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Veggies Move to Center of the Plate

Vicky Uhland

April 24, 2008

6 Min Read
Veggies Move to Center of the Plate

Customer education helps tempeh and tofu rise to top of shopping list

Mother's Market & Kitchen in Costa Mesa, Calif., caters to every type of vegetarian, from macrobiotic mavens to soy snobs. The only meat it sells is frozen fish and chicken, along with albacore tuna in the restaurant and deli. It has customers who are so knowledgeable about vegetarianism, "they frequently educate us," says Mo George-Payette, vice president of food services.

So it comes as a surprise that Mother's holds at least two seminars a week on topics ranging from food allergies to calcium sources and that these seminars are wildly popular, with 30 to 80 people attending each class. "We're always getting new customers, George-Payette says, "and we don't discount that there are a lot of people still learning about things like raw foods and macrobiotics."

The numbers back her up. Chicago-based market research firm Mintel's Global New Products Database reports that total retail sales of vegetarian products have increased between 20 percent and 40 percent annually for the last five years. In 1996, U.S. retail sales of vegetarian foods were $3.1 million; by 2001, sales had jumped to $1.25 billion. Mintel predicts sales will hit $2.8 billion by 2006.

The Vegetarian Resource Group reports 4.8 million Americans—2.5 percent of the adult population—view themselves as vegetarian. Almost 1 percent, or 1.7 million, are vegan. Other polls report that 5 percent to 9 percent of American adults—9.7 million to 17.4 million—are "almost vegetarians" who eat some meat, poultry or fish, and another 38.6 million to 48.2 million Americans—20 percent to 25 percent of the population—are "vegetarian inclined," eating four or more meatless meals a week.

Debra Wasserman, co-director of the Baltimore-based Vegetarian Resource Group, says those numbers could increase if stores would market more to vegetarian wanna-bes. "Education is lacking. There are all these people who might buy things like tempeh if they knew what it was, [but] 99.9 percent of people don't know what that stuff is," she says.

George-Payette agrees that education drives sales, even for already knowledgeable vegetarians. Many like to experiment and need information about the various ways of eating, she says. "You have people who are macrobiotic one month, vegan one month, raw one month. People are just trying to find their niche and are trying to put a title on it."

That's one reason why Mother's seminars are so popular, she says. The four-store, Southern California chain has a marketing person who lines up health industry and other professionals to teach the free seminars, but George-Payette says stores with smaller staffs can still hold seminars. "We were doing seminars when we had two stores. It's something that helps attract customers and build stores."

Wasserman says that in order to lure more true and partial vegetarians to a store, it's key to understand why people have chosen a vegetarian lifestyle. "You can't even market until you know who the consumer is." She says stores are ignoring a huge segment of the vegetarian population: the young animal-rights activists. "Supermarkets think people buy vegetarian for health reasons, but the biggest [number of potential customers]—the pushers of vegetarianism—are in support of animal rights. Even stores like Whole Foods are ignoring this massive market."

Wasserman says the animal-rights movement came of age in the early 1980s, so it appeals to a younger generation. George-Payette agrees, noting, "We see a lot of teenagers or people in their early 20s going to the extreme—vegan, eating raw."

Surprisingly, Wasserman says, it's the mainstream food companies that understand this the best. "A lot of good veggie and vegan items are coming out of chicken companies. They understand the movement and know young people are the future."

While it's easy to say that educating consumers about vegetarianism is important, there's disagreement about how best to do it.

In an ideal world there would be floor graphics, shelf cards or freezer danglers in the meatless soy section of the store, with messages such as "better for you, great tasting soy products," or "the protein you need with 70 percent less fat," or even "tastes good," says Deanie Elsner, senior business director at Kraft Foods' Boca Foods Co. in Madison, Wis.

But George-Payette cautions that too much information can be an insult to customers. "Signage is good to direct you where to go, but we don't want to be preachy. Customers are going to find out what they need when they hit the shelves."

Elsner would also like to see a separate, labeled "meatless," soy section next to a store's frozen meat and seafood. Wasserman agrees, but says it's also important to have vegetarian-only sections within stores. "A vegetarian would be gung ho on having a separate section, but you have to think about people who eat meat three to four times a week. If you put the Tofu Pups with the hot dogs, someone who's never heard of them but is shopping for hot dogs might buy them." Mother's relies on subsections—the pasta section has macrobiotic and wheat-free areas, but the stores also have sections devoted to types of food, such as soy or macrobiotic.

One thing Elsner, Wasserman and George-Payette agree on is that sampling sells unfamiliar products.

"Something like marinated tofu will never work for [the almost-vegetarian and vegetarian-inclined] groups unless they get to taste it," Wasserman says. That's one reason why prepared foods are a key step in attracting new customers to vegetarian products, she says. Not only do they alleviate the taste problem but they're also convenient.

"Anything ready to eat will sell over everything else," she says.

Vicky Uhland is a freelance writer and editor in Denver. She may be reached at [email protected].

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 1/p. 18, 20

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 1/p. 20

About the Author(s)

Vicky Uhland

Vicky Uhland is a writer and editor based in Lafayette, Colorado.

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