The Big 4 Fast-Food Chains Just Went Beyond Meat — And They’re Not Looking Back

Announcing strategic partnerships with McDonald’s and the Yum Brands family, Beyond Meat is rewriting fast-food’s future.

In a move that sent Beyond Meat’s stock price on a 26-point swing, the vegan meat producer announced long-term partnerships with McDonald’s and Yum Brands today. The McDonald’s McPlant range may top the list of anticipated items, but Yum, which operates KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut along with Habit Burger Grill, and WingStreet, also has big plans for plants.

Yum has already brought Beyond Meat products into several of its menus. But the long-term partnership announcement signals the best may be yet to come for fast-food lovers seeking healthier plant-based options.

The news comes just weeks after McDonald’s launched its McPlant burger in Europe. The chain made the announcement late last year that it was developing the McPlant. Earlier this month it debuted the burger in Sweden and Denmark. The new partnership all but guarantees a global launch of the meatless burger — a move sure to elate U.S. customers who were left out of the European McVegan launch in 2017, and the less-well-received PLT launch in Canada in 2019. And the years-long deal readies the fast-food giant for a major line expansion; with the success of vegan chicken at KFC showing an audience that’s more than receptive, it’s likely McPlant nuggets will be first to follow the burger.

“Today was a very exciting day for us… with two outstanding partners [in McDonald’s and Yum],” Beyond Meat Chief Executive Ethan Brown said on a conference call with analysts. He conjured up McDonald’s founder, Ray Croc, saying “there is something about being in the right place at the right time, and doing something about it. That is how we feel.”

Right place and right time indeed: Demand for plant-based options has never been higher. Sales of vegan food in the U.S. alone surpassed $5 billion in 2019, according to the Plant Based Foods Association, the industry’s first lobby group. Vegan meat sales make up nearly $1 billion of that growing segment.

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image: Morning Brew | Unsplash

Fast-Food, Vegan Food

Fast-food giants have struggled in recent years to satisfy changing dietary preferences. McDonald’s has tried and failed with a number of menu items, many of them healthier-leaning attempts. Despite consumer efforts to reduce their saturated fat and sodium intake, they continue to expect reliable indulgences from their fast-food favorites. That’s been a difficult crossroads for the major burger chains. Burger King embraced the Impossible Whopper in 2019 with much success, but it has not been iterative.

Part of the challenge is that chains that start out with healthier slants, like Chipotle and Panera, have succeeded in maintaining mostly healthy menus. But for the greasy burger drive-thrus like McDonald’s and Burger King, their customers haven’t been so quick to warm up to salads or breakfast burritos. But Beyond Meat, and rival Impossible Foods, have allowed fast-food giants to have their burgers and eat them too — all the meaty taste and texture of beef but with protein made from plants. Consumers have been into it; already on the rise in recent years, sales of vegan burgers skyrocketed during COVID-19 lockdown.

Impossible Whoppers and McVegans have certainly captured some of the fence-sitters, but Yum Brands’ KFC partnership with Beyond Meat may be the best example of what the new deal could mean for the future of fast-food. The chain, known for a sparse menu containing little more than buckets of fried chicken, trialed Beyond Meat’s vegan chicken in 2019 to critical acclaim. Its test pop-up at an Atlanta location sold more vegan chicken than a normal week’s worth of popcorn chicken in just a few hours. Customers lined up around the block for a taste.

Atlanta was a prime choice. It has seen interest in vegan options boom in recent years thanks in large part to Pinky Cole’s viral burger pop-up, Slutty Vegan. She put Beyond’s rival Impossible Foods’ burger on the map in the meat-heavy South. Her dirty vegan burgers earned praise from celebrities including Snoop Dogg and Tyler Perry. Atlanta gave KFC’s foray into vegan chicken a kickstart, and it has since rolled out more trials including dozens of locations in the South, Los Angeles, and vegan chicken sandwiches to the UK.

Pizza Hut, too, has sporadically trialed vegan items — it’s long had dairy-free cheese options in Australia, slowly adding vegan meat to its menus with much success. Last November it announced a U.S. partnership with Beyond Meat to bring vegan sausage topping to pizzas.

Taco Bell, though, may just be the tortoise in this race. The chain’s bean burritos have long made it a haven for vegans and vegetarians. It was the first major chain to build out a vegan-friendly menu and a dedicated web page to help customers navigate it. “The Bell” upped its vegan game when it embraced plant-based meat in 2019. It became the first major chain to offer pulled oat meat across Europe (yes, oats make meat just like they make great milk). Last month, it announced it was adding Beyond Meat to its menu in the U.S.

The already plant-heavy menu at Taco Bell naturally lends itself to the flexitarian customer — swapping in Beyond Beef for cow beef may come as easy as choosing your hot sauce heat level. It may work so flawlessly, in fact, that a few years from now don’t be surprised if Taco Bell announces that all of the beef on its menu is entirely plant-based. It’s logistically an easier transition when dealing with crumbled beef instead of whole burger patties. And if the plant-based trend continues — which seems inevitable – Taco Bell’s veggie-embracing past makes it the most logical front-runner to go permanently Beyond.

The Big 4 Fast-Food Chains Just Went Beyond Meat — And They're Not Coming Back

Beyond the Future

Although it’s best known for its burgers, Beyond Meat’s aim has always been to supplant traditional meat from menus across all categories. Beyond has already improved on the original Beyond Burger, which launched in 2016, and updates are expected again this spring, including one with 55 percent less saturated fat than traditional beef, and the other with 35 percent less saturated fat than its current offering. The company’s range also includes sausage, crumbles, and chicken strips. And it is working on other formulations including the harder to mimic whole cuts of meat like bacon.

The deals with Yum and McDonald’s give Beyond the runway it needs to perfect its plant-based protein empire.

“These deals are enormous,” Brown said. “They are the biggest deals you could possibly put together in food in our sector.” They are indeed. And they are only the beginning.

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