A little less than 1.5 percent of the US adult population is "vegan"—individuals who eat neither animals nor animal products, such as milk and eggs. Potentially millions more are "occasional vegetarians," those who sometimes use meat and poultry substitutes.
For many vegetarians, soy is the answer. It is a high-protein vegetable that can mimic the taste and texture of meat. Long used as a food additive, soy has come into its own as a legitimate food. Tofu, tempeh, edamame, and soy nuts are some of today's popular soy products.
"Organic soyfoods" is the fastest growing consumer food segment, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center. Soy-based food products have commandeered grocery store shelves, dairy cases, and frozen-food aisles. Consumers can now purchase a seemingly endless variety of products made from or with soy, including milk, cheese, ice cream, snacks, and "meat."
All of this is great news for the Boca Foods brand. Created by a restaurateur named "Chef Max," Boca was born in 1993 as a "Sun Burger," a vegetarian alternative to hamburgers. This eventual "Boca burger" was not the first veggie burger in the market; Gardenburger pioneered the category in 1992.
While Gardenburgers are made from vegetables and rice, Boca burgers are made from soy. By 1998, Gardenburger had over 40 percent market share in the veggie burger market, but it remained a one-product company for too long. Competitors like Boca Foods and Worthington Foods' Morningstar Farms quickly flooded the market with an array of soy-based products that went far beyond a veggie burger. Gardenburger tried to catch up through diversifying its product line, but it was too little too late. In 2005, the company was forced into bankruptcy.
The burger was Boca's base. The company had grown by convincing consumers through in-store sampling that Boca burgers tasted great. Helping to fuel the brand's popularity were product reviews that praised Boca's burger-like taste and consistency, Boca's appearance in the Clinton White House, and the growing interest in healthy eating.
Building on this success, Boca aggressively expanded its line in a classic case of brand extension. In addition to introducing several varieties of Boca burgers, the company brought other frozen soy products to market: Italian sausages, bratwurst, a "ground meat" substitute for use in spaghetti sauce and chili, breakfast patties and links, and "chicken" nuggets and patties. More recently, Boca has created a line of fully prepared frozen convenience foods that includes pizza, lasagna, chili, and its newest addition, breakfast wraps.
The true turning point for the soy-foods category came in 1999. That's when the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) endorsed soy as a heart-healthy cholesterol-reducing food. Soy instantly became a nutritional superstar and consumer demand for soy products spiked dramatically. The giant brand machines of the food industry took notice. The Morningstar Farms brand was acquired by Kellogg in 1999, and in early 2000, Kraft acquired the Boca brand.
Boca's 1999 sales were close to US$ 40 million, double the previous year. The acquisition in 2000 was clearly a strategic entry into natural and organic foods for Kraft. At the time of the acquisition, Rick Searer, president of the Oscar Mayer and pizza divisions of Kraft Foods, said: "Boca Burger has a stellar record with one of the leading brands in the natural foods channel, as well as the fastest growing major brand in the category." Boca added to its cachet by winning "Company of the Year" in the 2004 PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) Progress Awards.
Worthy of mention is Boca Foods' brand-packaging strategy. All Boca products reside in the frozen-food section. They vie for attention with hundreds of other products in much larger categories, so Boca must find a way to stand out. While many vegetarian products use green as a core color, Boca brands its line in vivid red. A tantalizing photo of the cooked product is on every package, along with the large Boca logo in script type.
In 2001, Boca recognized that "organic" was a growing sub-market in the natural-foods category, so it introduced a line of meatless products made with organic soy. Boca differentiated the product with a cream-colored package, replacing the bright red but retaining the same logo and product photography. This product line graphically signals a different type of soy, but it retains the feel of the Boca brand identity.
Boca's latest product is the breakfast wrap. Boca's Southwestern Breakfast Wrap combines egg whites, soy sausage, and peppers in a whole-grain tortilla.
Morningstar Farms, probably Boca's biggest direct competitor, has expanded its line as well by adding other vegetables to its soy-based products. For example, its Classic Scramble Breakfast Starters combines potatoes, peppers, and onions with vegetable sausage, to which a consumer adds eggs for a complete breakfast dish.
The interest in natural and organic foods continues to grow, as does the usage of meat substitutes. In addition to Boca and Morningstar Farms, numerous other brands, some owned by large companies, compete for attention in the soy-based frozen food category. Some natural-foods markets, such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, produce their own private-label soy products. Food industry observers predict that ongoing growth in this category will be driven by an aging US population that increasingly wants healthy alternatives in their diet. Boomers are eating healthier. There also seems to be a growing interest in vegetarianism among teenagers, particularly girls.
Such market conditions are likely to mean healthy times ahead for the Boca brand.