Plant Forward: BEYOND THIS


“In our markets, we’re in small town Minnesota for the most part, so it takes awhile for trends to get here,” says Ashley Kibutha, supermarket registered dietitian manager at Coborn’s, an employee-owned, 120-plus store chain, headquartered in St. Cloud, MN. “We tend to see more interest in plant-based diets in our metro areas, averaging around 80,000 people. But across our markets, we’re seeing a lot of curiosity about plant-based,” she says.

“Maybe it’s not exactly that people are doing things plant-based yet, but they’re interested and asking questions. At the end of the day, it means eating more fruits and vegetables so people are in a better mood and healthier and all those things [PBH’s Have A Plant slogan] stands for,” she says.

“We try to meet people where they are in the spectrum of plant-based eating,” she says. “We want people to eat more than just meat and potatoes … it’s fine to have your potato, but why not add a nice fruit salsa on top of that pork chop.”

Kibutha says Coborn’s helps consumers take baby steps to get more produce in their diets because “we’re a grocery store, where we can explain why produce is so important.”

U.S. consumers, in general, are looking to their supermarket to be a partner in their wellness journey, according to data from FMI, Hartman Group and other studies, notes Kibutha. “And as dietitians, we want to be that destination,” says Kibutha.

“We need to emphasize the produce department is plant-forward,” says Kibutha. “I did a video recipe with cauliflower steak. The next step is merchandising cauliflower in steak form in the produce department,” she says.

“Another cool way we can drive people to the produce department is to have signs, ‘Hey, I’m Plant-Based Too,’ over with the apples, kale and mushrooms.” In addition, Coborn’s has Chop Shop stations in many of its locations, where consumers can bring their produce to get sliced, minced, and diced the way they’d like it.


The produce industry may be smart to embrace omnivore lovers. Nielsen data shows sales of meat hit $95 billion last year, compared to meat alternatives just shy of $1 billion, and 98 percent of meat alternative buyers also purchase meat.

Fresh Thyme cross-merchandises proteins with produce to offer a meal solution as well as bonus sales.

“The plant-based movement has become anti-meat,” according to Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, president and chief executive at the Produce For Better Health Foundation. “There’s a significant opportunity for the produce industry to take the lead in the plant-forward movement and secure its rightful place on the plate,” she says. “If the industry doesn’t embrace Have A Plant, someone else will take a hold of that campaign. This is a do- or-die moment,” she contends.

In a 2018 Gallop poll, less than five percent of Americans say they’re vegetarian, and less than three percent say they are vegan. What you see is meat is still on the plate, even with plant-forward trends. According to Annette Maggi, retail account manager, PBH, in 2018, PBH kicked off Powerful Produce Pairings as a retail promotion, and in the omni-channel digital space. For example, Jewel Osco, based in the Chicago area, did a promotion with California walnuts and Stemilt apples that featured sliced apples with Greek yogurt walnut dip. It included a cross-merchandising display of all ingredients, tearpads with copies of the recipe, a cooking class and in-store demo. PBH provided web content for a blog. Jewel Osco did a video on how to prepare the recipe, promoted through PBH social media and Jewel Osco. It resulted in a dramatic sales lift over the prior year, same-week period (Stemilt apples notched a 106 percent increase in sales, while California walnuts soared 160 percent), says Maggi. Fresh Thyme ran its first Produce Pairing program in May, in partnership with PBH. “We came up with the concept of using vegetables as vessels, using a potato, pepper or zucchini, etc., as your vessel and then building the meal from that,” says Kerry Clifford. A large sign showed a stuffed potato as the vessel. One recipe was a walnut chorizo, using black beans as a way to have a plant-based chorizo for a very tasty meal. Another was a meat recipe with pork. Customers could pick up Fresh Thyme’s free magazine with the recipes that coincided with the in-store displays carrying the necessary ingredients.

“We had about 87 million impressions through TV, email, web and in-store. It was really an integrated marketing approach,” Clifford says.

Consumers don’t eat most foods in isolation. “The fresh produce industry’s biggest competition is not other forms of produce, it’s the low-nutrient, dense foods out there stealing market share from fresh produce, that’s the competition,” says Kapsak.


A new market for supply may be emerging for produce companies to provide fresh produce to meat-alternative companies and form new partnerships. These products could ultimately be sold and merchandised in the produce department.

“Our research analysis shows U.S. retail sales of plant-based foods have grown 11 percent in the past year, bringing the total plant-based market value to $4.5 billion,” says Sabina Vyas, director, strategic partnerships at the San Francisco-based Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA).

The plant-based meat category alone is worth more than $800 million, according to PBFA and the Washington, DC-based Good Food Industry. The leading drivers of plant-based sales continue to be plant-based milks, plant-based dairy, such as cheese, yogurt and ice cream, and plant-based meats.

“We are currently identifying pilot sites for our The Power Plant station concept — mobile units with pre-made plant-based meals and snacks to go, healthy alternatives to counterparts that could include salad bowls, wraps and items like mushroom jerky,” says Vyas.

“We’re just getting our bearings for expansion and riding the plant-forward wave,” says Michael Pan, founder of the Oregon-based namesake company that produces mushroom jerky. “We wanted to solve a problem of finding healthy snacks that taste delicious and keep it simple with clean ingredients. If we can’t pronounce it, we don’t want it,” he says of Pan’s Mushroom Jerky, a 30-year-old family recipe.

“We’d like our store placement to be with fresh mushrooms in the produce department, but we’re not there yet. We’re trying to find mushroom-growing partners that can deliver on quality and price,” he says.

“Our Power Plant stations are focused on institutions such as colleges and universities, and eventually the goal is to expand into hospitals, airports, and retail,” says Vyas. “It would be great to see our members’ foods merchandised with fresh fruits and vegetables in the produce section, and exploring this strategy is one of our goals for the near future. These opportunities may include signage, limited time offers, shopper marketing campaigns and recipes showcasing plant-based alternatives paired with fresh produce.”

Vyas says there are many opportunities for new partnerships between plant-based processors/manufacturers and the fresh produce industry. “The market is ripe for innovation of new products and branding that is inclusive versus tailoring messaging to only vegans and vegetarians,” says Vyas.”