Store of the Future   //   May 6, 2024

Plantega is using bodegas to bring plant-based meat to the masses

Plant-based products have had a boom in recent years, but the category as a whole continues to struggle to connect with mass-market shoppers. 

“I think you have to create the conditions in which the right choice becomes the easy choice to make,” Plantega founder and CEO Nil Zacharias told Modern Retail on a recent afternoon. Zacharias was showcasing Plantega’s sandwich menu at a Brooklyn bodega, where this reporter sampled a chopped cheese made of jackfruit-based meat.

Plantega, a startup that launched in 2021, services New York City bodegas with plant-based products for menus designed by the company. These include variations of bodega classics like bacon, egg and cheese and meatball subs. Today Plantega’s roster consists of 11 brands, including cheese substitute Vertage and Prime Roots, known for its vegan deli meats. By the end of its first year, Plantega was in about a dozen bodegas and received a shoutout from New York City mayor Eric Adams. Now, the company is in about 60 stores. Zacharias said the plant-based category has had trouble appealing to everyday people who want something that tastes good, and Plantega is hoping to change that by tapping into people’s affinity for bodega sandwiches.

A constantly evolving model

Zacharias said that what many plant-based meat companies get wrong in their marketing messaging is focusing too much on the tech and innovation aspects, as well as sustainability benefits. Zacharias said this approach muddled the messaging in marketing, which Plantega is trying to undo on behalf of brands. “You don’t have to be vegan, vegetarian or even care about the environmental health impact of food,” he said. “We’re saying, eat it because it’s good food that just happens to be plant-based.” 

Inspired by his own inability to find meatless options at his local bodega, Zacharias wanted to bring emerging brands to food service in a “culturally relevant way.” In New York, that’s the 24-hour bodega, many of which offer deli and grill sandwiches. “It’s also an unexpected place to feature these brands,” he said. 

But it took a series of tests to get the model to where it is today, and ensure the margins are worth it for all parties involved. Plantega first experimented with a pilot program at the end of 2020, which was funded by angel investors. It was essentially an experiential marketing project in which the company contacted a few brands willing to donate products or sell them to Plantega. “At the time there was a boom of all these plant-based brands, many of which struggled to get into mass retail and food service,” Zacharias said.

The initial idea was to install Plantega branded fridges in bodegas, and stock them with packaged products for customers to purchase. “The first small menu was an afterthought, where we wanted to showcase the items in sandwiches like sausage egg and cheese and chopped cheese,” Zacharias said.

“Very quickly we realized most people don’t go to bodegas to grocery shop,” he said, unless it’s a quick snack or drink. “The margins were horrible, so we ditched the fridges and doubled down on the menu idea.” All Plantega sandwiches cost between $7 and $10 to keep them on par with bodega price points. “We actually had to negotiate the wholesale prices down with the brand to keep the menu prices reasonable,” Zacharias said. 

While Plantega has some sidewalk signage, much of its marketing is done through social media and sampling events, which often feature local food influencers.

As part of its onboarding process, Plantega provides in-store signage and trains bodega staff. The bodega owners can text or call Plantega to order, which the company facilitates through a local distributor. 

The way Plantega makes money is by charging the brands a monthly fee and earning commission from the distributor’s sales to bodegas. In exchange, brands are featured in Plantega’s marketing content and sampling events. 

“And the bodegas pay a nominal fee on every order that then gets passed to us by the distributor,” Zacharias said. “It’s a win for the bodegas because it brings in customers.” Meanwhile, the brands get sales, brand awareness and customer data. Plantega has received about $2 million in capital to date but doesn’t have plans to raise more.

“We’re trying to get to profitability, I think we can do it this year if we hit our numbers,”  Zacharias said.

Zacharias said that so far the experiment is working well for brands. Some of Plantega’s brand partners didn’t have retail distribution when they came on board, so customers can only have them by ordering from the Plantega menu. One of Plantega’s partners Umaro, which makes seaweed-based bacon, didn’t have retail partnerships when it launched on the menu. “Now because they’ve been with us for over a year they’re actually launching in retail this year,” Zacharias said. 

The potential to scale

Currently, Plantega’s presence is concentrated in New York City’s five boroughs, as well as Yonkers. Zacharias said this will remain the case for the foreseeable future. “We want to get [the locations] all on delivery apps and ensure each store is performing well while maintaining quality standards,” Zacharias said. 

To cover more ground throughout New York City, Plantega also launched delivery last year, onboarding bodegas to DoorDash, GrubHub and UberEats. 

“The revenue we get from that we split with the store,” Zacharias said. Delivery has now become 30% of Plantega’s business and is currently growing at a faster rate than in-store. The channel has also given the company more insight into who is ordering the sandwiches. “Anecdotally, we hear most of our customer base isn’t vegan or vegetarian,” Zacharias said. It reflects the national data that shows most Americans who buy plant-based products still consume animal products.

Zacharias said the brand is heavily focused on New York-style deli sandwiches “But there are ways to create a plug and play model.” One of the expansion strategies Plantega is considering in the future is licensing the branding and concept to companies that run food halls on college campuses and sports venues. “We’re also exploring doing something on our own to test catering opportunities for delivery,” Zacharias said, which would be modeled after a cloud kitchen.

Plantega’s mission to make plant-based food more accessible comes at a turning point for the category. 

Plant-based substitutes that billed themselves as innovative lab-grown food have had trouble gaining widespread traction. Interest has grown in the last few years, but the declining sales of companies like Beyond Foods show there are still challenges in attracting a new audience. This led to branding overhauls to help cast a wider net, like Beyond centering whole ingredients in marketing and launching lower fat, higher protein products. Impossible, which is finally launching in Whole Foods after years of slow retail expansion, is leaning further into promoting its “bleeding” meats to carnivores. 

Kiva Dickinson, co-founder of Selva Ventures, said plant-based brands have marketed a value proposition of better health, environmental and ethical impact. “But the largest brands, like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, have fallen short on the promise of better health,” Dickinson said. 

And as more people looked closer at the nutritional value compared to animal products, the novelty of the category has worn off. Dieticians previously called out Beyond’s burger for having 18 grams of fat per serving, slightly higher than 17 grams in an 85% lean beef burger. Eventually, Beyond switched to avocado oil to lower the fat content.

While many of the latest plant-based brands offer healthier products than the previous generation, Dickinson said, “There is still a nutritional stigma to overcome and I don’t see food service moving the needle.” Ingredient quality and transparency, he said, paired with excellent taste, is what the next plant-based success story will require.

For Plantega to help move that needle, Zacharias says there is still more work to do by testing the right strategies that make products from partners more appealing. “A lot of plant-based startups tend to describe their products in tech terms,” Zacharias said. “We wanted to find a way to bring it to life, and let the food and store owners do the talking.”