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The latest menu innovation at Tropical Smoothie Café is getting its share of attention from vegans, vegetarians, and “flexitarians” alike. That’s because they’re chicken strips—without the chicken.
Created by Los Angeles–based Beyond Meat—a company that develops plant-based protein products meant to serve as meat alternatives—the chicken-free strips are made from a soy and pea protein blend.
Each 3-ounce serving includes just 120 calories and 18 grams of protein. The chicken is also available grilled and in a Southwest flavor.
Mike Rotondo, CEO of Tropical Smoothie Café, says the brand has been looking to add vegetarian options to the menu for some time; however, it wasn’t until Beyond Meat reached out and impressed the brand with its product that the concept decided to move forward.
In addition, the growing market for vegan and meatless options played a convincing role, he says.
According to research from the Vegetarian Resource Group, 4 percent of consumers are either vegetarian or vegan. An additional 16 percent consider themselves “flexitarians,” meaning they only eat meat on occasion.
Further, 26 percent of the population is made up of “meat reducers”—customers who, for one reason or another, are looking to reduce or cut meat out of their diet.
Adding it all up, more than 45 percent of the population is open to the idea of meatless meals and menu options.
“If that’s the average consumer, let’s talk about the average Tropical Smoothie customer,” Rotondo says. “We’re already kind of an eat-better-feel-better concept. So if 45 percent of the average population is in that situation, it might be 55 or 60 percent of our consumers that are coming into Tropical Smoothie, so this makes sense for our brand.”
Rotondo says the strips are meant to serve as protein replacements for any menu item that features chicken, such as wraps, sandwiches, and salads.
“What this really is is an opportunity for somebody who says, ‘I want that protein, I want the feel of chicken. I don’t want tofu; I don’t want to have something … that doesn’t act or look like a protein that I’m used to. I’m not open to that,’” he says.
“But here’s a product that if you put it in a wrap, you put it on a salad, it really does look like chicken strips,” he adds. “And when you bite into it, that is what is really kind of breakthrough about this product. It tastes like and it looks like you’re biting into a strip of chicken.”
Tropical Smoothie Café is the first national restaurant chain to deliver the Beyond Meat product to consumers across the country. Though Rotondo says that brand typically doesn’t act as a pioneer in the industry, this move sets it apart from competitors.
“This is a situation where we have taken a stance, and we believe that this is right for us,” he says. “And in this case, we are the pioneers and we love it.”
Though the product has only been in stores for a little more than a week, Rotondo says the consumer reaction has been positive, with many consumers thanking the brand for introducing a vegan- and vegetarian-friendly option at the chain.
To help drive trial, the brand plans to capitalize on Meatless Mondays, using social media to create promotions that drive participants into stores each Monday.
“It is just kind of a win on every front, where it’s right for our customers, it’s right for our brand, and it’s the right product,” Rotondo says. “You can’t go wrong in a situation like that.”
By Mary Avant