McDonalds / Getty Images / WIRED
Since 1955, McDonald’s has built a global empire on the back of two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles and onions, on a sesame-seed bun.
While many things have changed since, the meaty menu has remained relatively untouched. Despite the rise in popularity of fast food meat alternatives, and the increase in the number of people actively trying to reduce their meat consumption in the UK, McDonald’s has yet to offer a plant-based version of its iconic Big Mac.
There are 600,000 vegans in the UK, a figure that has quadrupled since 2014, and from the number of Deliveroo takeaways they’re ordering, they love fast food just as much as the average carnivore. In 2020, 16 per cent of ready meals in supermarkets were vegan, up from the three per cent in 2018. The plant-based meat market is forecast to reach $35.4 billion by 2027, according to market research by Polaris, a consultancy.
But even though restaurants and supermarkets continue to line their aisles and menus with plant-based alternatives, many are left wondering: where the hell is the McVegan burger?
In October 2017, McDonald’s began a two-month trial of a plant-based burger, dubbed the McVegan, in Finland after 160,000 people signed an online petition calling on the company to make a burger made out of alternative meat. The burger, produced in collaboration with Swedish company Orkla, was made out of a soybean steak, topped with vegan “McFeast” sauce, fresh tomato, salad and pickles. “It was so good, just a really nice burger,” one customer raved on Instagram, while another called it “top class”.
After a successful trial the company made the McVegan burger a permanent fixture on the menu in both Finland and Sweden, with Staffan Ekstam, McDonald’s head of food strategy in Sweden, saying that the test in Finland “blew all the expectations out of the water”. In 2019, McDonald’s in Canada began testing a product called the PLT (plant, lettuce, tomato), a meatless meat burger made in collaboration with Beyond Meat.
It seemed like the trial was going well, until the company quietly pulled the item from the menu in 2020, telling a dejected Twitter user that it “has no plans to bring it back”. Then in November, McDonald’s announced that it would be bringing a burger called the McPlant to the United States in 2021, following the success of the PLT.
However, there has been some confusion about who exactly McDonald’s will be partnering with to produce the McPlant burger. Ian Borden, McDonald’s international president, said that the plant-based patty that was trialled last year was developed “exclusively for McDonald’s, by McDonald’s”. This did not sit well with its partner: Beyond Meat quickly responded that it was actually a collective effort.
London-based marketer Heidi Bland is among the McDonald’s aficionados that has been patiently waiting for the arrival of a McVegan ever since she became a vegetarian. Seeing pictures of the burger in Finland gave her hope that it was finally coming to the UK. “But lo and behold, I’m still waiting, and it never bloody arrives.”
In 2018, Lucy Brady, then senior vice president of corporate strategy at McDonald’s, told Fortune that “plant-based protein is something we’re keeping our eye on”. But that has yet to translate into action. When approached for comment, McDonald said there were currently no plans to bring a vegan burger to UK restaurants this year.
Sure, McDonald’s does sell a couple of vegetarian options besides a trusty bag of chips, like the Vegetable Deluxe and the Veggie Dippers. But they are the standard bean-style options that have been on menus for years. “I think the bean burger is a bit of a cop-out,” Bland says. “I want it to be as meat-like as possible.”
In the meantime, rivals like Burger King and KFC have beaten McDonald’s to the punch. Last year, Burger King launched the Rebel Whopper, a patty made from soya and topped with sliced tomatoes, fresh lettuce, vegan mayonnaise, pickles, onions and ketchup, in partnership with Unilever’s Vegetarian Butcher. KFC launched the vegan chicken burger, made from a Quorn fillet with iceberg lettuce and vegan mayonnaise.
When bakery chain Greggs reinvented the staple greasy sausage roll for vegan customers in 2019 – replacing the log of pork with Quorn’s fungus-grown meat alternative, thousands of people flocked to try it. It was so popular that shares in Greggs soared by 77 per cent in the months following its introduction.
It seemed like a no-brainer for McDonalds to follow their lead. As the most popular takeaway brand in the UK, McDonald’s rules the dinner crowd where Greggs dominates lunch orders. Now that the company has a partnership with both Uber Eats and Just Eat, it could have flooded the burgeoning home-eating market with a glut of vegan burgers.
Ultimately, it comes down to whether the food item can scale. “McDonald’s doesn’t make too much margin, on an individual [burger] sale, it makes margin by selling lots and selling lots and lots of burgers and patties and nuggets and whatnot,” says Mohan Sodhi, a professor of operations and supply chain management at The Business School (formerly Cass). “You just sell volume, but the profit margin on each is very small.”
The company has long-established partnerships with UK suppliers and those lengthy contracts help it keep prices low. Since the chain first came to the UK in 1974, it has bought its potatoes from McCain and its beef patties from global meat supplier OSI. There are an estimated 120 ingredients on the menu, but those ingredients are sourced from UK farmers and bought in extremely large volumes.
Meeting these volume demands is the main sticking point for vegan meat replacements. While the number of suppliers is growing, ultimately they are still small when compared to the number of farmers in the UK. Distribution has yet to scale.
The company estimates that it sells 75 burgers worldwide every second, which equates to about 3.2 billion burgers every year. While not everyone is going to opt for the vegan option, Beyond Meat or Impossible still need to cope with that scale. In 2019, it was reported that Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods – the two biggest purveyors of plant-based meat – were struggling to keep up with the demand.
The McDonald’s fast food model is a well-oiled machine. In every single McDonald’s, beef patties are cooked on the grill for exactly 42 seconds. French fries are cooked for three minutes in a fryer, heated to 168°C and are timed to be served together. These timings, honed through decades of testing, could fly out the window with meat alternatives.
Without extensive testing, bringing a completely new product into the McDonald’s system could upend how its restaurants work. “You’ve got a new food chain with plant-based food which is probably less efficient at the moment,” says Martin Caraher, an emeritus professor of food and health policy at City, University of London. “There are storage issues, there are transport issues, there are equipment issues, you have to retrain your staff because you have to flip the burgers three minutes each side.”
McDonald’s would have to figure out how to avoid vegan burgers potentially cannibalising sales of the original burgers because the kitchens have limited space, says Edward Bergen, global food and drink analyst at Mintel. In certain locations, offering a vegan burger would force the company to take something else off the menu, a decision that could prove unpopular with customers.
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