By Ryan Mayer

(CBS Local)- Meat lovers across America may be facing an internal battle. Consider this: the average American gobbled down about 224 pounds of meat in 2019. Now, with the coronavirus hampering manufacturers and the country facing a serious shortage in grocery stores near and far, consumers may be forced to try something new.

That search for meat alternatives plays right into the hands of plant-based meat producers like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. The companies look to provide plant-based options for the most popular kinds of animal protein products and, in the midst of the current crisis, they could see more customer trials of their products.

“If the supply of animal-based protein product goes down, we would expect the consumer to seek substitutes. These substitutes could be fish away from meat. They could be traditional plant-based proteins such as black beans or something like that,” says Professor Frederic Brunel an Associate Professor of Marketing and Dean’s Research Fellow at the Questrom School of Business at Boston University. “They could also be some of these manmade protein substitutes or meat equivalents. This substitution effect is one that should be expected and one that seems to be natural to happen given the market effects.”

Plant-based companies were already enjoying a moment in the sun prior to the pandemic as Beyond Meat’s stock price increased from $75.64 per share at the start of the year to $134.51 as of close of the market Wednesday. The increase has been even more pronounced since mid-March when, after a dip down to $54.02 per share, the stock rose to its current heights. In addition, sales for the company increased from March to April as research firm SPINS/IRI reported that Beyond Meat’s sales were up 184.2% over the previous year for the four weeks ending on April 19th.

Impossible Foods, another company in the plant-based meat space, reports that demand for their products at grocery stores nationwide hit new highs in March and April. They’re on pace to break those records in May, according to the company’s Chief Communications Officer Rachel Konrad.

It’s unlikely anyone would say that the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent impact on the meatpacking industry is a marketing opportunity. Konrad points out that the pandemic’s impact on the industry “does lay bare the fragility and exploitation of the animal agriculture industry.”

In order to better serve their customers during this time both companies are adjusting their efforts to make their products more readily available to customers. To that end, a Beyond Meat spokesperson says the company is increasing promotions both in terms of frequency and discounts, and accelerating the building of their direct-to-consumer capabilities among other things.

For Impossible Foods, Konrad says the company hasn’t announced any direct to consumer programs yet but, they have worked with their restaurant partners who have converted to take-out and delivery models on selling inventory directly to customers. “Many of our restaurant partners have started selling packaged bulk Impossible Burger on their own initiative directly to consumers — whether as an additional revenue stream for take-out orders, or as a means of reducing perishable inventory during temporary shut-downs,” she says.

Availability is another important factor in appeal to the consumer and to that end, Beyond Meat products are available in 25,000 retail* stores nationwide and 94,000 retail and food service places in 75 countries worldwide while Impossible Foods main attraction, the Impossible Burger, is available in 2,700 grocery stores nation-wide.

Overall, if the meat supply shortage continues, Brunel believes the availability rather than the pricing of these types of options will be a key player in seeing more Americans try plant-based alternatives.

“I think the availability is going to be the driving factor. Let’s take sausage patties. First you look for fresh sausage patties but they are not available due to the current disruption. So then maybe you look for frozen ones that were packaged quite awhile ago,” says Brunel. “Maybe those are also not available because customers have stockpiled them. Maybe then people will say I’ll try the vegetable-based sausage patties for breakfast. That I think is more of the customer journey that we are likely to see happening.”

But, more consumption of plant-based products now doesn’t necessarily mean a large-scale shift in how Americans consume meat. It may make customers more open to trying it, but it doesn’t mean those food choices will last once the country moves past the pandemic and is back to a more normal supply chain.

“By and large we should see a general return to the same patterns as pre-pandemic. However, I’m going to qualify this and I think the qualification is important. I believe there will be a trace effect. I don’t believe there is going to be a massive re-alignment of food choices and food preferences if everything else returns to ‘normal’,” says Brunel. “What I think is likely to happen is people may realize that some people that have reduced their meat consumption during this period and feel a bit more healthy or feel that a more plant-based diet is right for them, may go back to eat meat at a slightly reduced rate. We will have a trace effect I think of people who have tried new products and decide they liked them.”

Long a staple of the American diet, meat consumption is still likely to be prevalent in the coming years post-pandemic. But, polling done in October of 2019 by Sheril Kirshenbaum and Doug Buhler at Michigan State University showed that 90% of respondents who had consumed plant-based meat in the last year would do so again.

The poll, which surveyed over 2,100 Americans, showed that 35% of Americans consumed plant-based meat in the last 12 months prior to polling and 42% who hadn’t were willing to try it. That number would seem likely to increase in the current climate, and would seem to be indicative of the kind of trace effect that Brunel sees as likely to occur.

Looking ahead, Brunel says the way that Americans source their barbecue favorites may change for good.

“The last thing, I think we may see some more lasting changes on the trend of where people supply their food from. Especially for people with more access to more locally sourced proteins and vegetables. Where instead of relying on the meat-packing industrial complex, they will turn to local sources as their direct sources,” he says. “This local consumption and local sourcing of locally grown products is part of a meta-trend that we saw before the pandemic and that the pandemic may have reinforced.”

(*A previous version of this article noted Beyond was in 25,000 stores, that is just the number of retail stores which has been added).

Ryan Mayer