thought leaders behind the Protein Industries Canada (PIC) supercluster look pretty clever.
With more than $150 million of federal government money to be used to invest in plant-based protein research and development, PIC CEO Bill Greuel believes there will be no shortage of projects to leverage that investment two or three times over.
With the deadline for its first $40-million call for proposals coming up at the end of the month, Greuel said, "There is an extremely high amount of interest from companies. We are anticipating a very robust project pipeline coming at us in late June. There is no fear that we are not going to have enough projects to fund."
He said having a large anchor like Roquette, which is a member of the PIC consortium, is something that bodes well for the success of the ecosystem.
"Consumer demand is shifting," Greuel said. "People are eating differently today than they were a generation ago. One of the biggest drivers, in my opinions, is convenience foods and people being concerned about the impact their food choice has on the environment."
It all fits into Roquette’s general market play. Prior to launching the development of the Portage plant — currently the largest capital project for Roquette, a company with more than $5 billion in annual revenue and a global network of 25 industrial sites — it had just finished expanding a pea-processing operation it has in France.
When the new plant is commissioned in 2020, both plants will have a combined pea-processing capacity of close to 250,000 tonnes per year. Only time will tell if that will be enough to satisfy this seemingly insatiable consumer demand.
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.