- Hollis Johnson/Business Insider
- For years, veggie burgers and vegan menu items have failed to break into mainstream fast food.
- Recently, however, chain after chain has announced partnerships with Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat to roll out meat-free options.
- Analysts, executives, and other industry insiders point to five ways that Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are succeeding where traditional veggie burgers failed.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Vegans and vegetarians have been pushing for fast-food chains to add veggie burgers to the menu for years. Now, with the rise of Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, plant-based burgers are going mainstream.
Burger King is selling the Impossible Whopper nationally. KFC ran a test of plant-based fried “chicken” with Beyond Meat. And, McDonald’s just kicked off a test of a vegan burger in Canada.
On Tuesday, Cowen released a report diving into how exactly this new crop of meat alternatives differ from traditional vegetarian fare, and what it might mean for the future of plant-based “meat.” These differences are key to understanding why the Impossible Whopper is making headlines in a way that Burger King’s Morningstar Veggie Burger never did.
Here is why analysts, executives, and other industry insiders say that Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat’s veggie burgers are finally taking over fast food.
They taste like real meat.
- Michael Thomas/Getty Images
In early September, Alicia Kennedy wrote an article for The Washington Post about plant-based startups versus “real” veggie burgers. Kennedy recalled her first time eating a Beyond Burger, ordered at a beer bar in Long Island.
“Here was a sign that times were truly changing, yet when it arrived and I took a bite, I immediately began to tear up, looking at my sister with terror: I was so sure I’d just eaten beef, for the first time in years,” Kennedy writes.
This eerie similarity between faux meat and real meat may alienate some vegan and vegetarian customers. However, chains are aggressively emphasizing these similarities in marketing.
In April, José Cil, CEO of Burger King’s parent company Restaurant Brands International, told investors that he found it “really difficult to distinguish between the Impossible Whopper and the original Whopper.”
Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods believe that the key to getting people to eat their products is to make them taste exactly like meat. Beyond Meat’s CEO describes animal protein as the company’s “true north,” saying on the plant-based “meat” company’s earnings call in July that the company is “maybe 75% of the way there.”
“The competition is not other plant-based products. It is truly the cow,” Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown recently told Business Insider.
Nutritionally, they’re similar to classic burgers — and don’t try to be something healthier.
- Irene Jiang / Business Insider
Cowen notes that unlike many veggie burgers, plant-based menu items have similar protein levels to the menu items they’re replicating.
Growing protein sales and the rise of high-protein diets mean that customers are prioritizing protein over cutting calories – good news for Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat.
Further, mimicking fast-food menu items means that the new wave of veggie burgers do not need to market themselves as healthier options. In years past, many vegetable-based dishes have been either literally or figuratively forced into the “better-for-you” section of the menu.
Customers may say they want healthier options, but when it comes time to order, many end up wanting fries instead of a side salad. In 2013, for example, McDonald’s doubled down on meat after its attempts to win over customers with salads failed.
“I don’t see salads as being a major growth driver in the near future,” McDonald’s then-CEO Don Thompson said at the time.
Marketing is centered on sustainability, as Gen Z worries about climate change.
Instead of focusing on health or convincing customers to give up meat, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are emphasizing sustainability.
“Sustainability is increasingly more relevant as consumers, especially Millennials and Gen Z, have become more aware of the damage that food production has caused to the planet,” Barclays wrote in a report in May.
Impossible and Beyond are presenting themselves as a solution to growing global beef consumption – one of the leading environmental threats to the planet. Barclays notes that cows contribute more to global greenhouse gas emissions than cars, with the average cow emitting up to 500 liters of methane every day.
Cowen found that a sense of social responsibility was driving purchases of both the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger. 12% of people who had tried either burger said that their primary reason for trying the burger was social responsibility.
“While this trails health and curiosity, in our view this represents the most durable reason for growth in the plant-based category, given both brands focus their missions on the environmental benefits of having fewer animals raised for food purposes,” the report states.
Buzz begets buzz.
Right now, curiosity is actually more likely to convince people to buy Beyond and Impossible products than a sense of social responsibility. 34% of people who have eaten an Impossible Burger said that the primary reason they tried the burger for the first time was curiosity; 29% of people said the same about their first time trying Beyond Burger.
This curiosity is linked to a number of other factors.
While veggie burgers have been around for decades, Impossible and Beyond have successfully marketed their products as something entirely new, with Cowen noting that plant-based offerings are in their nascent stages. This trendiness sets the new products apart from traditional veggie burgers.
Companies’ promises that the products taste like real meat also help draw in skeptics and others eager to test the claim. Meat eaters were more likely to buy the products due to curiosity than vegetarians were, perhaps looking to call companies on their bluff.
Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat products have also become cultural icons in their own right, with the help of fast-food giants’ marketing. For example, this Halloween, you can buy a sexy Beyond Burger costume at Yandy.
“We have quite a few vegetarians in the office so the thought around plant-based costumes was definitely part of our Halloween discussions this year,” Yandy representative Chris Turk told Business Insider in an email.
Turk added that a merchandising manager watched Jim Cramer every night on CNBC “and apparently he is obsessed with Beyond Meat so it really stuck in her mind.”
Fast-food chains are crucial partners.
- Burger King
Summer Anne Burton, the editor-in-chief of vegan magazine Tenderly, recently published an article in BuzzFeed News outlining the reasons why she and other people who don’t eat meat for ethical reason feel uncomfortable with the rise of Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods.
“Money from wealthy investors is pouring into these new corporations, money is flowing between these new companies and the fast food brands whose major profit center is still dead chickens and cows, and money is coming in from curious consumers who are lining up for vegan KFC tenders and Impossible Whoppers,” Burton writes.
Burton adds: “This new industry rises not because of us, but in many ways despite us.”
Analysts are coming to similar conclusions – and they see this as a positive. By working with recognizable fast-food brands, plant-based products are poised to win over customers.
“While early, we believe restaurant operators that can extend branded, recognizable products to plant-based offerings will be the most successful, such as Burger King’s Impossible Whopper,” the Cowen report states.
Cowen notes that the inverse is also true. When a plant-based product represents a less popular or nonexistent menu item or category – such as the addition of a Beyond Burger to the menu at Tim Hortons, a chain that previously didn’t sell burgers – it will do little to boost sales.
In other words, plant-based menu items are thriving primarily when they fit into a wider, existing fast-food ecosystem.
Ultimately, veggie burgers failed because they were either tacked onto fast-food menus or marketed as boring, better-for-you alternatives to meat. Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are trying the opposite approach – mostly ignoring vegan and vegetarians, in favor of winning over meat eaters with trendy, limited-time offers.
It is a strategy that is taking over fast food in a way the veggie burger never did.