The limited-time offer – which follows launches in Red Robin and White Castle – is a “major milestone for the plant-based meat industry,” Zak Weston, foodservice analyst at the Good Food Institute (GFI) told FoodNavigator-USA.
“Burger King's introduction of the Impossible Whopper is creating an All-American burger experience that anyone can enjoy.
"Consumers already expect beef, pork, chicken, and fish on most menus, why shouldn't they also demand plant protein?”
Launching in St Louis – as opposed to San Francisco, Los Angeles, or New York, was also a smart move, and “demonstrates that this is a mainstream movement with broad appeal to all eaters regardless of geography,” he claimed.
“Positioning a plant protein burger alongside other burgers tells consumers that this is going to be as delicious and satisfying as anything else on the menu.”
(Read more about Impossible Foods' new recipe HERE.)
He added: “We think burgers are just the beginning. Plant-based chicken, pork, fish, and seafood are all poised to become similarly popular over the next few years.”
The Impossible Whopper – which will feature the same bun, cheese and condiments as a traditional Whopper – is being trialed in 60 restaurants, with a potential expansion to the other 7,100 US locations later in the year if the trial goes well.
Plant-based meat in foodservice
High-profile launches notwithstanding, 45 out of the top 100 restaurant chains in the US still don’t offer a plant-based entrée, according to the GFI’s second annual restaurant scorecard. However, all the leading chains are closely monitoring the plant-based trend, said Weston.
“Just over the past year we’ve seen a big change," he told FoodNavigator-USA in January.
"It’s not just about chains adding the Impossible Burger or the Beyond Burger [two high-profile plant-based brands aiming to closely mimic meat] to the menu, but a lot have extended plant-based breakfast foods across the day, which means you can buy things like oatmeal, bagels and smoothies all day. We’ve also seen chains such as Chili’s add new plant-based dishes, such as a black bean and veggie fajitas dish to the menu."
He added: “We’re having conversations with several of the big chains about plant-based options and most of those conversations are under NDAs, but there is certainly interest from some of the largest players. They recognize that this is a trend that isn’t going away and we’re talking to them about concerns on price, supply chain and other things that may be barriers, but there are things coming – I think it’s going to be one of those cases that when it rains, it pours.
“There is nothing more compelling to a restaurant than seeing one of your competitors experiencing success with a plant-based launch, and there have been a number of high-profile launches lately.”
Is it commercially viable for the top fast-food chains to stock a plant-based option?
That said, space constraints are a challenge for the big fast food chains, which have a limited menu and food preparation space, and each menu item must carry its weight, he said.
Put another way, even if there is demand for plant-based options from some segments of the customer base at these chains, their business models force them to focus on a limited number of top sellers, he acknowledged.
However, some chains have introduced limited time offers and regional launches to test demand, he said. Others [eg. Taco Bell] plan to highlight plant-based options that are already on the menu, but have not previously been flagged as such - as well as launching new lines.
NPD Group: ‘It’s possible that protein overall is evolving into a category’
His comments came as NPD Group reported that case shipments of plant-based protein from broadline foodservice distributors to foodservice operators increased by 20% in the year ending November 2018 vs the previous 12 months, with all census regions showing double-digit growth.
Burgers still represent the largest plant-based foodservice category, said NPD Group, which said smaller, more affluent households were the top buyers of plant-based burgers.
“Plant-based proteins are no longer just a meat replacement, it’s now its own category,” said David Portalatin, NPD food industry advisor and author of Eating Patterns in America.
“It’s possible that protein overall is evolving into a category, whether animal meat, beans, nuts, soy, wild game or other proteins, in forms ranging from beverage to center-of-plate.”
Beyond beef… where is the ‘breakout’ plant-based chicken, seafood, or egg dish?
Plant-based foods are one of the fastest growing segments in retail and foodservice, added GFI director of corporate engagement Alison Rabschnuk, noting that 50% of millennials eat meat alternatives more than once a week, while the word ‘vegan’ now features on 11% of US menus. US retail sales of plant-based meat, meanwhile, grew 23% in 2018 (vs 2017), reaching over $760m.
However, none of the big foodservice chains has (yet) featured a “breakout plant-based chicken, seafood, or egg dish,” she claimed [although the mung-bean based Just Egg is now on the menu at chains including Veggie Grill].
“The brands that launch these kinds of dishes first will gain a lot of positive PR and attention on social media and will open themselves up to new customers looking for more plant-based variety.”
‘If you see a vegetarian section on a menu and you’re not a vegetarian, you’ll move straight past it’
As for marketing plant-based menu items, the key is presenting them as mainstream and delicious, rather than pigeonholing them in a carved out section of the menu targeting diners on special diets, said Weston.
“If you see a vegetarian section on a menu and you’re not a vegetarian, you’ll move straight past it. All the research suggests it’s best to integrate these items on the main menu, and promote them as enticing and delicious, not something that represents a sacrifice."