When Will the Big Mac Go Vegan?
The announcement came on April Fools’ Day, but the news was no joke: Last week, Burger King began testing an Impossible Whopper — a take on the chain’s signature flame-grilled burger using a plant-based patty from Impossible Foods, maker of the much-ballyhooed Impossible Burger.
In a change that was unthinkable a decade ago, plant-based burgers — and plant-based meat, in general — is possibly the biggest trend in the fast food world. Not that long ago, when it came to meat, bigger seemed better, but growing environmental, ethical, and dietary concerns — along with significant improvement in the quality of plant-based meat thanks to brands like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat — have swung the pendulum towards an arms’ race over who can get great-tasting plant-based meat to market fastest. Early adopters include White Castle, which last year became the first major fast food chain to offer an Impossible Foods option at all of its locations nationwide (though the Los Angeles-based Fatburger was one of a number smaller chains that beat them to the punch). Earlier this year, Carl’s Jr. became the largest fast food burger joint to put a Beyond Meat burger on the menu, while casual dining giant TGI Fridays added a burger from Beyond Meat a year earlier. (And not to ignore the Umamis, Shake Shacks, and other fast-casual chains of the world offering a meat-free option around this same timeline.)
But though Carl’s Jr. and White Castle are pretty impressive names on the quick-service list (the 8th and 14th largest burger chains by sales respectively according to QSR Magazine), Burger King — if they add the Impossible Whopper nationally (right now it’s just at 59 locations around St. Louis) — would be a major jump towards the top of the fast food pyramid. Burger King is America’s second largest burger chain, with nearly five times the sales of Carl’s Jr. and White Castle combined. The only larger burger chain is McDonald’s, which begs the question, is the biggest name in fast food in play for a vegetarian/vegan option of its own?
McDonald’s declined to comment when asked about its vegan intentions directly, but when McDonald’s was mentioned, both Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat seemed to imply that they’d be happy to plant their plant-based flag on the top of the fast food mountain. “Our mission at Impossible Foods is so urgent that we will leave no stone unturned when it comes to an opportunity to scale the business,” Jessica Appelgren, Vice President of Communications for Impossible Foods, told me via email. “We continue to regularly communicate with the leading food service partners in the country from fine dining to QSR with the intention of being available wherever meat-eaters are currently finding delicious meat and dairy foods.”
Beyond Meat struck a similar tone. “We're interested in working with any restaurant operator that is seeking to add high-quality, delicious-tasting, plant-based offerings to their menus,” the company explained. “With the expansion of our production capabilities, we're actively growing all channels including food service, retail and international, which currently sees distribution at more than 30,000 outlets.”
Chains, however, have to consider the pros and cons of developing a vegetarian patty in-house versus teaming up with an outside producer. Much of the vegan patty boom has specifically come because of the strides from these “disruptive” plant-based brands, so teaming up with them can provide instant results. “The Beyond Meat team put a lot of time into research and development of their product, and ultimately created a burger patty that cooks, looks and satisfies just like meat, which is why we partnered with them to introduce a plant-based burger option to our menu,” Patty Trevino, Senior Vice President, Brand Marketing, Carl’s Jr., said. “The timeline from concept to market was pretty quick, we knew we had a hit on our hands in late 2018, and brought this product to market fairly quickly after concept, launching in December 2018.” And keep in mind, that involved Beyond Meat creating “a new 2.0 patty specifically for our Beyond Famous Star in the U.S.,” Trevino added.
Impossible Foods provided a similarly speedy narrative. “Burger King and Impossible Foods began meeting in the fall of 2018. The alignment and affinity between the brands was so strong that things moved quickly from there,” Appelgren explained before turning to focus on their burgers' other big selling point. “Impossible Foods has been hard at work developing a complete technology platform for the creation of meat and dairy foods since 2011,” she continued. “The category leading customers that are putting Impossible on the menu including Burger King, Red Robin, and White Castle are doing so because the product itself is non-replicable and unique. The Impossible Burger is the only plant-based meat featuring heme, the company's patented key ingredient that makes the burger taste, cook and smell just like meat from a cow.”
Beyond Meat also spoke the importance of their unique skills. “We have a decade of R&D knowledge, work, and progress under our belts all aimed at a singular objective: to perfectly build meat directly from plants,” the brand said. “Most restaurants don't have the time or resources to make that kind of dedicated investment, which is where we come in.”
And yet, if any company has the resources to create its own plant-based products, McDonald’s is likely one of them. Then the question becomes do they have the time to do it on their own or will the public appetite for a non-meat burger leave them behind? For instance, in the wake of Burger King’s announcement, the online petition site Care2 resurfaced a year-old petition hoping to “Bring Vegan Burgers to McDonald’s!” It has over 63,000 supporters.
That said, since McDonald’s refused to comment on the situation, it’s possible the brand has already been working towards — or negotiating on — a vegetarian burger deal. With the help of a Swedish brand, McDonald’s added a McVegan burger to its menu in Finland in 2017. Not that McDonald’s international moves have reflected how the company’s American arm will act, but it provides an example of McDonald’s willingness to not only add a vegan burger, but to work with an outside company to do so. Considering that both mega-corporation Nestle and vegan/vegetarian food producer Lightlife have announced their own competitive fake meat patties, there are now twice as many options for a partnership than there were just a year ago.
But for now, it’s the smaller burger brands that are able to bask in the limelight. “After nearly 100 years as a family-owned enterprise, we’ve learned over the years that if we do the right thing for the right reasons, and listen to our team members and customers — good things are bound to happen,” White Castle’s Vice President Jamie Richardson told me. “It’s always great to be first — but the real motivation for us is to be responsive to our cravers everywhere — past, present, and future. We believe that’s the best way to take the long view and make good decisions rather than worrying too much about what our competitors and colleagues in the industry might be up to any given moment.”
Ironically enough, for the moment, it would seem that plenty of other brands, McDonald’s included, are using a similar “long view” approach as their reason for staying away from plant-based burgers… at least for the time being.