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Will McDonald’s do a plant-based burger in the U.S.?

The company has been adding vegan and vegetarian products in other markets and seems open to the idea of adding one domestically.
Photograph courtesy of McDonald's Corp.

Will the country’s largest restaurant chain jump on the plant-based burger bandwagon?

Maybe.

At the very least, it appears that McDonald’s is thinking about it, based on comments from CEO Steve Easterbrook on the company’s first quarter earnings call Tuesday. Numerous fast-food chains are adding vegetarian-friendly options to their menus.

“Yes, our menu teams are clearly paying close attention to it,” he said, noting that there “may be more to come” on the topic.

“I certainly know our teams are paying close attention and discussing this with one another and some of the options that are out there.”

The question follows rival Burger King’s announcement on Monday that it will probably expand its Impossible Whopper test nationally by the end of the year—which would make it the biggest chain to use either Impossible Burger or Beyond Meat in a major product.

It’s not like McDonald’s hasn’t been working on vegetarian-friendly options. The chain is testing vegan McNuggets in Norway, for instance, and it recently debuted a vegan burger in Germany.

But the U.S. is the Chicago-based company’s biggest market, and a vegan McDonald’s burger here would put this trend into the stratosphere. Some customers appear to be chomping at the bit for a veggie burger, or at least a veggie-friendly product, in the U.S. More than 200,000 of them signed a Change.org petition calling for McDonald’s to add a “healthy, meatless option.”

Existing chains appear to be getting sales traction by offering the product. Burger King said its early tests in St. Louis went so well, the company has all but committed to a nationwide launch just one month later. White Castle, which seemed to herald the veggie burger trend in the fast-food space, has said its Impossible Slider is selling well.

Yet while trends seem to be pointing in the direction of a McDonald’s veggie burger (Beyond Big Mac? Impossible Quarter Pounder?), there are some potential hurdles.

First is McDonald’s size. It’s, um … big.

There are already concerns about whether Impossible Burger will be able to meet rapidly growing demand for its product. “Demand has grown so fast, we’re sprinting just to meet it,” David Lee, CFO for Impossible Foods, said recently. “I have never seen a product with this explosive growth, this consumer pull.”

McDonald’s, with 14,000 locations and unit volumes of $2.5 million, is double the size of every other fast-food chain that has released a plant-based meat product thus far, posing instant supply challenges for any company it works with.

Perhaps a bigger issue for the chain is whether this popularity is a permanent change or a fad. “The key for us is to identify sustaining consumer trends,” Easterbrook said.

That’s important for a chain working to fix its current traffic challenge. McDonald’s has been cutting some menu items, notably its semicustomizable Signature Crafted Sandwiches, and is working to balance innovation with the need to improve operations and, therefore, speed.

“This is a continual balancing act that we always had at McDonald’s,” Easterbrook said. “How do you create new news to be top-of-mind for consumers, but not make it so complex that it starts to be a challenge for our teams in the restaurants and therefore, inadvertently impacting customers?”

On a plant-based menu item, he said, “Is there additional complexity? And if there is, is that complexity worth it?”

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