Big news yesterday. I'm talking, of course, about the announcement that McDonald's will test a Beyond Meat sandwich called the "PLT" in 28 McDonald's locations in Canada starting next Monday.

Don't call it a burger necessarily; McDonald's described the meat substitute in a pair of statements Thursday as "a Beyond Meat plant-based patty that has been crafted exclusively by McDonald's, for McDonald's." 

Let's unpack the no-meat story and why it's such a big deal for both meat alternatives and the fast-food industry (which is expected to grow to $690 billion by 2022).

First, meat alternatives, from Beyond Meat to Impossible Foods to dozens of other companies getting into the mix, are hot. They're doing well financially, too. Impossible picked up another $300 million in funding earlier this year. Beyond Meat's stock price has soared since it went public (and jumped on the McDonald's news yesterday.)

Second, if we ever were to see massive, widespread adoption of meat alternatives, it could have a major impact on cutting greenhouse gasses. 

At Inc.'s sister publication, Fast Company, Adele Peters wrote about some of the math earlier this year. In short, an Impossible Burger has a carbon footprint about 89 percent smaller than that of a burger made the old-fashioned way (like, by raising and slaughtering a cow).

And third, while we're still in the early stages, rival fast-food chains have seen some wild success marketing meat alternative burgers. 

Burger King's Impossible Whopper sold out repeatedly, Subway launched a Beyond Meat meatless meatball sub. Umami Burger, White Castle, Cheesecake Factory, Fatburger, and Red Robin Gourmet Burgers and Brews are all in on the product too -- plus KFC.

But let's be honest. McDonald's is the Big Kahuna, so to speak, when it comes to fast-food restaurants.

Fans tend to talk about "McDonald's and Burger King" in the United States as if they're almost equals, but in fact, McDonald's dwarfs its rival.

That's also why it's been slowest to move. As Restaurant Business Online explained in June, McDonald's could face five big issues in getting into the market:

  1. "The practical matter of grill space," since as we've seen with Burger King, grilling meat alternatives next to meat isn't ideal.
  2. Next, there's the concern that as CEO Steve Easterbrook puts it, "We've got to make sure the consumer trend is sustaining," before making big changes.
  3. Complexity. McDonald's is trying to make its menu items easier to prepare, not harder.
  4. Pricing. There's tension going on now between McDonald's and its franchisees over whether to focus on higher- or lower-cost items. The Canadian test PLT will go for about $4.89 [CAD$6.49].
  5. Consumer taste. Beyond the trendiness, there's a question whether people who want meatless options are likely to be McDonald's customers in the long term.

That's why McDonald's is taking it slowly, and starting with a test in Canada. (By the way, if any readers in Ontario wind up trying one of these, email me at billmurphyjr [at] inc.com and let me know how it tastes.)

"Why just a small test? We're in learning mode, so testing is a major part of how we develop our menu. It's how we look, before we leap," said Ann Wahlgren, McDonald's vice-president of Global Menu Strategy.

But if it does work out, we might look back at this as the start of one of the big sea changes in history of both fast food and the meat-alternative industry. And that could have a very big impact on the future.

Published on: Sep 27, 2019
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