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How to Sell More Plant-Based Products with Influencer Toni Okamoto
Founder of the Plant-Based on a Budget, co-host of the Plant-Powered People Podcast, and cookbook author Toni Okamoto is on a mission to show how “affordable, easy, and delicious eating a plant-based diet can be.”

That’s music to our GFI ears, since—as we come back to time and time again—price, taste, and convenience are the main factors that influence consumer choice. When it comes to driving change, Toni knows what’s up.

Since launching the wildly popular blog Plant-Based on a Budget in 2012, Toni has collaborated with Daiya, Morningstar, Sprouts, and ADM to create affordable plant-based recipes. She's a pioneer in leveraging social media influence to help plant-based food companies accelerate their consumer outreach.

Obvi, we want her wisdom! Toni shares some insights below for brands and retailers looking to take advantage of the growing market for plant-based products.

What are the most common requests or questions you hear from Plant-Based on a Budget readers (and eaters)?

People want to know how they can eat plant-based without having to change where they’re shopping or how much they’re spending. They want it to be convenient and to involve as little change in their lives as possible. A survey I did found that most of my audience gets their groceries from Walmart, so the thought of going to a high-end natural foods store is totally foreign to them. 

The good news is that Walmart has tons of great plant-based options, and usually for cheaper than other places. (Avocados for fifty cents, anyone?) I recently did a promotional campaign with Silk that highlighted their display in the middle of the dairy section at Walmart. It was great to see plant-based milk being truly competitive. 

That said, it’s helpful to remember that there are some more natural-oriented stores with great plant-based selections, like Sprouts, that also are quite affordable. Actually, earlier this year my local Sprouts was offering avocados for 33 cents each. As you can imagine, my diet quickly went from plant-based to basically just avocado-based.

How can plant-based manufacturers help people balance health, cost, and convenience in their meal planning?

What a balancing act those three are! And as important as they are, still paramount for people is taste. If it doesn’t taste great, it could be as convenient and healthy as you want, but people just won’t buy it. While most plant-based meat is still pretty expensive, some are actually cost-competitive. For example, Winco (a Walmart competitor) sells Reynaldo’s soy chorizo for the same exact cost ($1.68) as beef and pork chorizos, and located directly next to them in the supermarket. Now that’s plant-based on a budget! 

But even beyond plant-based meats, it’s always really helpful when plant-based manufacturers like bean and lentil companies offer helpful recipes in which these pulses are the stars of the show. Those recipes are easily found in my forthcoming book, Plant-Based on a Budget, and of course free on my site, too!

How can plant-based brands expand beyond marketing exclusively to vegans and vegetarians?

Most alternative protein products are already primarily being consumed by non-vegans, and that’s great! If we want to help reduce meat consumption, these companies should be marketing the products to people who eat meat, not vegans. Great ways of doing that include putting the products in the meat aisle, like what Beyond Meat is doing in supermarkets, and partnering with fast food chains to offer their products for the same price as other options, another place where Beyond Meat has excelled, for example with Carl’s Jr.

Do you have any advice for restaurants that want to plant-based entree to their menu but aren't sure how?

Make it meaty, make it affordable, and make it stand out. I won’t name names, but I can think of more than one place that offers veggie burgers which aren’t the best ambassador for plant-based eating. And even if you do like the product, it can be hard to even find it on the menu. It might not even be there, and you just need to somehow know to ask for it. 

For more whole foods plant-based offerings, make it flavorful and make sure to use enticing names. So instead of a rice and bean burrito, why not add some fajitas, cumin, and chili powder, and call it Sizzling South of the Border Bean Burrito? Same thing, but the latter sounds a lot more fun to order!

What could grocery stores do to make plant-based products more accessible to their customers?

I’d first take plant-based deli slices and other fresh plant-based meats out of the produce aisle (who wants to buy meat in the vegetable aisle?) and put them in with the rest of the packaged meats where meat-eaters will actually see them. 

For frozen, I’d also incorporate them into the conventional frozen meat products rather than segregate them in a section designed just for vegetarians. I’d then start including signage about how good these products taste. Lucky Supermarkets recently did this when they partnered with the Plant-Based Food Association.

Just for fun: what's your favorite cost-saving kitchen hack?

I love coupons! You don’t want to be stuck behind me in line at the grocery store. But if you looked at my receipt and saw that I often save dozens of dollars per grocery trip, you too might become just as careless about holding up the line as I am.

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