Burger King recently tested a vegan location in London, UK, and it could serve as a roadmap for the fast-food industry in transitioning menus to be plant-based. Last month, Burger King’s Leicester Square location transformed its menu to be 100 percent vegan, offering 25 plant-based options including vegan bacon double cheeseburgers, chili cheese bites, and its popular Plant-Based Whopper. The one-month trial was meant to help inform the company about whether there is a demand for permanent meat-free locations. 

While Burger King isn’t the only major fast-food chain to offer vegan versions of its most popular items and more, it is ahead of the curve when it comes to testing all-vegan locations. From McDonald’s to Subway, restaurants are seeing a growing demand for meat-free options, resulting in new menu items that are nearly identical to the real thing. Because much of the animal-derived meat in fast-food dishes is processed, breaded, or under a layer of condiments, Burger King’s vegan pop-up had the secondary effect of showing that the entirety of fast-food menus are relatively easy to replace with plant-based products. 

Burger King has toyed with this idea through several marketing campaigns, including for its new vegan chicken nuggets, which are advertised with the message “chicken nuggets that got [sic] no chicken … but taste like chicken.” The chain’s previous “Meat?” campaign in Costa Rica, Mexico, Brazil, and Germany also drew a comparison between the visual similarities of meat products and their plant-based replacements.

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Burger King goes meat-free

When Burger King first introduced a vegan-friendly version of its iconic Whopper (by replacing the beef patty with a plant-based Impossible Burger) in the United States in 2019, fast-food fans rejoiced and it wasn’t long before the meatless item expanded to all locations nationwide. The same was true in the UK, where veganism has caught on quicker than in North America—which might explain why Burger King decided to trial its vegan location in the country’s capital city. 

While Burger King’s Plant-Based Whopper, Vegan Royale, and Vegan Nuggets will continue to be part of its menu at all UK locations, the chain is exploring rolling out some of the most popular dishes from the vegan pop-up to other locations in an effort to meet the company’s target of offering a 50 percent meat-free menu by 2030. 

Burger King’s vegan Leicester Square location is not the first outpost to go totally meatless—but it may be the first to go all vegan. Last year, the chain transformed one location in Spain into a meat-free paradise for a full month. The Madrid outpost served vegetarian items, made by its European plant-based food supplier The Vegetarian Butcher, including the Long Vegetal (a plant-based take on the Long Chicken, also known as a “Chicken Royale”); a plant-based Whopper; and vegan chicken nuggets. A similar test was first done in Germany, where Burger King opened an entirely meatless location for a limited time in Cologne. 

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Benefits of vegan fast food

London-based restaurateur James Lewis says consumers should get used to these changes because vegan fast food is the future. Lewis, who runs vegan restaurant 123V in London alongside Michelin-starred chef Alexis Gauthier, believes it’s only a matter of time before fast-food menus across the country are totally vegan.

“Fast food is 100 percent the best area to switch to vegan [food]. The chains are often sneered at by people but they are setting the trends here,” Lewis told media outlet The Guardian. “There’s no point starting a vegan chain because once McDonald’s figures out how to make a good vegan burger, they will think: ‘What’s the point in the cost of keeping all these animals when we can make it just as good and grow it in the ground?’”

In addition to the costly process of raising, feeding, slaughtering, and packaging animals for food, all climate research points to animal agriculture, specifically beef production, as the most environmentally destructive sector of the global food industry. In a 2021 study published in scientific journal Nature Food, raising animals for food, as well as growing plants used to feed farmed animals bound for slaughter, is responsible for the vast majority (59 percent) of all food production emissions.  “Not too long from now, people will be getting their burger and it’ll be a vegan one and that’ll be the norm and they won’t think any different,” Lewis said. 

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Similarly, celebrity chef Spike Mendelsohn—who runs plant-based burger chain PLNT Burger in the US—sees the vegan fast-food trend as representative of something bigger. “There’s a revolution of the plant-based space and we’re living in it right now,” Mendelsohn previously told VegNews. “People will look back and see this as the moment when everything shifted.” 

From the McPlant to Beyond Fried Chicken

Lewis’s and Mendelsohn’s predictions may seem extreme to some, but many other major fast-food chains have also begun hinting at a plant-based future. “I certainly expect that over time that you will see plant-based [food] on the McDonald’s menu,” Chris Kempczinski, CEO of the McDonald’s Corporation, told CNBC in 2020. “I think there are going to be some countries that are further along on that than others but I do expect that we will have plant-based on the menu, it’s just a question of when.”

Not long after this interview, McDonald’s launched its first meatless burger, the McPlant—made in partnership with vegan brand Beyond Meat—at select locations across the US after testing iterations of a meatless burger in Canada and several European countries, including in Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Austria. 

Similarly, KFC has been working with Beyond Meat since 2019 to test meatless versions of its popular fried chicken. At the beginning of this year, the chicken giant expanded the Beyond Fried Chicken to a national test at its more than 4,000 locations nationwide.

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And sandwich chain Subway has also committed to more vegan options following a controversy involving its tuna fish sandwiches. Last year, a lawsuit claimed that Subway—the world’s largest sandwich chain with more than 40,000 locations—was selling a “mixture of various concoctions” in its popular tuna sandwiches. The plaintiffs alleged that the hero ingredient wasn’t what it was being marketed as, but was instead, “made from anything but tuna.” 

Vegan seafood brand Good Catch Foods, which launched with vegan tuna in 2019, took advantage of this opportunity and trolled Subway locations with food trucks branded as “Our Way” using the Subway’s familiar font. The trucks served “real” vegan tuna sandwiches outside of select Subway locations in three cities to encourage the chain to ditch fish for good. 

In addition to Subway capitulating to adding more vegan options, this stunt highlighted the unidentifiable nature of fast-food meat, which—for the sake of animals, people, and the planet—might as well be made from plants. 

For more on vegan fast food, read:
First Publicly Traded Vegan Fast-Food Chain Expanding to Nearly 50 Locations
Burger King Is the First Fast-Food Chain to Serve Vegan Impossible Nuggets
Vegan Chain Plant Power Fast Food to Open 7 New Locations

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