In the United States, pizza is not just a food; it’s a cultural phenomenon. And pepperoni holds a special place as one of the most beloved toppings.
As the nation’s appetite for plant-based foods grows, several companies have given this pizza chain staple a meatless makeover. But one look at menus at major chains will show that plant-based pepperoni is hard to fi.
What’s more disappointing is that major domestic pizza chains are introducing exciting vegan pepperoni options outside of the US.
For example, Beyond Pepperoni just found permanent placement at Pizza Hut locations in the United Kingdom. This move is an extension of Beyond Meat’s existing partnership with the chain’s parent company Yum! Brands.
In 2022, Domino’s UK also launched vegan pepperoni made by European company The Vegetarian Butcher. And Papa John’s put jackfruit-based pepperoni from UK company Jack & Bry on its menu in the Netherlands in 2020.
While a short test in 2021 did put Beyond Pepperoni on a handful of Pizza Hut menus in 2021—and Little Ceaser’s tried out Field Roast’s version that year, as well—the options are long gone and other chains have yet to follow suit.
So how close are Americans to walking into a Pizza Hut, Papa John’s, or Domino’s and ordering a plant-based pepperoni pizza? And does the perfect vegan pepperoni even exist? We tapped Danny O’Malley, President and Founder of vegan meat brand Before the Butcher, to find out.
Demand for vegan pepperoni
The popularity of pizza and its staple topping, pepperoni, is undisputed. But is there really a demand for a plant-based version? According to market research firm Dataessential, the answer is a resounding yes.
Datassential notes that although plant-based pepperoni appears on just 0.3 percent of US restaurant menus, this is a staggering 1,300 percent increase over the last four years. Currently, 16 percent of the US population has tried plant-based pepperoni, with higher awareness among younger consumers, vegetarians, and vegans.
But does the perfect plant-based pepperoni exist? A handful of brands, including aforementioned Beyond Meat, Field Roast, and even Hormel (under its Happy Plants brand) have all released meatless versions of the cured meat.
Before the Butcher’s plant-based pepperoni has only been on the market since May and already scooped a Food and Beverage (Fabi) Award from the National Restaurant Association in 2023.
“We wanted to provide the pizza world with a delicious plant-based option to the most popular pizza ingredient outside of cheese,” O’Malley tells VegNews.
Outside of pepperoni, Before the Butcher makes plant-based burgers, beef-free grounds, meatless breakfast sausages, and more for both retail and foodservice.
However, it’s the company’s vegan pepperoni that has been a success right out of the gate. “The response to our plant-based pepperoni has been astounding,” O’Malley says. “As we scale up to meet demand, we have found that the desire for this product exceeds all of our other current products on the market.”
“Fortunately our capacity is very large and [we] look forward to strong growth in 2024 and beyond,” he says.
Perfecting plant-based pepperoni
The development process behind Before the Butcher’s vegan pepperoni, which is made from a base of pea protein, was no small feat.
“It took 20 months and 62 versions from our first bench sample to our final version in distribution now,” O’Malley says.
The greatest challenge was replicating the texture and ensuring the product’s integrity after production and slicing. Through collaboration with R&D partners and persistent experimentation, Before the Butcher says it has nailed pepperoni to a tee.
Before the Butcher
His goal was to capture the essence of traditional pepperoni’s old-world flavor, which had been missing in existing plant-based alternatives. Before the Butcher’s product, O’Malley says, stands out with its “perfect balance of salty, smoky, and tangy with just the right pop of spice,” achieving a bold flavor and meaty texture that rivals high-quality traditional pepperoni while being soy- and gluten-free—a plus when it comes to allergen consideration for major chains.
The plant-based pepperoni is also devoid of cholesterol, a perk for customers who are concerned about their heart health.
Vegan pepperoni at major pizza chains?
It is clear that demand for vegan pepperoni is there and several companies have perfected the plant-based version of the cured meat. O’Malley also believes that the addressable market for vegan pepperoni and other plant-based meats will grow generationally.
Danny O’Malley/Before the Butcher
“As the younger generations age, they will naturally incorporate plant-based products into their children’s diets,” he says. “Those children will grow up knowing how plant-based will affect their health, animal welfare, and the environment.”
From a sustainability point of view, O’Malley says that pizza chains adding plant-based pepperoni is a no-brainer.
“We have produced a pepperoni product that uses a fraction of the environmentally damaging resources necessary to produce its animal-based counterpart,” O’Malley says.
So what will it take for Americans to finally get vegan pepperoni at their favorite chains?
O’Malley says it will require a shift in priorities. “It will take a major pizza chain like Pizza Hut, Domino’s, and Papa John’s, to become vested in the success of plant-based pepperoni,” he says.
“This needs to be a long-term vision for the pizza chain knowing that they will need to invest in time and customer education for the betterment of the planet we live on today and our children tomorrow,” O’Malley says. “We at Before the Butcher are ready to partner with anyone ready to do that.”