What's gone wrong at Beyond Meat
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What's gone wrong at Beyond Meat

Dec 19, 2023

A slew of problems have stalled the growth of Beyond Meat, once a darling of Wall Street whose top product became synonymous with plant-based burgers.

Sales have been declining, sliding 22.5% in the third quarter compared to the previous year, and the company has laid off over 20% of its global staff since August. After an extremely successful market debut in 2019, Beyond Meat (BYND) has lost favor with investors. The stock dropped about 77% so far this year.

Some of the problems can be attributed to broader industry challenges. In the grocery store, interest in plant-based meats has waned as consumers, faced with inflation, focus on shopping for affordable basics.

At the same time, restaurant traffic is dipping. Cash-strapped customers are pulling back on dining out, making Beyond's foodservice business more vulnerable. And Beyond is far from the only company to lay off staff as a possible recession looms.

But Beyond is facing some unique challenges.

The company recently parted ways with three members of its C-suite, one of whom allegedly bit someone's nose. A recent LA Times report called into question the hygiene of a Beyond Meat facility in Pennsylvania, though the company stands by the cleanliness of the plant, saying that its "food safety protocols go above industry and regulatory standards."

Also, a promising partnership with McDonald's (MCD) has stalled in the United States. And fierce competition is squeezing sales, including in frozen, plant-based chicken, a category that is growing while refrigerated plant-based meat sales falter.

The company's plan is to focus on cash flow and profitability rather than growth, and become more strategic in its restaurant and marketing initiatives, among other things.

"Despite the current headwinds facing our business and category, we remain confident in our ability to deliver on the long-term growth and impact expected from our global brand," a Beyond Meat spokesperson told CNN Business in response to a request for comment.

"They’ve got a big task ahead of them," said Peter Saleh, restaurant analyst at financial services firm BTIG. Next year will be about "trying to get their financials in order to a place where they can sustain themselves," he added. "It's a tall order."

Last year, Beyond Meat announced a strategic partnership with McDonald's, including working with the burger chain on the McPlant, a plant-based burger.

Since then, the McPlant has been added to the McDonald's menu permanently in some European markets.

In the US, McDonald's (MCD) tested out the burger in some locations. But it hasn't added the item to the menu, and it's not clear if or when that will happen.

"I don't think it's totally off the table, but I’m not sure that it's going to be [Beyond's] saving grace at this point," said Saleh.

Beyond has also lost its spot on the Dunkin’ menu. The coffee chain enthusiastically rolled out a breakfast sandwich with Beyond sausage nationally in 2019, but stopped working with Beyond last year.

Beyond still has plenty of partnerships with restaurants, but many of them are limited-time tests.

"In the last 12 months, we have had 25 trials for permanent menu launches with nine distinct products," said Beyond CEO Ethan Brown during a November analyst call discussing the company's third-quarter results.

Brown positioned the launches as long-term investments, saying they won't generate big sales in the short term but should pay off eventually. But getting a permanent menu spot might be challenging, noted Kathryn Fenner, principal at foodservice consulting firm Technomic.

"Even if they sell, say 30 to 40 of these plant-based burgers a day … that still pales in comparison to their traditional proteins," she said, speaking about plant-based burgers in general. And these days, making a limited-time offer permanent is a tough sell because operators have been slimming down their menus, she noted.

Meanwhile, Burger King continues to sell the Impossible Whopper nationally. "We haven't been experiencing what Beyond Meat and some of the other brands in the space have reported," said Impossible foods spokesperson Keely Sulprizio. Impossible is private and is not required to share its sales data publicly.

In the grocery store, Beyond is facing a swell of competition.

Beyond has embraced competition in the past. But now, rivals are interfering with its bottom line.

"We believe that healthy competition within plant-based meat is a good thing as it brings investment in marketing to the category," said Brown during the November analyst call.

"However, in the current environment, we are not seeing this benefit," he said. "Instead, more companies are pursuing the same or fewer consumers." Brown said Beyond is the leader in refrigerated plant-based meat, and that he expects some brands to pull back or consolidate in the future.

It's true that the plant-based meat pie is smaller these days. Retail sales of meat alternatives fell about 12% in the year through November 6, according to data from IRI. Ground plant-based meat fell about 19%, and patties were down 30% in that period.

But frozen chicken alternatives are growing. Strips and cutlets sales increased about 16% and nuggets jumped nearly 28%.

Beyond Meat is getting into plant-based steak

"Frozen plant-based chicken is the largest single subcategory in all of plant-based meats and continues to grow at a double-digit pace," said Brown during the analyst call. "So we are pleased to be expanding our presence of additional chicken items."

Beyond Meat introduced plant-based chicken strips in retail in 2014, but pulled the product in 2019. It launched a retooled version, Beyond Chicken Tenders, in stores in 2021, and has built its plant-based chicken portfolio since then.

But in the few years Beyond's product was off the market, new entrants rushed into the space.

Nuggs, a plant-based chicken nugget made by startup Simulate, has made a splash online thanks to its bold packaging over the last few years and has been expanding in retail.

Daring, another plant-based chicken company, launched its product in the US in 2020. Daring's chicken alternative became available at Whole Foods last year. Impossible and other legacy brands have offerings, as well.

"Plant-based chicken is a good growth category," said Saleh. "I would have liked to have seen [Beyond] double down."