How Faux Meat Is Beefing Up Burger King, Subway and Dunkin’ Menus

Plant-based protein brands are expanding their reach with new distribution deals

Two faux meat sandwiches from Dunkin'.
Plant-based proteins are offering healthier and more sustainable options at fast-food chains.
Courtesy of Beyond Meat

A plant-based patty that might convincingly pass as meat? As recently as a year ago, when most of us still thought of “veggie burgers” as flat discs made from mushrooms or black beans, such a creation still felt like near-future science fiction.

But this has been a sizzling summer in the plant-based protein world, with leading faux-meat brands securing big deals almost weekly, sparking media coverage and international discussion of the trend along the way.

In short, meatless is having a moment. And the stakes are beefy: Billions of dollars of brand value are being built behind the scenes by the key architects of this movement, fueled by product innovation, strategic brand partnerships and growing consumer demand.

Most recently, Impossible Foods and Burger King announced the national rollout of the Impossible Whopper, adding 7,000-plus outlets to the roughly 10,000 restaurants already serving the brand’s meat substitute (White Castle, Red Robin and Cheesecake Factory among them). The nationwide expansion, following a successful test and a manufacturing deal to reverse shortages and scale production, gives Impossible some valuable, high-profile exposure as it readies its first foray into supermarkets this fall.

Editor: Breana Mallamaci

Top rival Beyond Meat just added Dunkin’ and Subway to its roster, expanding into breakfast and nonburger sandwiches. The Los Angeles-based company, now with a post-IPO valuation of $12 billion, more than tripled its sales in the fiscal second quarter (and its revenue outlook bumped up by $30 million as a result), according to its earnings report. Fanning out from beef substitutes, the brand is tackling more items, such as fake bacon as a potential next offering.

These competitors are touting their meat-like qualities and attracting the interest of investors like Bill Gates, Jay-Z and Serena Williams, not to mention inking deals at a furious pace with grocery stores, meal kit services, theme parks, stadiums, and casual-dining and fast-food chains.

‘The Tesla model’

Veggie burgers, whether made with mushrooms, kale, black beans or tempeh, have been around for decades in the freezer section at supermarkets, at specialty stores and on restaurant menus. Even fast-food joints have offered nonmeat patties from the likes of Dr. Praeger’s, MorningStar Farms and other brands, though primarily as a nod to having a vegetarian option.

“Often it was there to check a box,” said Zak Weston, food-service expert at the nonprofit Good Food Institute. “It looked like an afterthought, and consumers assumed it tasted like one.”

Faux meat burger.
Impossible Foods

A real turning point came when chef-driven restaurants like Momofuku in New York and Jardinière in San Francisco added Impossible burgers in 2016, which Weston refers to as “the Tesla model” of starting at the high end of the market with influencers and early adopters.

It didn’t take long for the trend to trickle down to other restaurant tiers, as product quality improved and consumer demand surged.

“On the supply side, the plant-based alternatives started replicating the whole sensory experience of meat,” Weston said. “So there’s a new kind of product on one hand, and consumers reducing the red meat and animal protein in their diets on the other. It’s two megatrends intersecting.”

Faux burger brands, he said, have followed a similar path as dairy alternatives, such as soy- and nut-based milks. Once niche products aimed almost medicinally at the lactose intolerant, dairy substitutes gradually became more mainstream in their flavor, positioning, packaging and marketing.

“It’s a similar playbook,” Weston said, noting that plant-based burgers now have a 3.5% market share across all fast-food burgers. “That’s significant and growing.”

All about access

Burger King execs might make the Impossible Whopper a permanent menu fixture (it’s a limited item now) and say they are considering other Impossible products. Though there are still going to be some kinks to work out before that happens, such as claims that the Impossible Whopper isn’t 100% vegetarian since it’s cooked on the same broilers as the meat patties and chicken products.

“We believe in the long-term viability of the category,” said Chris Finazzo, BK’s president for North America.

Carl’s Jr. reports a “huge” consumer response for its Beyond Famous Star Burger (featuring, as you might guess from the name, a Beyond Burger patty), with 4 million sold since its January intro.

“In addition to seeing great momentum in core markets like California,” said Patty Trevino, svp of marketing for Carl’s Jr., “it is also bringing in new consumers everywhere—even in places like Oklahoma, where livestock is big business.”

Beyond and Impossible, locked in a Coke versus Pepsi-style land grab, have nailed down agreements with everyone from Blue Apron and Whole Foods to Del Taco and Little Caesars, proving that it’s not a foodie fringe or urban-only phenomenon. The one notable holdout so far has been McDonald’s.

Faux meat tacos from Del Taco.
Beyond Meat

“Our role is to make it as easy as possible for consumers to adopt this dietary choice,” said Heather Huestis, managing director of Impossible Foods, which raised $300 million in May, bringing its war chest to north of $750 million, with an estimated valuation at $2 billion. “You shouldn’t have to look too hard to find us.”

Carving out space on popular hamburger, pizza and taco menus “democratizes our products,” said Beth Moskowitz, head of special projects at Beyond Meat, which is available at more than 35,000 retailers. “These relationships make us accessible and show that plant-based isn’t just a New York or L.A. thing.”

A foothold for plants

Traditional meat, with its red-blooded, masculine Americana reputation, isn’t going anywhere, as its sales still far outpace plant-based products. For instance, U.S. consumers bought 6.4 billion fast-food hamburgers in the last year, compared to 228 million plant-based burgers, according to NPD, which called meat “formidable and resilient.”

About 15% of U.S. restaurants were hawking meatless burgers as of this spring, according to Technomic, and plant-based food sales have increased 11% across the board in the past year, per trade group Plant Based Foods Association and the Good Food Institute, with 18% of U.S. adults saying they want more nonmeat foods in their diets.

Preaching beyond the choir

Just as marketers want their products to be ubiquitous, they also need to make them palatable to a general audience. To that end, here’s what they’re not emphasizing through their marketing: sustainability, environmental issues and animal welfare concerns. Some consumers, especially millennials and Gen Z, cite those as reasons for eating more plants and less meat.

“We lead with taste,” said Huestis. “It’s not a diet food, and it’s not sitting with the salads or on a vegan section of the menu. That would be kryptonite to meat eaters. It’s not about depriving yourself of anything. It’s about decadence.”

According to a law that took effect on July 1, companies there are prohibited from using meat terminology to advertise vegan or vegetarian products. Violators face up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine.
Impossible Foods

White Castle, where Impossible sliders became an immediate success last year and witty promotions are de rigueur, advertised the menu addition with four surreal short films starring Wu-Tang Clan, a time traveler, a special-effects dolphin and a 6-year-old girl.

“Diets have changed, especially for our older customers, but our focus groups found that people weren’t thrilled with eating green vegetables,” said Kim Bartley, the slider chain’s CMO. “This sent a really powerful message that we’re embracing the change and staying in sync with our consumers.”

As for the extraterrestrial-themed campaign with GZA, Ghostface Killah, et al., dubbed “Wu-Tang in Space Eating Impossible Sliders,” Bartley said it’s part of the chain’s strategy to tap into pop culture and authentic supporters. Wu-Tang members are also Impossible Foods investors.

Beyond Meat has also touted its celebrity fans and stakeholders, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Shaquille O’Neal, Snoop Dogg and the Brooklyn Nets’ Kyrie Irving, who appeared in a sports-themed ad campaign, “Go Beyond,” from Los Angeles-based agency Stun.

BK plans to launch a massive advertising push around the Impossible Whopper, leaning into testimonials and taste tests.

“It’s the biggest campaign we’ve done in a long time,” Finazzo said. “And it continues what we’ve been doing with our creative: capturing genuine reaction from real people.”

In Sweden, the chain has already created a “50-50 Menu” that lets you order a Whopper without knowing whether you’ll receive a meat or plant-based patty—then try to guess using the brand’s app. The goal of the promotion: showing that even customers who might always order meat can’t really tell the difference.

To that point, research has shown that the meatless movement isn’t niche, nor is it vegetarian. About 5% of the U.S. population identifies as vegetarian, and about 2% claim to be vegan. But according to NPD, 95% of plant-based product buyers also buy traditional meat. For that broad swath of “flexitarians,” an Impossible supreme pie (at Little Caesars) or a Beyond burrito (at Del Taco) could be an unintimidating baby step toward alternative protein.

“We believe that people should eat what they love,” Beyond Meat’s Moskowitz said. “And our goal is to keep making better products so that plant-based becomes an easy choice to make.”

This story first appeared in the Aug. 19, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

Recommended videos