Beyond vegans: Plant-based ‘meat’ goes mainstream from KFC to Dunkin’

Why We Wrote This

Meat-free burgers have often existed as a side-menu for vegetarians. That appears to be changing fast, as fast-food companies see mainstream consumers snapping up plant-based sandwiches.

Casey Rodgers/Invision for Beyond Meat/AP
Singer Snoop Dogg surprised fans in celebration of the national launch of Dunkin’s new Beyond Sausage Sandwich in partnership with Beyond Meat at Dunkin’ in Los Angeles on Oct. 23, 2019.

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“You can’t tell the difference,” says construction worker Gareth Conachy as he holds a bag with Dunkin’s new Beyond Sausage Sandwich, which has its national rollout this week.

The year 2019 is quickly becoming the year of the plant-based sandwich. Burgers from the brand Impossible are a hot seller at Burger King and White Castle. Grocery stores and college cafeterias are in on the trend.

What’s behind the mainstreaming of products long marketed especially toward vegetarians and vegans? Technology is part of it. Upstart companies have found ways to make products that look and taste so much like meat – and at a nearly comparable price – that they appeal to meat-eaters who view them as a healthy alternative. And once concerns about taste and price are met, consumers are considering values such as animal rights and environmental sustainability.

“It will definitely cut into meat sales,” says Brad, who didn’t want his last name used, while eating his first ever Impossible Whopper. A proponent of animal welfare, he says, “The fact that they are at fast-food restaurants, that’s probably the best thing that could happen.”

Facing his daughter at a booth, two Burger King sandwiches between them, Dodson takes an old gray and black tie and ties it around the eyes of 6-year-old Victoria.

“No peeking,” he tells her. Then he hands her the chain’s plant-based burger, the Impossible Whopper in a green-and-white wrapper, and has her take a bite. Then he does the same with the traditional Whopper on her right. “Which one do you think is the real one?” he asks.

“That’s the real burger, No. 2,” she says. Then Dodson, who didn't want to give his last name, ties the tie around his eyes and has Victoria hand him the burgers. He guesses correctly, too. But “I have a hard time to distinguish,” he adds. “From a plant, I’m impressed.”

Some 200 yards away, just outside a Dunkin’ restaurant, Gareth Conachy holds a bag with the chain’s new Beyond Sausage Sandwich. “You can’t tell the difference,” says the construction worker, who swore off meat two years ago. Introduced in Manhattan in July, this item with plant-based sausage quickly became one of Dunkin’s best-selling sandwiches. So the chain, based in nearby Canton, Massachusetts, pushed forward its national rollout to this week. 

The year 2019 is quickly becoming the year of the plant-based sandwich. Relegated for years to a niche market for vegetarians and vegans, plant-based meat is suddenly mainstream. The speed of that change has caught even industry insiders by surprise. 

Technology is pushing the shift. Upstart companies such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have found ways to make products that look and taste so much like meat – and at a nearly comparable price – that they appeal to meat-eaters as well as vegetarians. Consumer demand is shifting, too. Once taste and price concerns are met, other values about health, animal rights, and the environment come into play.

“A lot of these brands don’t necessarily lead with the health messaging,” says Zak Weston, a food-service analyst at The Good Food Institute, a Washington-based nonprofit advocating a shift toward alternative meat, eggs, and dairy. “They are screaming flavor and they’re whispering health and they’re whispering the environment. ... [But] everyone wants to be healthier, or almost everyone, and almost everyone wants to do things that aren’t putting a giant resource strain on the planet.”

For Brad, another diner at the Waltham Burger King, the appeal is that it doesn’t hurt mammals. Having witnessed the inexpert slaughter of a hog two decades ago, he swore off meat from mammals, although he still eats chicken and fish. “It will definitely cut into meat sales,” he says, polishing off his first-ever Impossible Whopper. “The fact that they are at fast-food restaurants, that’s probably the best thing that could happen. The number of people who go through a McDonald’s or Burger King is considerable.”

So far, Burger King has stolen a march on its key rival, McDonald’s. Having introduced its plant-based sandwich in April in St. Louis with dramatic success, the Miami-based fast-food chain in August rolled it out to its 7,200 restaurants nationwide. 

Ben Margot/AP
An Impossible Whopper burger at a Burger King restaurant in Alameda, Calif. on July 31, 2019.

McDonald’s has been more cautious. In late September, it said it would trial a Beyond Meat burger in some of its Canadian stores, labeling it the P.L.T. (reminiscent of its B.L.T. but standing for Plant, Lettuce and Tomato). In August, KFC trialed Beyond Meat boneless wings and nuggets for a single day at a suburban Atlanta store, drawing a line of people around the store and selling out in less than five hours. Denny’s has just started testing the Beyond Burger at its Los Angeles restaurants.

Smaller chains have already jumped on the bandwagon. In April 2018, White Castle debuted the Impossible Slider in New York, New Jersey, and Chicago and found the sandwich so popular that restaurants with it had a 250% or so bigger market share than restaurants without it. The chain, based in Columbus, Ohio, expanded the slider to all its stores and, this spring, introduced an improved version. Last December, Carl’s Jr. introduced its Beyond Famous Star burgers and, after selling 4.5 million of them, added a Beyond BBQ cheeseburger to its menu last month. 

Plant-based meat has also made inroads into grocery stores. Beyond Meat started selling its products in Whole Foods in 2013 and has since expanded to major grocery chains. Wegmans says by email that “the launch of Impossible Burger has been extremely successful.”

One reason: both companies are marketing to all consumers, not just vegans and vegetarians. Beyond Meat says that 93% of Kroger shoppers who purchase its products also have meat in their shopping cart. Burger King says 90% of its Impossible Whopper customers are meat eaters who are looking for healthier options.

Some observers, citing the highly processed nature of these meat substitutes, cast doubt on the idea of big health benefits. But other factors are also at play. Environmental concerns also have a role in boosting sales. Plant-based meats use less water and energy and create fewer greenhouse gas emissions than their equivalent in real beef, studies show, in part because animals eat far more calories in plants than their meat produces.

“When Impossible Foods launched the Impossible Burger in 2016, concern for the environment wasn’t even in the Top 10 reasons consumers cited as motivating their purchase,” says Pat Brown, the company’s CEO, in an emailed response. “Now it’s No. 3. We see this trend accelerating, too, as young people take to the streets to protect the planet they’re inheriting.”

For all the success of plant-based meat in the past year, no one expects sales of real meat to wither away. Alternative meat still represents only about 1% of sales of the real thing in grocery stores, says Mr. Weston at The Good Food Institute. And while numbers are less available, he estimates it has a similar share of sales at restaurants. 

Is it just a passing fad?

Mr. Brown of Impossible Foods doesn’t think so. “Our growth has come from every sales category in which we do business – independent restaurants, large restaurant chains such as White Castle, Cheesecake Factory and Qdoba, and non-commercial outlets such as theme parks, museums, stadiums, and college campuses,” he says. And Minit Stop, a convenience store and gas station chain in Hawaii, has completely replaced the beef on its menu with Impossible Burger, he points out. “Minit Stop’s decision to remove all cow-based beef from its menu serves as a rallying cry for other restaurants to follow suit, highlighting the importance of making more sustainable decisions.”

Back at the Dunkin’ store in Waltham, manager Eduardo Daniel hasn’t tallied how well the Beyond Sausage Sandwich went over. “We haven’t done any promotion yet,” he says. The chain will offer free samples on Friday and Saturday. But “it’s good to have another option on the menu.”

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