View from the C-Suite: Maple Leaf’s $3 billion opportunity

Last year, the meat company saw 30% growth in plant proteins. Greenleaf president Dan Curtin explains what's next.

Dan Curtin, Greenleaf

This story appeared in Strategy C-Suite, a weekly email briefing on how Canada’s brand leaders are responding to market challenges and acting on new opportunities. Sign-up for the newsletter here to receive the latest stories directly to your inbox every other Tuesday.

Consumers’ appetite for plant-based proteins continues to grow.

Maple Leaf Foods, for one, intends to create a $3 billion plant-protein business over the next decade, taking a sizeable piece of what the food company predicts could be a $25 billion category come 2029.

In 2019, Maple Leaf reported sales of $3.9 billion, an increase of 13% from the year before. The source of that growth is telling: 12.5% was in meat protein, while slightly more than 27% was in plant protein.

The company said it has begun implementing an “invest for growth” strategy with plant proteins, making the “conscious choice to sacrifice short-term profitability in favour of seizing on the opportunities we see in this category over time.”

Across North America, the Canadian company’s plant-protein business is represented by U.S.-based Greenleaf Foods, formed in 2018 following its acquisitions of Lightlife and Field Roast. While both brands are relative newcomers to Canada, Greenleaf president Dan Curtin (pictured above) says it took the U.S. business’ top performing products and transplanted them to Canada.

Now, it hopes to grow its Canadian business through a combination of product innovation and food service partnerships.

Lightlife Foods Veggie-Burger Pack

Maple Leaf Foods has set an annual target growth rate of 30% in plant proteins. What are the main pillars of that growth strategy at Greenleaf?

Curtin: Lightlife’s been around for 40 years, and Field Roast has been around for 23 years. We’ve got the number one and number two position in the marketplace in what we call the “legacy items,” and that category continues to see growth. We support that with different marketing vehicles and different media support, as well as working closely with all of our customers. That’s one bucket.

The second bucket is some new innovation products that we introduced last year into the meat category, merchandised in the meat section and in traditional and natural foods sections. We’ve seen significant growth in that area.

Finally, we’ve put a new focus in the last eight months or so on our food service business. For example, in Canada, we’re in Harvey’s and Kelsey’s and a number of other food service outlets in Canada. So a combination of all those things have given us some nice growth and growth projections based on where we see those things playing out.

What are the biggest differences between the Lightlife and Field Roast brands?

The Lightlife brand is more traditional products that consumers can identify with — hotdogs, sausages, crumble products — very familiar products with nutritional ingredients in them.

On the Field Roast side, it’s more indulgent, it’s more about the culinary [experience], robust flavours, fresh ingredients. And the approach there is more around the sausage product that people use, not only as a traditional sausage, but as an ingredient in different dishes that they create to make sure that they’re getting protein into their diet.

Are those differences reflected in the way you market those products? 

They are. With Field Roast, we’ve partnered with Roy Choi, the [Korean American chef] who basically started the food truck movement in California. We’ve partnered with Bon Appetit as well. So we’ve brought that connection for consumers looking to have the indulgent, exciting side of it, with ingredients and flavour profiles.

For Lightlife, we have found people who are connected [to a certain lifestyle]. For example, we have partnered with Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard; they eat this way, because they believe in good, nourishing, health products that are tied back to ingredients at a more traditional level.

So we’ve tried to partner with the people that we believe most identify with the two brands. Same thing with the recipes we’ve done on social, where we get more indulgent with Field Roast and more traditional with Lightlife.

fieldroastsausageSeeing as innovation is a big part of growing this category overall, what do you have coming down the pipeline?

We’re very pleased with the burger and the ground product that we launched under the Lightlife brand. And we just recently announced some new products: a breakfast sausage and a new version of our dinner sausage.

So we see innovation absolutely playing a big role in future growth. And our approach — we use soy and peas in some products, and gluten in others —  allows us the flexibility to get the consumers what they’re looking for.

On the Field Roast side, our sausage business is massive for us and we’re the leaders in that; we’ve recently introduced some different flavour profiles, and we just announced a breakfast sausage patty to accompany the breakfast sausage link, which is the number one selling plant-based breakfast in the marketplace.

We’ve got a full team that works on future development. I can’t get into all the details at this point in time, but I can tell you that we have a pipeline of innovation products that we’re going to perfect and then bring to market.

Do you see future growth coming primarily from innovation and offering consumers more choice in retail, or from partnering with additional food service providers?

It’s a little bit of everything.

It’s communicating to consumers and making sure more of them are aware of what products are available. Industry data shows that we keep getting new users into this category, each and every month, as awareness grows and people want to try things. We see that as a big part of it.

The second [part] would be around innovation and bringing new products to market. We have fantastic distribution on our Lightlife and Field Roast products throughout Canada and the United States on the retail and natural foods side of the business. But partnering with more food service customers will allow us to continue to bring some of that growth as well.

You’ve seen a lot [happen] in food service as consumers look for options. In Canada, we have partnered with Kentucky Fried Chicken, A&W, Harvey’s and Kelsey’s, and you’ll see more of those partnerships evolving in the future.

A lot of brands in this space target vegetarians, vegans and flexitarians, consumers with different motivations and needs. Has your target evolved, and do you see any differences in the way people are approaching your products today?

The core legacy business had been built around vegans or vegetarians that were living that lifestyle for a variety of reasons, whether it was personal choice, social choice, or a doctor-driven choice. What we see evolving is flexitarians, reducetarians — those words get a little overused — but basically everyone who is looking for options, whether they’re looking for other proteins to add to their diet, or whether they need to start eating healthier.

One of the things that we’ve prided ourselves on, which we think is a big point of difference, is our ingredient deck. It’s real food; it’s ingredients you can identify with. We have less of some of those ingredients that consumers cannot relate to, which we believe [appeals to their desire for nourishing, healthier products]. And we’re seeing a lot of millennials looking for options so they can do creative things with some of their cooking and meal occasions.

Out of all the products under Greenleaf, what are people buying the most? And do you have a personal favourite? 

We have a number of products that are leading categories. Our Lightlife hot dogs are doing exceptionally well, as are our Lightlife burgers and Lightlife tempeh. Those are three [growth] drivers for us.

On the Field Roast side, our sausage products do exceptionally well. We’re also in the non-dairy business with our Chao cheese, [which is] the number one selling plant-based cheese out there.

For me, this is like picking your favourite child. Both Lightlife and Field Roast are part of my weekly diet, so I would be in that flexitarian camp myself. I love bringing our products into a number of recipes at home; our Lightlife ground product is awesome for that. But I wouldn’t say I have one favourite. I would say I have a number of favourites.

This interview is part of a series for Strategy C-Suite, a weekly email briefing on how Canada’s brand leaders are responding to market challenges and acting on new opportunities. Sign-up for the newsletter here to receive the latest stories directly to your inbox every Tuesday.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.