While plant-based meat alternatives are taking over American menus, it's almost impossible to find veggie burgers made from actual veggies.

By Khushbu Shah
February 16, 2021
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As someone who doesn't eat a ton of meat, I often feel like I am playing a giant, frustrating game of Where Is Waldo? when I stare at the menu boards of fast-food burger chains. Waldo, in this case, is a single vegetarian or vegan option that is filling, but isn't an order of fries (even though you run the risk of those containing meat, too).

The menu options typically include beef, more beef, beef with bacon, chicken if you don't want beef, fish on occasion—and these days, thanks to the tech meat boom, you'll find plants made to resemble beef, down to its sinewy, fleshy texture. It's basically impossible to find an American fast-food menu that goes beyond these meat-passing alternatives and offers a veggie burger … made from actual vegetables. 

Credit: McDonald's

The burger—especially the fast-food burger—is one of the most quintessentially American foods. There's a certain pleasure to a fast-food burger: thin, crispy patty, melty almost plasticine cheese, shredded lettuce (or shredduce), diced onions if you're lucky, rings of white onions if you're not, dots of mustard and ketchup, and perfectly placed pickles, all on a soft and squishy bun. As millions of Americans continue to experiment with vegan and vegetarian diets, it doesn't seem far-fetched that veggie burgers made from beans, grains, and vegetables would become a more widely available option, but finding them remains difficult. 

Instead, chains are sinking millions of dollars into offering plant-based meat alternatives: Burger King, which used to sell the Veggie Whopper with a soy-based patty, discontinued the sandwich in favor of the Impossible Whopper. Carl's Jr. sells a Beyond BBQ Cheeseburger, and even McDonald's will soon roll out the imaginatively named McPlant. While these alternatives might work for people looking to eat less meat, they fail to serve the market that is looking to eat more vegetables. It also ignores a key fact, which is that many people are vegetarian or vegan because they don't want to eat anything that resembles meat. 

Brands doubling down on tech meat over veggie burgers doesn't make sense from a climate, health, or price perspective either. Studies have shown that while plant-based meat alternatives from Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have significantly less of a carbon footprint than beef (some estimates put it at 89% less) and have about half the carbon footprint of chicken, they still have five times more of a footprint than a burger patty made from beans. 

These plant-based meats are also quite heavily-processed: Impossible is made from genetically modified soy, while Beyond is made from pea protein. Regardless, there is a health halo that surrounds these products, even though experts agree that eating unprocessed plant-heavy diets are ultimately better for people and the environment.

And while tech meat is a good source of protein—Impossible has 19 g. of protein in 4 oz., and Beyond has 20 g. of protein in 4 oz.—they lack many of the other nutrients found in minimally processed veggie burgers, such as fiber and a host of vitamins and minerals. Andy Berliner, the co-owner of Amy's Drive-Thru, a three-location all-vegetarian fast-food chain, says that their veggie burger—a single patty, which is made from bulgur, mushrooms, and a little bit of soy for texture—with all the toppings clocks in at around 20 g. grams of protein, too. 

It's not exactly cheaper to make a tech meat burger, either. Currently, Impossible Burger costs distributors at least $6.80 a pound, which is nearly three times the price of beef, which goes for $2 to $3 per pound for non-organic varieties. A pound of dry black beans at a grocery store costs a customer around $1.39 per pound. Potatoes, another popular veggie burger base, cost less than 75 cents per pound. Kate Taylor, a senior correspondent at Business Insider who covers chains, theorizes that the big burger chains are less concerned about the prices of these plant-based meat alternatives because executives at places like Beyond and Impossible have basically promised that they are going to continue to lower the price. "So in the long term, the profit margins are only to get better and better," she said.

Logistics pose a small hurdle when it comes to chains serving real veggie burgers—grill space comes at a premium. McDonald's dragged its feet on introducing all-day breakfast due to the amount of griddle space the additional items would take up. Chains have struggled with the procedure of serving a meatless burger, too. Burger King, which declined to comment for this story, made headlines when it was revealed that its Impossible Whoppers were cooked on the same grills as its beef and chicken patties—rendering the burger not totally meatless.

But it's not an impossible challenge to scale. Jamie Richardson, the VP of Marketing and Public Relations at White Castle, says that the fast-food chain—the only one to serve both a veggie burger and an Impossible Burger—cooks both of them on a separate griddle armed with its own separate green-colored spatulas to prevent contamination.

"Menu expansion is something that would have been difficult maybe 15 or 20 years ago, as the kitchens of yesterday are not like the kitchens today," said Richardson. "Our equipment is a lot more compact and smarter, and it gives us more capability and capacity." 

What about cook times? Speed is a huge driving factor when it comes to deciding what goes on a chain's menu and what does not. Richardson says that White Castle's veggie burger, which is made in partnership with Dr. Praeger's, can be cooked in the same amount of time as a regular beef slider. And Berliner says that it takes them two and a half minutes to cook a veggie burger at Amy's Drive-Thru. "Our drive-through speed is almost as fast as the competition," said Berliner. 

What perhaps is most confounding when it comes to the lack of fast-food veggie burgers in the United States is that most major chains offer versions, made from vegetables, in their international markets. McDonald's sells the McVeggie in Australia and New Zealand; the sandwich is described as having a "delicious, crunchy potato, cheese, and veggie patty." In the UK, McDonald's customers can order a Vegetable Deluxe, which features two crispy tenders made from red pepper and sun-dried tomato pesto, and UK Burger Kings sell a Veggie Bean Burger that comes topped with lettuce, cheese, and mayo on a toasted sesame seed bun. And in Australia, where the chain is known as Hungry Jack's, they offer a vegan burger made from corn, peppers, and carrot, topped with vegan cheese and vegan mayo. 

Both McDonald's and Burger King declined to respond when I asked why these burgers were available in international markets but not here. Taylor believes the lack of veggie options on fast-food menus comes down to the franchise owners.

"Anytime you add a new item to the menu, you kind of need your franchisees to be on board with it for it to be successful," said Taylor. But they are often reluctant to carry new items. "Franchise owners tell me, a lot of the things people say they want to have, they don't actually end up ordering." Taylor points out that McDonald's took salads off of their menus permanently last April, even though customers want to eat healthier, but "no one really noticed." 

Regardless of franchise owner reluctance, there is a real demand for a proper veggie burger on the market. White Castle added its veggie sliders to the menu in 2015 and while the chain won't reveal how many they sell across their 330 locations, Richardson says that it is a "fan favorite." Between Amy's Drive-Thru's three locations in San Francisco, Berliner says that they sell over a million veggie burgers each year and that it is an incredibly popular item. And a spokesperson for Shake Shack says that its cheese-stuffed 'Shroom Burger is "one of our most popular items" and that it "has long been a favorite menu item." 

Other non-burger chains have also seen a lot of success by catering to a vegetarian and vegan audience. Taco Bell, for example, is beloved for its meatless options, which include swapping any meat for beans, and it now has a dedicated vegetarian menu. A spokesperson for the chain told QSR in 2019 that Taco Bell sells "about 350 million servings of vegetarian product every year." 

By not offering a true veggie burger on the menu, these chains are leaving a huge audience behind. Diners who want a plant-based meat substitute are not usually the same diners who want something that in no way resembles meat. "The learning we have gained at White Castle is that each sandwich has its distinct and loyal following," said Richardson. 

"We have people who come in specifically for our veggie slider."