The dream of plant-based meat in fast food may already be dead
- Fast food chains have experimented with plant-based proteins for years with limited success.
- McDonald's discontinued the McPlant test in 2022 and analysts reported slow sales.
Plant-based meat once seemed like the future of fast food, but 2022 showed it might be dead on arrival.
Despite some exceptions like Burger King's Impossible Whopper, plant-based fast food menu items have largely been featured as limited-time offerings. KFC sold plant-based nuggets and Chipotle added vegan chorizo. Taco Bell has run small tests of multiple plant-based proteins. Dunkin' added plant-based sausage to menus in 2019 to much fanfare, before quietly removing it from most locations in 2021.
Early 2022 looked promising, with McDonald's expanding its McPlant burger to 600 US locations. When the test ended after about six months as planned, JP Morgan analyst Ken Goldman wrote that the new item saw poor sales. Sales were especially slow in lower-income and rural areas, where some restaurants reported selling just three to five McPlants per day, according to BTIG analyst Peter Saleh.
Plant-based proteins in fast food are up against several obstacles that stopped them from ever fully taking off, Brian Yarbrough of Edward Jones told Insider. It's "very hard" to convert meat eaters to plant-based meat, he said. Part of the hesitancy is due to higher prices for plant-based proteins. An impossible breakfast sandwich at Starbucks in Rochester, New York is $1.50 more expensive than the equivalent with real sausage, a price increase of 35%.
Consumers have become more skeptical of health claims around plant-based meat, too. A September survey of 2000 people from Deloitte found that in 2022 consumers were less likely to believe that plant-based meat was healthier than standard meat and less likely to pay a higher price for plant-based. Potential customers are turned off by the long list of ingredients with unclear health benefits over real meat, Yarbrough told Insider.
Plant-based meat just doesn't fit in with larger fast-food menu trends in 2022. McDonald's, Taco Bell, and other chains focused on simplifying menus and cutting low-selling items since 2020, which can make kitchens more efficient and cut drive-thru times. Adding a new protein slows down operations and leads to longer waits for customers, which might not be worth it for relatively low-selling items like the McPlant.
Plant-based meat isn't likely to disappear from fast food menus, but it's also not going to replace beef. It's a "great product for a small subset of the population," Yarbrough said, but a "difficult sell for most consumers."
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