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Are plant-based meats now a vital part of the QSR menu?

Editor’s Roundtable: As plant-based meats return to restaurant marketing, RB editors discuss the products’ potential popularity.
Photograph courtesy of Pizza Hut

Editor’s note: This is another edition of Editor’s Roundtable, in which Restaurant Business Editor-in-Chief Jonathan Maze keeps his editors from doing any real work by posing some inane question. Today’s subject: Plant-based meal items. The victim: Patricia Cobe.

Jonathan Maze: So we recently learned that McDonald’s shall soon go full-bore into the plant game with not just one product but an entire platform of menu items called, perhaps unsurprisingly, “McPlant.”

At this point it is probably time for me to put away my old suspicions that all of this plant-based stuff was a nonsense fad that will go the way of carob chips. While the McDonald’s McPlant whatever isn’t coming to the U.S., at least next year, the simple fact is that now the two largest restaurant chains in the U.S., McDonald’s and Starbucks, are into plant-based products.

Oh, and Pizza Hut just introduced a pair of plant-based pizzas. In short, Patricia Cobe, this sure seems like the fast-food business is going big into the plant-based meat game. Here’s my question: Is a plant-based burger or sandwich a must-have for the fast-food business? So should, say, Chick-fil-A and Chipotle start doing plant-based stuff like an Impossible Chicken Sandwich or Beyond Burrito Bowl?

Pat Cobe: I think plant-based options are definitely here to stay and are becoming a must-have for chains in every segment. Most plant-based consumers are not vegans but they want the opportunity to choose a nonmeat alternative for a burrito, taco, pizza, breakfast sandwich, etc. Flexitarians are pushing the trend.

The products on the market make it convenient for a fast-food chain to add a plant-based version of a core item. But a number of QSRs and fast casuals are crafting their own that better align with their concepts. Culver’s Harvest Veggie Burger is a good example…it fits with their focus on sourcing local and using fresh ingredients. Some of the manufactured products have a long list of processed ingredients and are far from “clean”—which is what fussier consumers want.

That said, more and more companies are producing plant-based analogs. Aside from sausage, burgers and chicken, there are plant-based versions of eggs, seafood, bacon, and more from suppliers. When I judged the National Restaurant Association's FABI awards in 2019, 25-30% of the new products that came in were plant-based.

Jonathan, do you think a chain that wants to jump on this trend now should differentiate with its own plant-based signature—whether they work with a supplier to make a proprietary product or create it in their test kitchen—or should they take the easy route and use one of the manufactured products?

Jonathan: I am 100% in favor of chains creating their own brands when it comes to plant-based meat.

In theory, a restaurant company can keep using Beyond or Impossible, much like they use Coke or Pepsi and play the two companies off of one another in negotiations. Maybe more comparable is the use of, say, King’s Hawaiian buns at Subway or Arby’s. It comes with some extra attention that provides sales with a boost.

But there is a reason why you don’t see, say, Wendy’s serving a Tysons Chicken Sandwich. It removes some of the control over the branding from the restaurant chain. You then become beholden to the vendor not only to provide the food but the marketing.

The products also become less proprietary. It’s much better to dictate the product you want and develop your own brand.

That’s easier said than done, of course, if you’re a smaller operator. McDonald’s is big enough to basically dictate what it wants and how, and has the marketing muscle. Still, in my view it’s better to create your own menu item and brand and push it yourself, rather than rely on one of these companies to provide it for you.

Still, I wonder how big this market really is. Companies are putting a lot of effort behind products with an uncertain market long-term. Sure, meat-eaters who want to be better to the planet are a theoretically sizable market. But it’s still theoretical. What do you think, Pat? How big can this business get?

Pat: It’s not just the environmentalists who want the choice of plant-based options. People feel these are healthier—although with all those artificial ingredients, the processed products aren’t necessarily better for you. And Gen Zers, who are growing into influential restaurant consumers, are stronger advocates for plant-based than the generations that preceded them.

Although plant-based is not a passing fad, I still think the market is finite. Beyond and Impossible have to create some line extensions to keep consumers interested. How about adding global flavors/seasonings to the bulk mixtures so operators can create Middle Eastern kebabs, Asian dumplings and authentic Mexican taco fillings, for example? This would expand their market to growing chains such as Halal Guys, Wow Bao and Torchy’s Tacos.

Would you go for globally flavored plant-based meats, Jonathan?

Jonathan: Me? As long as it tastes good and won’t kill me, at least immediately, I’m up for almost anything.

And probably you’re right. Plant-based meats need to taste good but also fit with a broad cross-section of concepts and that means a more diverse set of flavors. At the end of the day, people aren’t going to order anything they don’t like, no matter how environmentally friendly it is.

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