Portillo’s is coming off a strong first quarter earnings performance for sales growth, but a quarter hindered nonetheless by “unprecedented commodity inflation.”
The highest impact inflation is coming from pork, chicken and beef prices, executives noted during the company’s May 5 call.
Starting Tuesday, Portillo’s will have a new permanent menu item in the mix that could be more insulated from current protein volatilities. The 71-unit chain today announced its first-ever plant-based hot dog, the “Plant Based Garden Dog,” made in partnership with Field Roast, a company founded in 1997 in Seattle that works with other chains such as Little Caesars and Donatos Pizza.
This launch comes as the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated interest in plant-based diets. Nearly 40% of U.S. consumers now consider themselves to be flexitarian, consuming meat as well as vegan or vegetarian meals. As such, the global plant-based meat market is expected to expand by more than 20% per year through 2028, according to a December report from ResearchandMarkets.com.
Coupled with historic commodity inflation, the timing of this product certainly seems favorable. But as it turns out, Portillo’s and Field Roast have been working on the Garden Dog for several years, with dozens of iterations.
“The process to find the perfect partner and develop a delicious proprietary recipe has taken three years and the team is confident this dog is worth the wait,” said Garrett Kern, vice president of Strategy and Culinary at Portillo’s.
The Non-GMO Project Verified recipe includes pea protein, sea salt, garlic powder, onion powder, black better, nutmeg and paprika. The Garden Dog is smoked for added flavor.
“We wanted to get this right. We didn’t just want a hot dog that’s plant-based, we wanted a plant-based hot dog that tastes delicious and is also made from ingredients you can pronounce,” Kern said. “Field Roast has been a fantastic partner throughout this process and has helped us create a product that we’re excited to serve our guests.”
Prior to the systemwide rollout, the Garden Dog was tested by Portillo’s taste team and in two markets for three months–Champaign, Illinois and Normal, Illinois. Kern said the two test markets showed signs of early success.
“In our tests, sales of this item have grown week over week and, importantly, we’ve heard guests tell us that they’re coming in to eat the Garden Dog, We think this new item hits the mark and will allow us to reach even more people,” Kern said. “To date, 86% of customers who have tried the offering say they intend to buy it again, and 76% say the Garden Dog is better than competitor versions of a plant-based hot dog.”
Indeed, Portillo’s plant-based launch isn’t new in the hot dog space. Nathan’s Famous launched a plant-based product last summer, for instance, while Wienerschnitzel’s veggie dog lineup was introduced in January (also in partnership with Field Roast). What’s notable here, however, is Portillo’s plans to grow its footprint to 600 locations after going public in the fall. This would nearly double the unit count of its competitors and increase access to the vegetarian option accordingly.
As Portillo’s grows, Kern said the Garden Dog is part of its long-term strategy to offer items with broad appeal.
Also worth noting is the Garden Dog should create more operational efficiencies at restaurants, as the assembly process is similar to its Chicago-style hot dogs with the same toppings. Portillo’s is making room for the new product by removing its Grilled Portobello Sandwich, first introduced in 2018.
“We have a philosophy that when something goes on the menu, something comes off. The (sandwich) has been a go-to for many of our guests who are looking for a vegan-friend options. Our hope is that those guests enjoy the Plant-Based Garden Dog too, and see it as an even better meatless option on our menu,” Kern said. “We believe the option will not only better align with our overall offerings as a vegan-friendly offering but will also eliminate operational complexities that existed with its mushroom-based offering.”
The price of the Garden Dog varies by market. For context, the Champaign market charges $3.69 for the Garden Dog, which is 30 cents higher than Portillo’s all-beef Chicago-style hot dog.