The market for meat-free is set to reach £1.1bn by 2023, according to Mintel. Brands across the UK have been quick to capitalise, but does the failure of Garden Gourmet prove being vegetarian isn’t enough to secure success?

There are few inventive ways left to phrase this, but Nestlé this week unveiled a new vegan burger.

The food giant’s “biggest move yet” into plant-based is variously dubbed the Awesome Burger or the Incredible Burger (not to be confused with the Co-op’s Incredible Burger launched last week), depending on whether you’re in the US or Europe.

“They even make the sizzling sound of a regular beefburger during cooking,” says Nestlé. Unfortunately, those of us in the UK will likely be unable to verify this claim any time soon, because it won’t be heading here.

The reason? It’s part of Nestlé’s Garden Gourmet range, which was quietly pulled from British shelves at the beginning of the year. Despite its status as Nestlé’s flagship vegetarian brand around the world, Garden Gourmet was given the boot after barely eight months.

It had rolled out into Waitrose and Sainsbury’s last May, featuring vegetarian burgers, melts, chicken-style pieces, vegan mince and falafels. It was a significant launch, putting it at the forefront of inroads into meat-free among the major multinationals, and aiming to cement Nestlé’s status in the chillers and freezer aisles.

So why did it fall flat?

A spokesman for Nestlé says the range had “not been as popular as we had hoped”. “We will now explore other options in the plant-based market,” he adds, insisting this does not mean the brand was never to return to UK grocery.

“We believe that a more plant-based diet is the future and one of our strategic priorities is to expand our vegetarian and flexitarian choices.”

Note Nestlé specifies “plant-based” in its statement. That signifies something of a change in tune, and perhaps a lesson learned.

Speaking to The Grocer at Garden Gourmet’s launch, Nestlé’s UK food division MD Paula Jordan said the brand would “revolutionise the vegetarian category”. The growth was in meat-free and driven by flexitarians and meat-reducers, not vegans, she said. And, aiming for mass-market appeal, there was no signposting of vegan products anywhere on the Garden Gourmet packaging.

That, says plant-based consultant Jen Pardoe, was a fatal mistake. The products in the range with an entirely animal-free ingredient list were still slapped with a vegetarian flash, the same as those containing egg or cheese.

“Green packaging bedecked with leaves won’t appeal to meat eaters”

“It took no notice of the fact that at the same time it was launching, Quorn was busy reformulating its product lineup to remove egg and provide more totally vegan options,” says Pardoe, co-founder of Plant-Based 2 Business. It’s a move that has worked well for Quorn, with vegan signposting bringing in incremental sales, while it has maintained sales of the original SKUs, which often appear next to their vegan alternatives.

Meanwhile, Mintel finds the growing availability of vegan products in the meat-free foods market will appeal to the 26% of consumers who prefer meat-free products to be plant-based rather than containing eggs or dairy, Pardoe says brands must take action to target the other 74%.

“Green packaging bedecked with leaves won’t appeal to meat-eaters who we need to bring into the category,” she explains. “They’re the ones who aren’t yet brand loyal, and are the biggest growth opportunity.”

Space race

There are other factors at play, too. Like increasing crowding in the meat-free market.

Over the past year, a veritable avalanche of burgers very similar to Garden Gourmet’s Incredible Burger have spilled into supermarkets.

Quorn, the Beyond Burger, the Meatless Farm Co, Vivera, the Vegetarian Butcher, Moving Mountains, Naturli, and Move Over Meat have each launched a ‘next generation’ meat-imitating burger within the past 12 months. And that doesn’t include the wealth of own label variants, like Iceland’s No Bull, Marks & Spencer’s Plant Kitchen or Aldi’s Meat-Free Butcher.

Even more are waiting in the wings, with startups Miami Burger and Daring Foods due to announce supermarket listings this year. Fmcg giants have been slow starters, but are mounting their response with the likes of Birds Eye’s Green Cuisine and meat giant ABP’s Equals vegan burger.

All of these are just the players in vegan burgers. Go beyond the bun to other meat alternatives and you’ll find Gardein, Sophie’s Kitchen, Squeaky Bean and Heck tussling for share.

“In 2019, creating a plant-based product doesn’t guarantee success”

Nestlé was seemingly reluctant to put any real oomph into taking on that competition in the midst of a “vegan junk food overload”, says Vevolution co-founder and investment advisor Damien Clarkson.

“Every time I go into Tesco I see Oumph and Vivera putting money into promotions,” he says. “Poor product placement, bad packaging and no story makes a recipe for failure in my eyes.

“In 2019 creating a plant-based product doesn’t guarantee success. Consumers wanting to make plant-based choices have a great variety of products to choose from. They want to invest in products that not only taste great, but align with their values.”

It’s a stark warning for those who have seen the boom in plant-based as a meal ticket. The failure of Garden Gourmet is perhaps the first significant mis-step in the burgeoning vegan category.

There was a similar explosion in dairy-free ice creams a couple of years ago, adds Pardoe. “Brands piled into the category, and people were excited because there were options where there hadn’t been before. But the novelty wore off and eventually retailers pared back listings to just the bestselling SKUs.”

Of course, predictions that the UK has reached ‘peak vegan’ have been bandied about for years – but we’re clearly not nearing the end of this trend yet.