McDonald’s has been the quintessential American franchise since the 1950s. But can a fast-food model so deeply reliant on cheap beef burgers survive a global shift toward more sustainable fast food?
To its credit, the fast-food behemoth has made some progress in adding plant-based options to its menu, mostly outside of its home country of the United States. The chain’s standing partnership with vegan brand Beyond Meat has thus far resulted in the launch of the McPlant, its first plant-based burger, which hit menus in Sweden, Denmark, Austria, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Portugal.
Earlier this month, the burger—which features a vegan Beyond Meat patty with tomato, lettuce, onion, pickle, mustard, and ketchup, along with dairy-based cheddar cheese and egg-based mayonnaise—found permanent placement on McDonald’s menus across The Netherlands after a limited test last year.
McDonald’s also tested the McPlant domestically, first in a handful of locations in California, Texas, and Louisiana late last year before expanding its test markets to 600 additional locations in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Dallas-Fort Worth region in March. Stateside, McDonald’s concluded the McPlant test with no announcement of national expansion.
The McDonald’s menu is now back to business as usual with little to offer those looking for sustainable, cruelty-free options. Does this mean that the plant-based fast-food revolution has receded? Not necessarily. It might just mean that McDonald’s will not be the one to lead the way.
Vegan fast food: The next great franchise?
While McDonald’s drags its feet with plant-based options stateside, new vegan fast-food concepts are looking to build the next great American franchise.
Earth Burger has been in business since 2014, when award-winning chef Mike Behrend—a Texan at heart who went vegan 17 years ago—opened the plant-based concept at the Park North Shopping Center in San Antonio, TX. This month, the pioneering, four-unit vegan chain announced its intent to franchise nationally in partnership with Sinelli Concepts International (SCI).
“Innovation is something we truly value at Earth Burger, and there’s no better time than now to expand nationally,” Jeff Sinelli, the restaurateur behind SCI and an early supporter of Earth Burger, tells VegNews. “Earth Burger currently operates in Texas, but the intention is to take the concept national, as we know other states would greatly benefit from it.”
“We’ve seen a great demand for consumers wanting to source sustainable and ethical food options, and while there are many plant-based restaurants, there is a limited number of plant-based fast-food restaurants,” Sinelli says.
While Earth Burger is not seeking to directly compete with the likes of McDonald’s and Burger King, Sinelli says the chain is positioning itself to meet the growing demand for plant-based fast food with offerings such as classic burgers, chicken and fish sandwiches, fully loaded ranchero burgers, kids meals, and more—all made without any animal-derived ingredients.
“We’re not seeking to change the classic American burger—but instead offering up an equally delicious option for people who opt for plant-based diets or simply want a meatless meal,” Sinelli says. “Earth Burger takes quintessential fast-food items from common restaurants we know and love, and creates a meatless version of it without sacrificing taste and texture. We’ll continue to see this shift in more meatless menus being readily available to consumers, and Earth Burger is proud to help pioneer this movement.”
Odd Burger is franchising its vegan ‘Voppers,’ too
Similarly, Canadian company Odd Burger announced its franchise plans this month. In 2017, the concept (then known as “Globally Local”) was the first to operate a vegan 24-hour drive thru with its second location. Now, the publicly traded company is ready to expand as a franchise across 25 states, bringing vegan takes on traditional fast-food options such as the Vopper, BacUn Famous Melt, and the Facontator to Americans at an affordable price.
“Now is an ideal time to franchise a vegan fast-food concept with inflation such a huge issue in the US market,” James McInnes, Odd Burger co-founder and CEO, tells VegNews. “Providing affordable, plant-based restaurant options are now more important than ever, and I believe that the US consumer will embrace Odd Burger’s affordable and delicious food.”
In Canada, Odd Burger will open 76 locations in the next eight years as part of its aggressive expansion plan—all with an eye on transforming the future of fast food.
“I think consumers are increasingly aware of the sustainability challenges in the food system and major fast-food chains are starting to pay attention,” McInnes says. “Almost every fast-food chain has trialed a plant-based menu item with varying success, and I think that there is a massive opportunity for showing the world how disruptive a fully plant-based chain can be.”
Earth Burger and Odd Burger are not the only expanding vegan fast-food concepts out there, with competitors cropping up at every turn. A small sampling includes Kevin Hart’s newly launched Hart House (with plans for 10 locations already in the works); West Coast chain Plant Power Fast Food (which recently dropped prices to better compete with traditional chains); and Slutty Vegan (which raised $25 million this year with help from Shake Shack’s Danny Meyer to expand its reach outside of Atlanta, GA).
There’s also Mr. Charlie’s, a Los Angeles-based concept that gained the nickname “vegan McDonald’s.” Here, the vegan fast food is made by employees recruited from Dream Center—an organization that helps unhoused and formerly incarcerated people get back on their feet. Mr. Charlie’s gives them fair wages and a second chance at life.
This month, Mr. Charlie’s launched the Big Chuck, a burger that closely resembles the iconic Big Mac but made without harming people, animals, or the environment—representing what the future of fast food can be.
Burger King embraces vegan fast-food revolution
The link between animal agriculture and the climate crisis is undeniable. And, sadly, the destruction of the Amazon is consistently linked to suppliers of fast-food giants, which clear forests to raise beef and animal feed—all so the world can have cheap burgers at fast-food chains.
Some chains implicated in these horrors are taking a fresh look at plant-based burgers as public awareness of the connection between animal agriculture and the climate crisis grows, meaning business as usual is no longer acceptable.
Burger King, one of McDonald’s biggest competitors, has a completely different approach to the future of fast food. Sure, the international chain conducted limited tests of the Impossible Whopper—its first meatless burger offering—back in 2019. But unlike McDonald’s, Burger King is ahead of the game now with a multitude of plant-based offerings in regions around the world.
What’s more, Burger King is working to make plant-based fast food the norm with pop-ups around the world. This week, the chain announced that its latest vegan pop-up is scheduled to take place in Bristol, UK (from October 26 to November 6)—the second time the fast-food giant has tested an all-vegan concept in the UK after its London pop-up earlier this year.
Beyond its plant-based offerings, Burger King is testing conceptual shifts in marketing around meatless options. For instance, in Austria, Burger King recently ran a campaign that asked customers if they wanted “normal or meat-based” Whoppers as a way to normalize the plant-based option.
“Burger King is expanding its plant-based menus in different countries to offer tasty alternatives for everyone who would like a substitute to animal meat without sacrificing on the unmatched BK taste,” Burger King’s Head of International Marketing, Sabrina Ferretti, told VegNews in August. “Our ultimate goal is to position Burger King as the leader and go-to for the best-tasting plant-based food in the quick-service restaurant industry.”