McDonalds doesn’t sell veggie burgers because people don’t buy them.
That might have something to do with the fact that most pre-made veggie burgers taste vaguely like cardboard. But now that startups like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are coming out with plant-based burgers that taste close to the real thing, it’s possible — probable, even — that fast food chains will soon offer virtually indistinguishable vegetarian versions of their beef burgers.
Beyond Meat has offered meat alternatives like veggie chicken strips and burgers for years now, but it only recently came out with a grocery store veggie burger — called the Beyond Burger — that tastes similar to real meat.
When I spoke with Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown this past July, he said that the company is interested in working with fast food chains. Another hint about the company’s ambitions: former McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson is on the Beyond Meat board of directors.
If my recent experience trying Beyond Meat’s new veggie burger is any indication, meat lovers will be interested. The Beyond Burger, now available in select Whole Foods, could fool me (admittedly someone who doesn’t meat very often) in a blind taste test. It even sizzles like meat:
— Ariel Schwartz (@arielhs) July 22, 2016
Instead of using soy and beans as a burger base, Beyond Meat relies on pea protein. Beet juice gives the burger its reddish hue.
At Whole Foods, Beyond Meat burgers are sold in the same case as beef and poultry. They’re reportedly selling well, but at $5.99 for a package of two four-ounce patties, it’s more expensive than beef.
Still, Brook Porter, a partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers’ Green Growth Fund (which has invested in Beyond Meat), sees a future for similar products in fast food restaurants. “I think [something like] the Beyond Burger could do really well,” he says.
While McDonald’s still only offers beef burgers, other fast food giants like White Castle and Wendy’s have recently rolled out veggie burger offerings. The patties have garnered good reviews, but they aren’t pretending to replace meat.
As Columbus Underground points out, for example, Wendy’s black bean burger isn’t “going to fool or convert beef fans. Although brownish, the patty isn’t trying to do a meat impersonation: it’s starchy and beany.”
The trick to selling a “meaty” veggie burger (like the Beyond Burger) in fast food restaurants will lie in the execution. Porter speculates that diners will be turned off if the burgers fall into something akin to the the uncanny valley — if they taste almost, but not exactly, like meat, they could inspire revulsion.
It’s hard to say where that cutoff point is. Impossible Foods uses an ingredient that makes its veggie burgers pink and gives them the same aroma we expect from meat burgers. For some fast food customers — especially vegetarians —
“bloody” veggie burgers might be a step too far.
Meat eaters will also need a reason to buy the veggie burgers in the first place. Unless the burger tastes better than a traditional beef burger, it will be a hard sell, as Modern Farmer points out. It’s possible that today’s veggie burger startups could make the leap from “comparable to” to “better than,” but there are also other factors at work.
“You have enough people who are starting to stick with Whole Foods, and as long as you can have meat alternatives perceived as part of that category, I think they’re going to grow in importance and relevance,” says Porter. “I think we’re going to hear more and more stories about the downsides of mass agriculture, and people are going to be pulling away from that.”
And if the fast food veggie burgers of the future are significantly cheaper than their meat counterparts, they could become a part of American dining culture.
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