Supermarket chains across the country, including here in Connecticut, have found a new niche to woo customers.

Stop & Shop, Big Y and Stew Leonard’s are using plant-based meat substitutes to target customers whose religion includes refraining from eating meat on Fridays in observance of Lent. The Lenten season this year began Feb. 26 — Ash Wednesday — and runs through April 9.

Meghan Bell, a spokeswoman for Norwalk-based Stew Leonard’s, said the chain has seen a 2 percent jump in sales of plant-based meat substitutes since the start of Lent. Stew Leonard’s has Connecticut locations in Danbury, Norwalk and Newington.

“And overall sales doubled from summer 2018 when we first started carrying Beyond Meat (a plant-based product line) to summer 2019,” Bell said. “We sell the Beyond Burger patties as well as Beyond Sausage.”

Stop & Shop, in particular, is mounting a high-profile effort to bring customers into its stores to purchase plant-based meat substitutes. Rubenstein Strategic Communications, a New York City-based reputation management firm, is working with Stop & Shop to promote the grocery chain’s broad array of plant-based meat substitute to the media and, ultimately, to the public.

Kenneth Mirando is Stop & Shop’s meat and seafood sales lead. Over the past year, Mirando said Stop & Shop has expanded its varieties of plant-based products from just a handful of items.

Meat substitutes often are soy, tempeh, gluten or pea-based, he said, but through production are made to mimic meat in texture, flavor and appearance. Stop & Shop offers both fresh and frozen plant-based meat alternatives that range from burgers to newer items such as plant-based sausage, ground and meatballs.

“Our main goal is to satisfy our customers’ needs by offering a large variety of both traditional and non-traditional items,” Mirando said. “Our weekly promotions offer value and support healthy eating alternatives in both the fresh and frozen categories.”

Stop & Shop’s bid to woo customers back into its stores to purchase foods for meatless Fridays comes nearly a year after an 11-day strike by unionized employees hit the company hard, both in terms of financial losses and in public image. The strike, which occurred during the Easter and Passover shopping period, cost Stop & Shop’s Dutch corporate parent, Ahold Delhaize, $224 million in lost sales and as much as $100 million in lost profits.

The profile of plant-based meat substitutes was raised considerably last summer by fast-food giant Burger King’s launch of the Impossible Burger. Nonstop advertising preceded the early August launch of the Impossible Burger and gave consumers a reason to revist the age-old question of whether a plant-based meat substitute could be made to taste like the real thing.

The Good Food Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based group that promotes replacing animal products with plant-based alternatives, recently commissioned a study showing U.S. retail sales of plant-based products have grown 31 percent between summer 2017 and July 2019, to reach nearly $4.5 billion for the period.

Plant-based milk is the most robust of all plant-based categories, with total sales of $1.86 billion in April 2019. Plant-based meat substitutes came in at $801 million.

Mirando rejected the idea that Burger King’s success with the Impossible Burger was a factor in expanding Stop & Shop’s plant-based meat substitute offerings.

“Stop & Shop has always been on the leading edge of new and innovative products,” he said. “That combined with increasing customer requests for alternatives to meat drove Stop & Shop to amplify our offerings.”

The investment banking firm UBS is projecting that U.S. sales of plant-based protein and meat alternatives will increase from $4.6 billion in 2018 to $85 billion by 2030.

Stop & Shop’s efforts to promote its selection of plant-based meat substitutes is driven by a variety of factors, said Burt Flickinger, managing director of New York City-based Strategic Resource Group.

Between the 1950s and 2005, Stop & Shop had one of the most profitable seafood departments among all supermarket chains, Flickinger said. But since then in New England, industry rivals such as like Big Y and Norwalk-based Stew Leonard’s have eclipsed Stop & Shop’s dominance in the area of fresh seafood

“It was one of their shining departments,” he said of Stop & Shop. “And that’s critically important because seafood has a high profit margin. Studies have show that the typical seafood shopper will spend considerably more than the average shopper.”

The average shopper spend spends $35 per trip to the supermarket, according to Flickinger, but “the seafood shopper is spending $85.”

“The shopper who is buying plant-based meat is spending between $40 and $45 per visit,” he said.

In the supermarket business. Flickinger said sales per square foot is a key metric in determining whether a supermarket location is a success or a failure.

“When Stop & Shop’s seafood counters were at their peak, their location had some of the highest sales per square foot in the industry,” he said.

Nevertheless, Flickinger said Stop & Shop’s focus on plant-based meat substitutes “is a good initiative for them.”

“It’s just not going to have the same major impact that a dominant seafood section woud have for them,” he said.

Connecticut is a key battleground for Stop & Shop, according to Flickinger. “Connecticut Stop & Shop locations are their most profitable,” he said.

Grocery chains have different ways of marketing their plant-based meat substitute offerings.

Bell, the Stew Leonard’s spokeswoman, said the chain sells its plant-based meat substitutes in the meat department display cases, right next to the real thing. Springfield, Mass.-based Big Y, which has about three-dozen Connecticut stores, does something similar.

“The meat in the display cases and the meat substitutes really look so similar,” said Carrie Taylor, Big Y’s lead registered dietitian nutritionist for the chain’s Living Well Eating Smart program.

Andrea Luttrell, a Big Y registered dietitian, said that while customers wait for their order to be filled, they can watch a short, one-minute video she and Taylor have done offering menu tips for how customers can use plant-based meat substitutes — as well as other ways to get protein.

“This is the first Lent that we have offered plant-based meat substitutes, so it’s too soon for us to really measure the growth (in sales),” Luttrell said.

By contrast, Stop & Shop has its plant-based meat substitutes in multiple locations around the stores, according to Mirando.

“Both the meat and produce departments carry a variety of plant-based items, which are typically segregated to specific areas within those departments and clearly marked via signage,” he said.

Catholic Church officialsin Connecticut are choosing their words carefully when asked about plant-based meat substitutes and observation of Lent.

David Elliott, associate director of communications for the Archdiocese of Hartford, said eating plant-based meat substitutes during Lent “is kind of like using a loophole.”

“The whole idea of giving up something for Lent is that it is supposed to be a sacrifice,” Elliot said. “You’re doing it as a way of showing solidarity with Christ’s suffering as he died on the cross.

“If the idea is that someone is sacrificing eating meat for a day and they go out and eat a meat substitute, it’s not really a sacrifice,” he said.

Elliott urged Catholics in the Archdiocese “to pray on whether that (eating a meat substitute while claiming to give up meat for Lent) is something they would want to do.”

“We’re not looking to place restrictions on them and there are other things they can give up for Lent,” he said.

John Grosso, director of social media for the Diocese of Bridgeport, said it’s clear Catholics in southwestern Connecticut are wrestling with the idea of whether to eat plant-based meat substiutes.

“We are starting to hear a little bit about it from priests in the various parishes,” Grosso said. “But where we are really seeing it is questions being raised on social media. People want to make sure they are doing the right thing.”

Jennifer Sullivan of Northford said the meat alternatives can be expensive and don’t really represent the true spirit of Lent.

“We are encouraged not to just fast, but also give the money that would be spent on meat to those in need, and eat simpler foods,” Sullivan said.

Meatless Fridays were not always limited to Lent, according to Grosso.

Prior to 1966, meatless Fridays were a year-round thing for Catholics. But the Second Vatican Council ruled that year that observing the practice every Friday was a recommended but not mandatory practice.

Connecticut Media Group