At first blush, White Castle and vegetarians hardly go together like Harold and Kumar. But marketing at the hamburger chain was actually run by a vegetarian for an entire year. Chief Marketing Officer Kim Bartley embraced the plant lifestyle as a way to get a better handle on how the fast-feeder, long known for its ground-beef sliders, could adapt to a world where people are shunning meat more often, even if they're not completely giving it up. Bartley says her year as a vegetarian (she went back to eating meat in February 2018) was eye-opening. "I was able to see a customer in a very different light," she says. "I observed and experienced how hard it is, especially in fast-food restaurants, to have an option that wasn't basically the same thing all the time."
Adding variety has emerged as a major trend at restaurants and in the larger food industry, as brands seek loyalty from a growing number of "flexitarians," those who have strong vegetarian tendencies but also mix in meat or fish on occasion. On Monday, Burger King became the latest chain to join the plant-based party, announcing a limited test of the Impossible Whopper at about 60 restaurants in the St. Louis area.
No longer the enemy
The shift has given rise to new products from the likes of Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, whose plant-based patties mimic the taste and texture of beef but are made without any ingredients that come from animals. Both are finding their way onto the menus of chains where meatless burgers would have seemed like an enemy just a few years ago. "Successful brands are the ones that are thinking about modern food culture and this compelling desire on the part of consumers to have real foods that don't seem overly processed or produced," says Laurie Demeritt, CEO of the Hartman Group, a food culture consultancy.
Plant-based products are hot, even though the vast majority of Americans continue to eat meat. According to Euromonitor International, U.S. retail sales of fresh meat, including beef, veal, poultry and pork, rose from nearly $73.3 billion in 2013 to nearly $78.5 billion in 2018. Meat substitute sales more than doubled during that time to a comparatively small $1.4 billion in 2018, Euromonitor found.
Even so, the percentage of people who identify as vegetarians or vegans is relatively unchanged over the past few years. (Vegan means avoiding all animal products, including dairy.) In a 2018 Gallup poll, 5 percent of people said they were vegetarians, unchanged from 2012. In the same poll, 3 percent said they were vegans, up from 2 percent in 2012.
The rise of flexitarianism is inspiring the sheer number of meatless innovations hitting the market.
In 2018, just months after Bartley completed her vegetarian detour, White Castle began selling the Impossible Slider, which includes a plant-based patty from Impossible Foods. A pilot that began at 140 locations in April was so successful that the Impossible Slider hit all of the chain's 377 locations in September. "We're not looking at this as just vegans and vegetarians," she says. "We're looking at an entire diet shift that we saw occurring."
Lots of products, not so much advertising
Marketing spending for plant-based foods so far is relatively small and driven mainly by PR. Beyond Meat generates lots of buzz through its ties to celebrity investors including Leonardo DiCaprio. When it filed to go public in November, Beyond Meat cited 7.5 billion earned media impressions in the first nine months of 2018, up from 4 billion in all of 2017. It also pointed to the exposure generated by a campaign from A&W Canada, which sells the Beyond Burger and is that nation's No. 2 burger chain.