Burger King said Monday that it plans to expand its Impossible Whopper nationally by the end of the year, a strong sign of faith in a product that has only been in test in a single market for one month.
Parent company Restaurant Brands International said the national rollout would follow an expansion into additional markets this summer.
Yet executives said they were excited by the reaction to the news of the test in St. Louis, which the company said generated 6 billion media impressions. They said that the product was increasing sales and not taking away orders from its existing Whopper.
If tests go as well in the additional markets as they did in St. Louis, the company would expand the product nationwide.
“We’re seeing a solid sales opportunity for the business,” Restaurant Brands International CEO Jose Cil said on the company’s first quarter earnings call Monday. “It’s very much in line with our brand position, which is all about delivering flame-grilling excellence. This fits right in the sweet spot.”
The announcement comes as the chain’s same-store sales in the U.S. have softened in the past couple of quarters. Same-store sales rose just 0.4% domestically in the quarter ended March 31, and 2.2% globally.
That was lower than the company expected in the period, and executives on the earnings call blamed weak performance in breakfast early in the quarter, as well as tough comparisons from a year ago and a weak introduction of the chain’s grilled chicken sandwich.
The sandwich “did not perform to our expectations,” Cil said.
The company said that its breakfast business was down slightly early in the quarter. But Burger King has put a greater focus on the daypart with the introduction of a $5 monthly coffee subscription program as well as its BK Cafe business.
Burger King also has hopes for delivery, which is now in almost half of the chain’s nearly 7,300 U.S. restaurants—as well as in 1,300 units of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, Burger King’s sister chain.
Josh Kobza, chief operating officer for Restaurant Brands International, said that delivery is both “highly incremental” and “profitable” for the company’s restaurants. “I think our outlook is to continue to grow coverage over the coming quarters and years, and probably to expand the sources from which we take orders over time,” Kobza said.
Burger King also plans to continue to remodel restaurants in its technology-centric “Burger King of Tomorrow” image.
The company had a higher rate of closures in the first quarter, in part because Burger King has been closing lower-volume, unprofitable units and replacing them with new restaurants in the chain’s new image.
“It helps continue to build franchise profitability in the U.S. system as we close these lower-volume restaurants and we’re replacing them with new BK of Tomorrow restaurants,” Cil said, noting that the closure rate in the first quarter was “positive.”
As for the Impossible Whopper, Burger King is expected to become the largest U.S. restaurant chain to offer a plant-based burger assuming that it ultimately expands the product this year—furthering rapid growth in plant-based products at quick-service chains.
Cil said that he has “tasted the product many times” and sometimes “overused my executive privilege by having BK chefs” bring him one of the burgers. “It’s really difficult to distinguish between an Impossible Whopper and a regular Whopper,” he said.
Nevertheless, “We’re not seeing guests swap the original Whopper for the Impossible Whopper.”