In our July State of the Industry Report, we detail the rapid rise of plant-based food sales in 2020, which has been accelerated by COVID-19 in the wake of factory shutdowns and supply chain bottlenecks for meat due to pandemic stockpiling.

Plant-based food sales were already growing before COVID-19, and the category has long enjoyed a healthy halo around its products as beneficial to both consumers and the environment. However, a closer look at some of the labels for plant-based meats, for example, reveal they’re not much healthier than their animal-based counterparts, particularly when it comes to saturated fat, sodium, and the highly processed method of re-creating the taste and texture of an animal protein. 

Because of this, we’re currently on the cusp of a second era in alternative meats that will continue to focus on flavor, but also honor their “better-for-you” halos with simpler ingredients and minimal processing.  

One company part of this second era is High Peaks, a plant-based sausage brand in upstate New York that launched in 2019. Founder, CEO & president Stacie Waters is a third-generation sausage maker, so the skill and technique in replicating an animal-based sausage is there, but the company has an equal amount of focus on improving the true nutrition of their products. I spoke with Waters about why she entered a very crowded plant-based foods category, how COVID-19 has affected her business, and what trends and challenges she sees within the industry today.

R&FF: Why are meatless alternatives booming in 2020? They’re more popular than ever and nearly every company has a line of meatless products now.

Waters: Consumers are leading a more flexitarian lifestyle. With the vast amount of information available on the internet, consumers are able to quickly and efficiently learn what’s truly good for them and what isn’t, and they’re seeing that a varied diet supports a healthy lifestyle. That means eating more plants, and less meat. This has created a surge in demand both for products that conveniently support a flexitarian diet, but that are also delicious and cover the range of variety, quality and attributes that consumers expect.

We’ve also seen overall demand in the meat industry for chicken increase significantly, both in the fast food realm as well as in grocery. It seems that plant-forward chicken products—meats that have a large amount of vegetables included as well—will continue to grow and have their moment in the spotlight throughout 2020 and beyond. 

R&FF: How can alternative meat companies elevate the nutrition profile of their products? Is true nutrition the next phase for plant-based meats?

Waters: As the creator of a brand whose purpose is to “eat beyond your expectations”, I do feel the next phase of meatless alternatives is true nutrition, and clean, simple ingredients. As consumers become more flexible in their meat consumption and more educated about what true nutrition means, alternative meat companies need to educate consumers and hold themselves accountable to building a truly better-for-you product. That means consumers also need to be educated to hold companies accountable who are producing meat-based alternatives which have high saturated fat content and often are worse for you than a meat option. When a meatless sausage has more total fat and saturated fat than a turkey-based sausage, we have a problem in the way the food is being created and marketed, so High Peaks exists as a healthier alternative to that.  

R&FF: What new items have you launched in 2020, and are there any others scheduled before the end of the year?

Waters: High Peaks launched in 2019, so our team has been working hard to secure distribution for the four items from our initial launch. Since 2013, more than $17 billion in CPG sales have come from smaller food companies versus large food companies. As a smaller, family-owned challenger food brand, we’re excited to see this paradigm shift continue as we put together a strong innovation pipeline for the future of our plant-based sausages, ensuring the root of all that innovation is truly healthy, delicious foods.

R&FF: How has COVID-19 affected the consumer acceptance of meatless products?

Across our industry, we’ve seen consumer demand rise for meatless products. But due to the pandemic we’ve seen many retail partners prioritize familiar staples over newer innovations. We believe in the future of plant-based sausage products and know consumers will continue asking for them.

R&FF: What parts of your operation has been most affected by COVID-19?

Waters: The safety of our team has always been one of our highest priorities—our teammates in our plant and in our office are our family. Certainly COVID-19 has led to us revising our safety protocols to make sure that we can continue to make food that’s essential to keep our country going, while prioritizing our team’s safety. This has changed our daily life, just as it’s impacted everyone around the world. Our office staff have been working from home, and our manufacturing team is operating with all of the precautions you would expect to keep everyone safe.  We were so proud that our team was able to successfully double our usual production volume during the crisis, to keep up with all the increased demand from our customers.

R&FF: What technology has been put into your operation that increased efficiencies?

Waters: We’re actually pretty low-tech as far as our sausage-making goes. Our plant-based sausages are made from simple, everyday ingredients, and because I’m a third-generation sausage maker, we make them using classic sausage-making techniques. We’re not using flavorants and extruders and other complex devices or ingredients to make our products. That said, we do have state of the art sausage stuffing and packaging equipment that certainly makes it faster and easier than hand-making sausages.

R&FF: What sustainable initiatives and renewable energy infrastructure have you put into your operation? How have they affected you from a cost and waste standpoint?

Waters: We always keep sustainability in mind for our products. Our focus is on using smaller ingredient suppliers and buying local and closer to home whenever possible to reduce the environmental impact of transportation. We are also working with our packaging suppliers to support the continued development of recyclable packaging.

R&FF: Has COVID-19 influenced any plans for direct-to-consumer sales for High Peaks? Do you envision more or fewer DTC sales within the next year?

Waters: Looking to the future, we certainly envision increased demand for direct-to-consumer shipping methods for our products. COVID-19 has not directly impacted our plans to date, largely because we’re still a new company.  

R&FF: What overall trends are you seeing in the industry when it comes to labor, sourcing, packaging, storage, distribution and costs so far this year?

Waters: One of the trends we see in the food industry year after year is consumer demand for sustainability, traceability and recyclability in manufacturing, packaging and sourcing. As consumers push for re-usability and recyclability in all of the products they purchase, we’re actively working on how we can regularly improve.

While we continue to see rising consumer demand for meat alternatives—with many retailers prioritizing a variety of meatless options for consumers—one of our biggest challenges is availability of distribution due to fairly limited shelf space. 

Finally, finding skilled labor today is difficult for food manufacturing. We care deeply about how our foods are made, and making our recipes is both an art and a science. We’re proud to own and operate our manufacturing facility where all High Peaks sausages are made. Accessing the right people for our manufacturing operation is a continuing challenge.

R&FF: Which of those trends do you think will continue into 2021?

Waters: All of the 2020 trends will, I think, continue into 2021. Consumers and manufacturers like us will still be adapting to the “new normal”, and it remains to be seen what consumer demand will look like once the dust settles on the economic situation in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.

Click here for more COVID-19 coverage and how it is affecting the refrigerated and frozen foods industry.