Plant Based World and Plant Based Foods Association team up to advance the plant-based foods market

Riding on the tailwinds of a successful 2019, 2020 was off to a strong start for the natural foods industry.Stakeholders, suppliers, and retailers like Hannaford, a supermarket chain operating in New England and New York,were packing their bags and gearing up for an action-packed spring of trade shows across the country. This annual pilgrimage, aimed at growing connections, exploring innovations, and facilitating the next phase of the industry’s growth, was a time-honored, and more importantly, time-proven way of conducting business. But then, in March of 2020, the world as we know it was changed forever in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

By now, everyone knows what happened next; the market’s key players were quickly forced to recognize that they would spend the foreseeable future without their traditional means of conducting business, while simultaneously, pandemic panic buying and shifts in shopper purchasing behavior were forcing retailers to quickly adapt with no playbook for such a crisis. The resilience of the food industry was nothing short of incredible. Retailers and suppliers worked in tandem to meet demand while keeping workers and shoppers safe. Zack DiSilvestro, Category Analyst for beef, lamb, veal, and plant-based meat at Hannaford, shared with us how impressed he was that, along with their sister banners within Ahold Delhaize, their supplier partners proved to be so incredibly dependable in the face of such unprecedented challenges.

The Plant Based Food’s Association (PBFA) was also providing rapid response support for its membership, including providing a platform for its 180 members to meet on Zoom twice per week. The members shared how they were each handling employee safety, applying for CARES Act funding, as well as bringing reports of what retailers needed: product fulfillment and patience. But the big question members kept asking echoed the concerns held by other members of the industry, including retailers like Hannaford: “How do we continue to connect retailers and suppliers in this new environment without in-person meetings and trade shows?”

PBFA and Plant Based World’s partnership quickly evolved by creating a solution for Hannaford as well as retailers across the country, and plant-based food suppliers- Plant Based World’s (PBW) annual Expo, was a primary stop on the trade show railroad and was scheduled for June of 2020. At their 2020 Expo, PBW had been set to launch a new match-making forum: Plant Based World Connect!, which was intended to match retail and foodservice buyers and sellers with 15-minute meetings where introductions could be facilitated, and important partnerships could be born. It became clear to PBW that while their 2020 Expo might not be possible, they could reimagine their Plant Based World Connect! program to fit a virtual platform. And so, when the industry relationships of PBFA and the new virtual matchmaking forum of PBW combined, Plant Based World Connect! Online was born.

This pivot allowed teams like Hannaford’s to leverage the connections they needed to make in order to move forward with their plans of innovation in 2020. 

According to Zack, “We scheduled 16 meetings over two months, which led to new supplier partnerships and newly authorized plant-based items. The significant benefit of PBW Connect! Online is being connected to the right suppliers for the right amount of time to make the most of each meeting. The PBW team helped to coach suppliers and streamline the preparation and the follow-up process was outstanding. These virtual meetings have aided us in reaching and exceeding our goals amid unprecedented shifts in the food industry.”

In addition to Hannaford, PBFA’s Julie Emmett, Senior Director of Retail Partnerships, reached out to their established partners: Walmart, Whole Foods, Target, Kroger, Gelson’s, and distributors like UNFI, Dot Foods, and KeHE. A valuable and unique aspect of this program is that buyers confirmed their interest in advance, so they knew that they were going to be in a virtual room with the right audience. 

Between June and November 2020 more than 100 meetings took place, bringing together crucial partners to ensure innovation continued to flow through to retail shelves. The program’s goal was clear- to satisfy shoppers looking for plant-based foods, including those trying them for the first time. 

One PBFA Member, Hooray Foods, participated in meetings with retailers via PBW Connect! Online. Sri Artham, Hooray Foods’ founder, shared that PBW Connect! Online was one of the biggest drivers of growth for them in 2020. “The virtual meetings PBW and PBFA helped to facilitate with retailers nationwide led to the best sales channel for us all year! Their platform was a true lifesaver in a year without tradeshows.”

The success of PBW Connect! Online emerged as a silver lining to an otherwise challenging, complicated year for many including Hannaford, and the many other retail partners and brands who participated in the meetings. PBW Connect! Online will continue to deliver high-quality meetings into 2021 to drive the continued mainstream adoption of plant-based items into the American food system. PBFA and PBW are working closely together to ensure these critical connections continue until the industry can do what it loves most – gather together, in-person, to continue driving the plant-based foods industry to greater heights.

PBW Connect! Online meetings are ongoing. If you would like more information or would like to know how your company can get involved, you can email Plant Based World’s Sam Morley

About the Author:

Julie Emmett is senior director, retail partnerships for the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA). Julie collaborates with retailers on behalf of PBFA members by leading a multitude of groundbreaking initiatives to grow plant-based foods, including merchandising research, retail data analysis published annually, and integrated marketing events. Julie previously held leadership roles with Kraft, Albertsons, MARS Advertising and SPINS. Julie earned her master’s in business administration at St. Mary’s College, is certified in nutrition education and is passionate about driving growth within plant-based foods, which remains at the epicenter of grocery retail sales growth.