Will plant-based Big Macs be the next big thing in fast food?

The restaurant and hospitality sector play an important role in shaping demand for different foods. Experts from the World Resources Institute outline 5 strategies that can help restaurants influence a consumer shift to plant-based options.

burger fast food
More fast food chains are introducing plant-based alternatives to their menus. Image: Flickr , CC BY-SA 2.0

The findings from a groundbreaking report released earlier this month are clear: Curbing climate change will require revolutionizing the way the world produces food.

WRI’s own research shows that a widespread reduction in beef consumption is essential for keeping global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) and preventing the most dangerous climate impacts.

Fortunately, a lot is happening on this front, including Burger King’s recent announcement that it will offer the plant-based “Impossible Whopper” at all of its U.S. locations. The restaurant and hospitality industry play a key role in shaping consumer demand for different foods, with fast food restaurants like Burger King, McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell some of the most powerful players in this space.

Consumer spending in U.S. fast food restaurants alone was estimated at around US$300 billion in 2018; about 1 in 3 Americans eats at a fast food restaurants daily.

Many other fast food restaurants have joined Burger King in adding plant-based options to their menus, a move that not only helps achieve sustainability targets, but can grow restaurants’ market share by catering to a growing number of flexitarian, vegan and vegetarian diners.

Beyond adding plant-based options, however, there is still more that restaurants can do to ensure diners shift from meat towards these new menu additions. Existing behavioral science research reveals five strategies that are quick and low-cost, and so of particular appeal to fast food restaurants where affordability and speed are key to business models:

Consumer spending in U.S. fast food restaurants alone was estimated at around US$300 billion in 2018; about 1 in 3 Americans eats at a fast food restaurants daily.

1. Use language on menus to emphasise the positive attributes of plant-rich dishes.

Plant-based meals need to both taste good and be marketed effectively to boost their appeal. The type of language used to describe plant-based options on menus can have a significant influence on sales. Evocative language that emphasizes flavor, references provenance or helps customers visualise a dish helps promote these options. For example, Panera Bread found that changing the name of one of its plant-based soups from “Low-fat black bean” to “Cuban black bean” led to a 13 per cent uplift in sales.

Burger King’s “Impossible Whopper” evokes all the same positive expectations as the original Whopper while minimising the difference between it and the meat-based original.

Some other interesting names for plant-based burgers include Beyond Meat’s “Beast Burger,” Dirty Burger’s “Dirty Cop Out” or Burger Craft’s “Pleasured by Veg” burger—all denoting satisfaction and indulgence. Contrast these to which clearly draws attention to the lack of meat and is likely to appeal to a very small and specialist audience only. 

2. List plant-rich dishes in the main body of a menu, not in a separate “vegetarian” section.

Restaurants should consider offering plant-based options just beside meat on menus or in shelf displays. Research by WRI and others shows just how important menu placement is on food choice.

In January 2019, British fast food chain Greggs launched a vegan alternative to its sausage roll, one of its most popular products, selling about 2.5 million units a week. Greggs placed vegan and meat sausage rolls side-by-side in their shelf displays, omitted obvious “Vegan Option” labels (listing this information in regularly sized fonts and usual colors), and ensured that the two products looked equivalent. The result was an overall 9.6 per cent uplift in like-for-like sales in the first seven weeks from launch compared to the same period the year before.

3. Increase the variety of plant-rich dishes on offer.

Beyond plant-based burgers, fast food restaurants should consider adding a broader range of plant-based meat alternatives to their menus, boosting the chances that diners will find a non-meat option they want to eat. In addition, restaurants can increase the proportion of plant-based meals on offer, from a single item on an otherwise meat-based menu to a far higher percentage of meat-free dishes. This would help signal to diners that plant-based options are a normal, acceptable and rewarding choice.

Scandinavian burger chain Max Burger saw success by launching its“Green” Burger Meals in 2016, including a range of non-meat alternatives like falafel and a half-beef, half-soy blended burger. Since launching these options, Max has reduced its percentage sales from red meat from 87 per cent in 2015 down to 60 per cent today, while increasing sales of the “Green” Burger from 2 per cent to 20 per cent of sales.

4. Offer diners free tastings of novel plant-based options.

Free samples allow diners to try new plant-based options for themselves, helping overcome any negative pre-conceptions about taste. Extensive research also tells us that familiarity with a product increases favorability, meaning the very act of trying plant-rich options is they’ll be selected in the future.

At a school in Vermont, students were introduced to four new vegetable-focused meals via taster portions the day before each was sold as a main meal at lunch. Offering these free samples significantly increased the percentage of students who chose the vegetable-based dish the next day, which authors attributed to increased familiarity.

5. Front-of-house talking points to prompt consumers.

Restaurants can encourage their staff to selectively upsell plant-based options, focusing on positioning these as the tasty and satisfying choice, rather than emphasising their environmental or health benefits. The Hilton hotel chain successfully used this approach as part of its 2018 campaign to introduce a 70 per cent meat/30 per cent mushroom blended burger patty with a lower environmental footprint than its regular 100 per cent beef burger.

Service staff received pre-shift sales training to give them a better understanding of the attractive selling points of the blended burger, including tasting it themselves, placing them in a far stronger position to communicate these benefits onto diners. This training resulted in 100 sales of the new dish in a single site in just the first week after launch.

These five recommendations, in addition to 18 others, are outlined in more detail in a forthcoming report by the Better Buying Lab that summarises the full range of behavior change interventions that food service providers, including fast food restaurants, can use to help shift diners towards more plant-based options.

Serving more plant-based dishes at fast food restaurants is a great way to introduce more people to lower-emission alternatives to their favorite meals. It’s an approach that can help accelerate the dietary transformation that is so urgently needed.

This article was originally published on the WRI blog. 

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