McDonald’s is missing out on a huge opportunity to cater to the growing numbers of vegans, vegetarians and flexitarians who like fast food as much as the next omnivore.
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The devastating impact of animal agriculture has taken center stage in recent years, and we’re becoming more informed about the impact our meat intake is having on the environment, our health and animals. Which makes it all more confounding that one of the world’s largest fast food retailers is still lagging behind, and has no vegetarian or vegan burger.
Despite more than 220,000 people petitioning McDonald’s to add a vegetarian protein option to its menu across the U.S., McDonald’s website says it does not promote any of its U.S. menu items as vegetarian or vegan, which is astonishing given the soaring demand for change.
More and more of us are becoming “reducetarians” — people who cut down on meat, egg and dairy. The number of vegans in the U.S. rose from 1 percent in 2014 to 6 percent in 2017, while one in three Americans consider themselves “flexitarian,” according to research from last year. Many meat-eaters cutting down on their consumption of animal products still enjoy the taste and ritual of eating meat, and are replacing their usual meaty staples with plant-based alternatives.
But while we’re eating more plant-based foods — our love of fast food remains. The food industry has been quick to respond. Not only are plant-based businesses and restaurants thriving, but those traditionally catering to meat-eaters are conceding to our changing eating habits and branching out.
The market for plant-based products that taste like animal-based meat and are marketed similarly to their meaty counterpart is exploding. Supermarkets are stocking plant-based foods (including the new Lightlife Plant-Based Burger), and restaurants, from high-end ones to fast food, are offering more plant-based options. The Beyond Burger and the Impossible Burger, for example, are sold in thousands of restaurants, hotels and other establishments.
It’s an easy business decision to branch out to plant-based. Annual global sales of plant-based meat alternatives have grown on average 8 percent every year since 2010 — twice the rate of processed meat — and in the U.S., sales of plant-based foods that directly replace animal products grew 8 percent in the 12 months to August 2017.
We’ve quickly reached the point where businesses that don’t offer vegan food options are the odd ones out. Among those companies is McDonald’s. Pressure is mounting on the fast food chain to introduce a vegan burger, since most of its competitors offer vegan alternatives.
Carl’s Jr. has added the Beyond Burger to its menu, while Burger King has plans to roll the Impossible Burger out across the U.S. by the end of 2019. Burger King’s pilot in its initial test market of St. Louis boosted traffic to test locations by 18.5 percent in April this year, according to research, while foot traffic fell by 1.75 percent in the same month for stores outside this area, compared to the previous month.
The evidence is stacking up to suggest it would be an unquestionably wise decision, but CEO Steve Easterbrook’s latest comments on the matter are vague. “Watch this space,” he recently said on CNBC’s Squawk on the Street.
He explained that he’s still unsure about whether demand is high enough to justify the “complexity” of introducing a plant-based burger. While he also conceded that he didn’t think veganism is a fad, he alluded to being unsure what type of customer would buy a vegan burger. He asked: “Is it an existing customer who just wants an alternative option; does it bring a new customer in?”
Since the retailer already has vegan options in Europe, launching a vegan option in the U.S. is not completely new territory. McDonald’s offers vegan items in several locations across the globe, including the McVegan burger in Germany, Finland and Sweden.
“Improving for us means that we are brave enough to try new ways,” said Philipp Wachholz, company spokesman for McDonald’s Germany, on the launch of its vegan burger there. But for some reason, this “bravery” is lacking in the U.S., where the only vegan option is McAloo Tikki, a vegan burger, complete with vegan mayo, which launched at its global headquarters restaurant in Chicago last year.
Silvia Lagnado, McDonald’s global chief marketing officer and director of McDonald’s menu, has said the company is monitoring plant-based meat. But in the meantime, the chain is missing out on business from customers cutting down on their meat intake and taking their money elsewhere.
Crucially, Easterbrook compared the decision of adding a vegan burger to McDonald’s menu to the company deciding to start offering all-day breakfast. This isn’t the only time McDonald’s has introduced different items to the menu when the market was calling out for it. In fact, McDonald’s has excelled at responding to consumer demand over the years.
In the 1950s and ’60s, cardiovascular disease had fast become a national health emergency, and in 1977 the U.S. government warned people to eat less meat, and more poultry and fish. McDonald’s sales fell, so staff called in Tyson Foods for help, and McNuggets were available worldwide by 1983.
Around the same time, Cincinnati McDonald’s franchisee Lou Groen was losing business to a competitor offering customers halibut. The restaurants were in a predominately Roman Catholic neighborhood, and many people were eating fish instead of red meat on Fridays as part of a penance to mark the day of Christ’s death.
Groen came up with the idea of adding a fish option to the menu, and after successfully trailing the Filet-O-Fish sandwich, it was rolled out nationwide in 1962, advertised as “the fish that catches people.”
The fish sandwich is a no-brainer compared to some of the options McDonald’s has trialed over the years. Among its less successful ideas, it has introduced onion nuggets and pizza. Compared to these ideas, evidence suggests a plant-based burger is a far smaller risk.
McDonald’s is missing out on a huge opportunity to cater to the growing numbers of vegans, vegetarians and flexitarians who like fast food as much as the next omnivore. The business might still be wondering who would eat its vegan option, but they’re alone in their continued doubt.
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It’s Time for McDonald’s to Offer a Veggie Burger Nationwide
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