WHEN you think of fast food, you think of something tasty, affordable, convenient, and usually containing meat. Well, that last bit — about meat — might change in the years to come as major fast food chains in North America like Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald’s are trying out no-meat offerings.

BURGER KING

To date, Burger King is the one that has taken the biggest step in this direction. It first market-tested The Impossible Whopper in St Louis outlets in April this year. Positive consumer response prompted the company to do a national rollout and they began offering

The Impossible Whopper at all 7,200 Burger King outlets across the country. The patty is made by Impossible Foods, which specialises in a plant-based patty that looks and tastes like beef.

“Since we first launched our market tests in St. Louis in April, and later in six other markets across the country, we’ve heard great feedback,” Chris Finazzo, president of the Burger King Corporation (North America), said, adding that the burger “…appeals to both current guests who are already big fans of the Whopper sandwich, as well as new guests excited about this new option.”

They were convinced once somebody had tried the Impossible Burger, they’d be pleasantly surprised at how indistinguishable it is from a regular beef-patty-based burger. To encourage people to give it a try, Burger King offered customers the option of taking the “Impossible Taste Test” from August 8 until September 1, where for just US$7, customers could get a standard Whopper and an Impossible Whopper (normally US$5.59 each). They even threw in free delivery to make the offer more appealing.

KENTUCKY FRIED CHICKEN (KFC)

Not wanting to be left behind, Kentucky Fried Chicken has also jumped onto the “fake meat” bandwagon. For its supply of fake chicken, it has teamed up with Beyond Meat (a rival of Impossible Foods).

In late August, KFC announced that they’re testing plant-based “chicken” nuggets and boneless wings — dubbed “Beyond Fried Chicken” — at one Atlanta outlet. Each item is available in six or 12-piece combo meals. The wings cost US$1 each (US$6 for a half-dozen and US$12 for a dozen), and the nuggets are US$6.49 for six and US$8.49 for 12. Customers can buy four plant-based chicken nuggets a la carte for US$1.99.

As with Burger King and the Impossible Whopper, KFC is banking on customers finding the products to be virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. In its advertising, KFC says the alternative chicken is "still finger lickin' good."

“KFC Beyond Fried Chicken is so delicious, our customers will find it difficult to tell that it's plant-based,” said Kevin Hochman, KFC USA’s chief concept officer. “I think we've all heard “it tastes like chicken” — well our customers are going to be amazed and say, “it tastes like Kentucky Fried Chicken!’”

Although the Beyond Fried Chicken test is limited to one store for now, KFC has said it would consider customer feedback as it decides whether to test the menu item at more locations or launch it nationally.

MCDONALD’S

McDonald’s is lagging behind Burger King and KFC in offering a plant-based, fake meat option, but it’s finally giving it a try. On September 30, it began offering the “PLT” (plant, lettuce and tomato), an obvious play on “BLT” (bacon, lettuce, tomato). The patty is also from Beyond Meat. The PLT will be available for a limited time in 28 select McDonald’s outlets in Ontario, Canada. Each burger will sell for 6.49 Canadian dollars.

“This test allows us to learn more about real-world implications of serving the PLT, including customer demand and impact on restaurant operations,” said Ann Wahlgren, McDonald’s vice president of global menu strategy. “For this test, our culinary team created a recipe for a juicy, plant-based burger unique to McDonald’s.”

The test will last for 12 weeks, during which time the company will solicit consumer feedback as well as input from staff and franchisees to see what people think of the plant-based burger. “It’s a chance to test new products in a handful of restaurants and will inform our future plans for introducing plant-based options around the world,” Walgren added.

NOT JUST FOR VEGETARIANS

Fast food chains like Burger King, KFC and McDonald’s are looking at offering plant-based options not just to cater to vegetarians but also to meat-eaters who just want to cut down on their meat consumption.

The NPD Group, an American market research company, found that 95 per cent of people who bought plant-based burgers also made beef burger purchases within the last year. In other words, an overwhelming majority of the customers for plant-based burgers are not in fact vegetarians.

So, will plant-based fast food take off? Ultimately, it will depend on two factors: taste and price. The fake meat must taste and feel like the real thing. All indications are that Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have managed to do that. So that’s one factor down.

The other is pricing, and that’s still a sticking point. Currently, because there’s no critical mass yet, these meat alternatives are not cheaper than meat. When we get to the point where the fake meat tastes just as good as the real thing but costs the same (or better still, actually cheaper), that’s when the tipping point is likely to happen.

“It’s not that interesting to me that really rich people eat super healthy food. It’s not moving the needle,” Beyond Meat’s CEO Ethan Brown said, adding that in the next five years the company plans to create products that cost less than comparable animal proteins as the supply chain is built out.

There’s also a battle of perception to be won. Most people haven’t tasted Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat’s products because they’re not yet widely available. The popular perception is that they can’t possibly actually taste like meat (although most press reviews claim they’re indistinguishable from real meat).

A2018 survey by Faunalytics offers some insight into consumer perception on this matter. Assuming there was no price difference between beef and fake meat burgers, 65 per cent of consumers polled said they'd still stick with beef.

Impossible Food’s CEO Pat Brown isn’t daunted by such surveys. “If you give them our burger, and then ask them the question again, a very large majority of them say they’d definitely buy it and would be willing to pay a premium for it,” he said.

Oon Yeoh is a consultant with experiences in print, online and mobile media. Reach him at [email protected].

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