When it comes to plant-based offerings in the fast food landscape, it seems like the Golden Arches is taking a pretty slow approach, doesn’t it? Burger King released the Impossible Whopper all the way back in 2019. White Castle arrived even earlier on the scene with the Impossible Slider. Lots of chains followed suit. But years later, in 2022, McDonald’s doesn’t have a similar nationwide offering yet. While the McPlant burger is currently being tested at over 600 locations, Restaurant Business reports that it might not be going as well as McDonald’s hoped. An outside analyst cited by RB notes that some locations in the Dallas and San Francisco markets appear to sell about 20 McPlants per day, but rural locations in East Texas only appear to be selling three to five. Why are these numbers so low?
For the volume I imagine a local McDonald’s pushes out every day, these McPlant numbers seem paltry overall. When I think through my own dietary preferences, the disappointing sales figures start to make more sense.
Let’s use Burger King as a reference, since its plant-based offering has made the biggest splash of any fast food chain in the last three years. I’ve had a few Impossible Whoppers during that time period, but what I’ve noticed over the years is that I’ll always end up picking a regular beef Whopper if I think about it for too long, and end up opting for the latter much more than the former. I really enjoy the plant-based version, so why don’t I order it more often?
For me, it all comes down to this: I just don’t crave an Impossible Whopper. When I do order one, it’s because I have made a point to actively remind myself to do so, and that’s usually for some specific reason like curbing my meat consumption a touch that week (sometimes I eat a bit too much meat). Because of this, the Impossible Whopper has never become a habitual or go-to order.
When the Impossible Whopper debuted, it was pitched to customers as sort of a challenge. “Try it and see for yourselves: it tastes exactly like beef!” The angle was to try to convince meat eaters (like me) that switching over to a beef substitute wasn’t so bad, right? Right—but that’s not quite good enough to create new ordering habits.
After eating both Whoppers side by side, the Impossible just didn’t offer the flavors I seek out in my Burger King sandwich. Is there maybe a slightly different seasoning blend designed to complement the plant-based version? Is it the natural umami aromas offered by red meat that beef substitutes still lack? Maybe it’s that ever so slightly rubbery texture that fake meat can’t seem to shake. I’m still trying to figure out why a pretty damn good facsimile can’t quite sway my tastebuds just yet.
If I’m at a fast food restaurant that serves both beef and vegan burgers, I’ll opt for meat nearly every time, despite my efforts to cut down on it. I’m guessing there’s some psychology at play here. If I’m at a fast food restaurant, it’s because I deliberately sought it out to place an order for a burger (or nuggets) and fries. My appetite is seeking what it’s already familiar and most comfortable with.
At an all-vegan fast food restaurant (more of which are popping up every year), I’ll happily order a plant-based burger and not think twice about it. Too many choices really fuck with my head, which means I almost always fall back on old standards. At McDonald’s, that means a Quarter Pounder Deluxe.
If McDonald’s is aiming for a waffling omnivore like me, it’ll be a hard sell because it’s competing against its own offerings, which can undercut demand for the McPlant. As with the Impossible Whopper, strict vegans can’t eat it, so it’s already shrinking its customer base.
There’s always variation in regional demand for certain types of fast food items. When McDonald’s debuted Sweet Tea nationwide in 2008, for example, it wasn’t already a staple of the Midwestern diet, as it is for many Southern states, so customers weren’t necessarily demanding it. It could be the same thing with plant-based meat: in areas of the country where meat is more of a staple, there might not be any reason to try plant-based. It might even seem laughably unnecessary.
But just because some test markets are lukewarm doesn’t mean these meatless offerings are failures. It all comes down to the quality of the product, and whether it can sway enough customers to order it regularly. This morning I had my very first Impossible breakfast sandwich from Starbucks, which involves an Impossible breakfast sausage patty, fried egg, and cheddar cheese on a ciabatta roll. I was shocked to find it was absolutely delicious. Like, I want another one right now. Why didn’t you guys tell me about this thing sooner?! (Oh wait, you did.)
If you had told me that it was real sausage I would have immediately believed you. It was that convincing. The seasoning was spot on, peppery and sagey. The texture was as spongy as any ordinary ultra-processed patty, and there’s no equivalent menu item that uses beef—so now I’m actively craving this meatless sandwich, and I’ll order it again. That’s how it’s got to happen with other meat-free offerings, too.
Will McDonald’s scrap the nationwide rollout of the McPlant because of some lackluster test markets? No way. It’s in too deep now; some international markets are serving the McPlant already.
But what I think the negative press will result in is a careful inspection of the McDonald’s marketing budget. If only a dozen units of the McPlant are selling at any given location, that will tell McDonald’s as much as any market research can—there’s no reason to go the disastrous route of the Arch Deluxe and overvalue the input from focus groups.
You’ll soon see the McPlant at a location near you, I’m sure. But it’s still unclear whether McDonald’s will be all that excited to tell you about its arrival.