When Jamie Colvin, an Olympic gold medalist for shot-putting, launched Protein Power Plates, in 2013, he envisioned it as a macho alternative to salad bars and smoothie shops for the health-conscious. He’d originally intended to open a steak house—a “Valhalla for carnivores”—but when his sister Mila, a recent business school graduate and an associate at a New York venture capital firm, pointed out that her young professional friends were less interested in fancy sit-down restaurants than in “fast casual” spots where they could get their choice of freshly made meals—pick-your-own meat, vegetables, and carbs—in half the time and for half the price, he took her advice and shifted gears. Together they pitched the idea to the partners at her company, who agreed to give them seed funding.
Now, nine years later, Protein Power Plates was a $90 million revenue business with 30 locations in 10 cities across the United States and viral videos on Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube that featured Jamie delivering his tagline—“Let’s meat!”—before biting with gusto into a triple bacon burger.
That’s why when Mila, now the company’s chief marketing officer, forwarded him an invitation to meet with the founder of V-Burger, a company focused on plant-based meat alternatives, Jamie thought she was kidding. He hadn’t launched Protein Power Plates to sell plants to hipsters. He called his sister immediately. “We’re meeting with V-Burger?”
“Yes,” she replied. “All our competitors are offering vegetarian and vegan options, and growth in the industry is starting to outpace our own. We’ve got to at least consider it.”
In consultation with their head chef, Olga Gustafson, who had trained at the Culinary Institute of America, Mila was responsible for product development and marketing, including finding new menu items. And she did have a talent for trendspotting. Jamie had originally opposed her 2015 proposal to add dishes using ground bison, because it was more expensive. But the addition had resulted in a 10% year-over-year spike in sales. More-recent offerings, such as gluten-free whole-grain breads and a harvest salad with grilled squash, walnuts, and goat cheese, had also been well received.
They’d discussed providing some vegetarian options, including plant-based meat substitutes—which, Mila noted, were more environmentally friendly than meat1 and could attract new customers. But Jamie thought of them as commercially processed fake foods to be avoided. Since the company’s launch they had not only focused on real, tasty meat from humanely raised animals, including grass-fed beef when possible, but also insisted that all their ingredients be natural, organic, and locally sourced. And he knew that Olga was concerned about how vegan or vegetarian food preparation would fit into the existing workflow for her team.
“I don’t know,” Jamie said. “Our brand is meat. Real meat.”
“But our sales are flattening,” his sister replied. “So maybe we’ve gone as far as we can with carnivores.”
“But vegans?” he said. “They’re what—5% of the country?”2
“V-Burger is the biggest player in this market, and it hasn’t partnered with any other restaurant chain yet,” Mila said.3 “Who knows? Its burgers might convert you.” They both laughed at that.
Jamie and Mila sat on the crowded roof-deck of a mall in Brooklyn, facing the East River. “Why couldn’t we meet in her office?” he whispered as Indira Agarwal, V-Burger’s founder, approached their table.
Indira greeted them before sitting and opening her laptop to a PowerPoint presentation. “Tyson Foods, Nestlé, Smithfield—they’re all experimenting with plant-based meat that has the look, feel, and taste of real burgers,” she said. “But we were the first, and we’re still the best.”
Indeed, her company was the original developer of a “burger” that used pea, rice, and mung bean protein to mimic the texture and amino acid content of meat; annatto and beet juice to replicate its “bloody” color and juice; coconut oil and cocoa pockets to give the appearance of marbling fat; and apple-juice extract to help with browning during cooking.
Since its launch, in 2016, V-Burger had quickly expanded its distribution to supermarkets such as Safeway and Kroger and its products to include “chicken” nuggets and ground “beef.”
“As you can see from this slide,” Indira continued, “red-meat consumption has declined substantially since 1971,4 while the number of people who say they are interested in vegetarian or vegan options is climbing.5 Why are people switching to this lifestyle? Because they want to feel better about their bodies and their environmental impact.”
Jamie could tell that Mila was buying the pitch, but he’d heard similar arguments before and had a practiced response. “Our plates feature the most healthful meats you can get,” he said. “The beef we source is one of the most complete sources of dietary protein available. It’s loaded with vitamins and minerals and contains nine essential amino acids.”
“Sure,” Indira countered. “But any doctor will tell you that too much isn’t good for you. One 3.5-ounce beef burger contains 22% of your daily saturated-fat allowance and 27% of your daily cholesterol.”
“We have pork, chicken, eggs, all natural, unprocessed—unlike your burgers. And at least one plant-based burger I know of contains 25% of the daily saturated-fat allowance.”
“Well, the other reason we see people moving to plant-based diets is environmental,” Indira replied. “There’s also the animal-rights argument, of course. But raising livestock accounts for a substantial amount of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Far more water is used to produce beef than to raise any other equivalent source of protein, and it takes a lot more energy to grow feed for the animals that people eat than it does to grow crops intended for direct human consumption. Then there’s the conversion of forested land to livestock pastures, which has been terrible for carbon capture and biodiversity.”
Jamie felt he had to interject again. “Look, we’re not going to take meat off our menu.”
“I know, I know,” Indira said quickly. “But by offering V-Burgers you’d at least be giving people a healthful, eco-friendly alternative.”
Jamie and Mila asked Indira a few questions about pricing, logistics, and exclusivity and then thanked her for the presentation. She said she’d send over a box of V-Burgers for them to sample.
Trend or Fad?
Jamie invited Protein Power Plates’ executive team to his Greenwich home for the V-Burger taste test. Mila and Olga grilled the patties while Jamie sat by the pool with Rebecca Abrams, the CFO, and Jin-Yi Zhou, the COO.
“It won’t taste anything like a real burger,” Jamie predicted.
After they had eaten the patties, opinions varied. Mila and Jin-Yi, an avid long-distance runner who had given up red meat a year earlier, thought the V-Burger did look and taste almost—but not exactly—like a traditional hamburger, especially encased in a bun and topped with cheese and condiments. Olga, a self-described “beef addict”; Rebecca, a CrossFitter; and Jamie disagreed: The patty tasted OK, but it wasn’t anything they’d choose to eat again.
Mila reminded the group that they needed to focus not on their personal preferences but on what would be good for business. Was this “meat” good enough to put on their menu? Would it delight some of their customers and maybe attract new ones?
“I’m just not sure,” Jin-Yi said. “We’ve always been about sourcing and serving the best meat-based meals.6 Sure, vegetarianism is on the rise, but the jury’s still out on whether customers, even the veggie crowd, will accept meat substitutes.”
“And would vegetarians even try our restaurants when meat is still on the menu?” Olga asked. “Plus, plant-based could be a fad.” She mentioned a couple of others: the egg-white omelet craze of the early 2000s and mason jar salads.
“More than 65% of our customers—current and probably future—are Millennials and Gen Zers,” Mila reminded them. “That demographic likes and will pay more for socially conscious products.”7
Rebecca nodded. “I like the idea of offering a wider choice. It could be a low-risk way to stay on trend and maybe win new customers. Could we put a V-Burger offering on our menu for a month and see what happens?”
“It’s not quite that easy,” Jin-Yi protested with a chuckle. “But I’ve talked to Indira, and I’m pretty sure we could do a trial if we wanted to. Olga, what do you think?”
“It would take me a few weeks to work out recipes,” the chef said. “But it’s doable.”
Jamie nodded. “OK, then. I still have reservations, but this seems like a good first step. If Indira agrees, let’s give V-Burger a try—one menu item, for a month, with some targeted marketing.”
Results from the experiment were decidedly mixed. For every 50 beef burgers sold, only one of Olga’s special-recipe V-Burgers was. The new item didn’t seem to have attracted many new customers. Those who had bought it gave it mostly positive reviews, but some were unimpressed. And a few tweeted complaints that Protein Power Plates had become too “woke.”
Indira’s executive assistant had sent Mila several emails asking whether she and Jamie wanted to sign a one-year contract to buy $500,000 worth of V-Burgers for their 30 restaurants. Several Protein Power Plates competitors had inquired about partnerships, but Indira was honoring her commitment to give them right of first refusal. Mila wanted to go ahead with a yearlong deal and ramp up marketing to see whether they could attract more new customers. Rebecca did too. Jin-Yi and Olga didn’t see enough uptake to justify the logistical hassles of engaging another small-scale supplier and reconfiguring all their kitchens to prevent cross-contamination. Jamie needed to break the tie.
Early on a Monday, Jamie was just starting his 7 AM weights routine when he got a text from Mila: Morning! I need to give Indira an answer ASAP! He often did his best thinking while he was in the gym, so maybe this was a good time to make a final decision. He wished the V-Burger test had been either a total failure or a home run. He really didn’t know much more now than he had at the outset.
The Experts Respond: Should Protein Power Plates commit to a partnership with V-Burger?
Lynn Blashford is the chief marketing officer at White Castle.
Protein Power Plates should sign the contract with V-Burger. A $500,000 investment for a year over 30 restaurants is relatively low risk. The ratio of Protein Power Plates customers ordering beef burgers as opposed to V-Burgers—50 to 1—is going to improve. Industry data reveals that the percentage of consumers who buy plant-based products is growing by double digits annually. The trajectory leveled out a bit during the pandemic, but I expect interest in this food category to keep rising as more products become available in grocery stores and on restaurant menus.
Protein Power Plates is in a position to be a somewhat early adopter, and there’s an enormous benefit to that. When White Castle launched the Impossible Slider, in 2018, our strategy was to be the first fast-food hamburger chain to offer plant-based protein systemwide. We were unlikely to outspend larger competitors on advertising, but we benefited from positive media coverage of this new trend in food and from partnering with Impossible, the leading brand in the category. We earned exposure and recognition as an innovator.
The name of Jamie and Mila’s company is Protein Power Plates, not Meat Power Plates, so the addition of a high-protein nonmeat item on the menu maintains their brand positioning while allowing the company to access a new category of customers who haven’t previously considered their restaurants. The slogan “Let’s meat!” will have to change—but slogans often do.
And there’s a financial upside to selling V-Burgers. Consumers are accustomed to paying premium prices for such offerings. No matter what Protein Power Plates is thinking about putting on its menu, it should carefully consider whether the addition will increase its average check and profit margin.
Of course, Olga’s V-Burgers need to be delicious. Research shows that taste is the greatest driver of plant-based protein purchases, followed by health and environmental concerns. So the team must get that right.
But assuming that they will, my recommendation is to proceed with the partnership, as we did with Impossible. I don’t see the plant-based protein trend losing steam anytime soon.
Scott Uehlein is the head of culinary innovation at Sonic Drive-In.
Protein Power Plates shouldn’t sign a yearlong deal with V-Burger. And Jamie might need to fire his CFO for letting him even consider it on the terms being offered. With 30 restaurants and $30 million in total annual sales, the company is probably spending $8 million to $9 million a year on food—which means that a $500,000 commitment to V-Burger will amount to nearly 6% of its annual food costs. Each restaurant would have to sell $150 worth of V-Burgers every day to offset that expense. Judging from the test results, I don’t think they can do that. Sure, Jamie and Mila could invest in more marketing—but they’d need to recoup that spending with even more sales.
I recommend that they ask to extend the 30-day trial and do a little more homework. Here are some crucial questions to ask: Is the V-Burger option bringing consumers who prefer plant-based food to Protein Power Plates, or do they still shy away from the chain because of its original real-meat focus? Do existing customers want to try V-Burgers, or are they happy with the current offerings? And finally, what percentage of marketing dollars will have to be put behind the product to improve sales? Executives and employees should fan out to all the restaurants to hear from customers directly about why they bought a V-Burger—or didn’t. Does the new offering enhance the menu, the brand, and customers’ willingness to spend?
Equipped with that information, Jamie can continue the conversation with V-Burger and make a more informed decision on whether to partner. Even if he decides to go ahead, I suspect he’ll want to negotiate better terms. Maybe V-Burger would be willing to put marketing dollars into a joint campaign or would accept a lesser commitment to make the numbers work. But if Indira says, “Sign today or we go away,” I’d advise Protein Power Plates to pass and either double down on quality meat or diversify in other ways.
HBR’s fictionalized case studies present problems faced by leaders in real companies and offer solutions from experts. This one is based on the HBS Case Study “Just Like Mom’s Contemplates Plant-based Meat” (320062-PDF-ENG), by Lena G. Goldberg, Michael S. Kaufman, and Joseph A. Paul.